December 5, 2017
By: Kristopher Smith

4/5 Stars ★★★★☆

Imagine spending a good portion of the last forty years fighting for liberal values only to witness terrorist attacks, race riots, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and the Alt-Right, and your own fans displaying some very anti-liberal views.  Imagine witnessing this and also suffering a number of health scares, the loss of loved ones, and media backlash from an album roll-out. You would probably be feeling pessimistic and that is exactly where Bono finds himself on the majority of U2’s Songs of Experience.

Rewind to September 2014. U2 announce that their new album, Songs of Innocence will be released to everyone who has an iTunes account for free. Because we live in a time where people on the Internet want to blow things out of proportion, there was a lot of backlash for this e-intrusion.  U2 apologized, which is a far cry from the four teenagers who started a punk band in the late 1970s.

They could have owned this genius PR move and touted the fact that 500 million people could now listen to their music for free, if they wanted to. Many now consider this release a failure, but the album was said to be “experienced” by 81 million iTunes users, twenty-six of the band’s albums hit the iTunes top sales charts shortly after, and the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour which promoted the album helped U2 become the fourth highest grossing act of 2015.

Bono told fans in a letter to u2.com that the band was working on a follow up called Songs of Experience and that the U2 was “collaborating with Apple on some cool stuff over the next couple of years, innovations that will transform the way music is listened to and viewed.” Three years later, after a number of setbacks including the singer suffering a terrible bike accident and the world sort of falling apart, U2 delivered Songs of Experience. While there do not seem to be iNNOVATIONS (get it?) between U2 and Apple, there are signs that the album’s songs, sounds, and themes changed to reflect what happened to the band as well as the world since Innocence.

Songs of Experience arrived in the same way that most albums have been released for a number of years. The first single, “You’re The Best Thing About Me” was released in September and was remixed by popular EDM artist Kygo. Before that, U2 debuted a live video for “The Blackout” on Facebook at the end of August. Since then, “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” both featuring Kendrick Lamar reciting an updated version of the beatitudes.

The mood of this album is quite somber at times. Bono sounds as if he is defeated and like he has lost faith in the world when he says things like “I know the world is done/ But you don’t have to be” on “13 (There Is A Light).” “Statues fall and democracy is flat on its back, Jack/
We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zac/ A big mouth says the people they don’t wanna be free for free/The blackout is this an extinction event we see?”
paints a bleak picture in “The Blackout.” Both “Summer of Love” and “Red Flag Day” detail the refugee crisis in Europe, but you would be forgiven for not picking up on this during the first listen.

“Summer of Love” sounds sultry and “Red Flag Day” incorporates elements of reggae and sounds like a Police song. The latter struck me pretty hard as I listened to the lyrics, “Today we can’t afford to be afraid of what we fear/ I, I can feel your body shaking/ I, I will meet you where the waves are breaking.” I thought about people fleeing what must have been hell and seeking refuge into an unforgiving and unpredictable ocean (and we know how this turned out for some).

The political becomes personal on songs like “Get Out of Your Own Way,” which starts out as a letter to Bono’s daughters (in fact, each song was written as a letter to someone close to Bono, including his fans). The first verse can is a father talking to his daughter after suffering heartbreak, but you soon realize her heart is broken by the state of the world. Bono sings, “Fight back/ Don’t take it lying down/ You got to bite back/ The face of liberty is starting to crack/ She had a plan until she got a smack in the mouth.” U2 addresses their dissatisfaction with the current state of the US of A, a country that they have been long fascinated with, on “American Soul” as well.

For all of the politics and discussion of death, there is also a lot of what Bono calls “defiant joy” littered throughout the album. “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever,” are the first lyrics you hear on “Love Is All We Have Left”, which sounds like if Sinatra did 808s & Heartbreak. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is a feel-good pop song about Bono’s wife of thirty-five years that is “full of joy.” Bono even pokes fun at his public persona on “The Showman (Little More Better),” which sounds like it could be a Beach Boys/Elvis/Beatles mash-up, as well as on “The Little Things That Give You Away” (“The words you cannot say/Your big mouth in the way”).

There are also many call-backs to Songs of Innocence in the form of recycled and reimagined lyrics. Most notably, parts of “Iris” are used in “Lights of Home.” “13 (There Is A Light)” recycles the lyrics to “Song For Someone.”  Cynics may think U2 are phoning it in and have nothing left, but it seems like they took this whole “companion album based on the poems of William Blake” thing seriously.

While Songs of Experience seems morbid and sad at first, it is actually more of a hopeful commentary on the world on fire from a band that has been fighting for liberal values for most of the past forty years. There are messages of social justice and urges toward action, like those in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but in a more nuanced (and dare I say experienced?) manner. Most important though, U2’s message of love rings true as strong as it did on “Pride” and even when it’s complicated like in “One.” On “Love Is Bigger than Anything in Its Way” (which sounds like a cross between a Christmas song and a Broadway number), Bono sings, “Write a world where we can belong/ to each other and sing it like no other”.

This band has stuck together for forty-one years, longer than many marriages. U2 has never been satisfied with becoming a “greatest hits” act and resting on their laurels like many of their contemporaries. Songs of Experience shares some similarities with Beyoncé’s Lemonade, in the fact that both albums have a strong theme but manage to make the songs sound different, exploring a number of genres and sounds.

U2 keep trying to reinvent themselves while still holding on to what makes them special and unique, and maybe that is what we should all do too while the world is on fire.