In the 2016 mockumentary comedy Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, written by and starring The Lonely Island, a Justin Bieber-style mega buffoon named Conner4Real agrees a ludicrous deal with an electrical appliances company to upload his new album onto their products. The result, to the annoyance of the general public, many of whom are not even fans of his, is that they hear the singer's music every time someone opens a refrigerator door. The scene was clearly a well projected jab, and a very funny one we must add, at U2 and the disastrous release of their much maligned 2014 record, ‘Songs Of Innocence’. Arriving preloaded onto iPhones worldwide, it caused an almost unprecedented amount of controversy and seething darts of vitriolic rage were thrown the band’s way, sparking endless debates about privacy in the digital age.
To understand how the band reached this point, you have to go back almost a decade. At the beginning of the noughties they had masterminded a comeback that brought them immense commercial success once again after a long period of experimentation and two records that marked a deliberate shift to a more minimal songwriting approach. However, despite 2000’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ and 2004’s ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ being lauded critically — the former is now generally considered one of their finest — this success was followed in 2009 by the misfiring ‘No Line On The Horizon’. Although it contained moments of genuine beauty (‘Moment Of Surrender’ and ‘Breathe’ are just two perennially undervalued examples), the band sounded a little lost, grappling with creating an experimental magnum opus while attempting to somehow maintain their commercial appeal.
Incidentally, and maybe due to a fear of failure or paranoia they would become something of an irrelevance, ‘Songs Of Innocence’ was painfully safe and at times, felt pretty aimless. Bono’s pointed lyrics helped illuminate a handful of tracks but in truth these were the only aspects of the album to really savour. Three years later and its successor ‘Songs Of Experience’ feels less of a companion piece and more like the record they were meant to make in the first place. What separates the pair, despite sharing many thematic and musical similarities, is the band's greater appreciation for dynamics and restraint, appearing to have rediscovered their identity in the process. The production, which was extremely cluttered and disappointing last time around — especially with someone as esteemed as Danger Mouse at the helm — is also less of an issue, instead imbuing a sleekness and sense of modernity.
This is typified by the opening track ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ which, apart from some questionable use of autotune, is wonderfully understated, layered in very little but a glistening wash of synthesisers. ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’ is the sort of slow building, crystalline gem the band haven’t really conceived since ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ and there are some lovely, swaying shifts in tempo. One of the biggest criticisms of their previous two releases was that they were for the most part, rather hollow emotionally and it appears to be something the four piece have now decided to address. That’s not to say there’s a lack of variation, take ‘Red Flag Day’ and its superb, spiky groove or the foreboding strings that break out on ‘Summer Of Love’ for example.
Many were surprised after Kendrick Lamar chose to work with U2 on 'XXX', one of the many highlights from his astounding fourth album ‘DAMN.’ which was released earlier this year. The result was a multi layered mini masterpiece, examining with great depth, the idea of America not as a country, but as a concept. The song from which the excerpt was taken features here in the way of ‘American Soul’ but whereas Kendrick’s ‘XXX’ was undercut with fractured piano chords and a steady trip-hop beat, the former reveals itself to be something quite different. A huge ‘Vertigo' style rocker, it certainly lacks the nuance of the version which appeared on ‘DAMN.’ but its outrageously positive vision of America (“You and I are rock and roll!”) fused with crunching, metallic riffs is undoubtedly still thrilling.
Their relationship with the U.S. has always been a complex and paradoxical one — this is, after all, the same band who penned ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’. Of course, ‘The Blackout’ is less scathing. Although possibly alluding to and reflecting Bono’s anxieties surrounding the relevance of his band in the 21st Century (“A dinosaur wonders why it still walks the earth”), in general, it seems to be touching on the reactionary figures or movements that have prospered in the current political climate. Sonically, it’s the closest they’ve come to successfully recreating the delightfully ridiculous, alternative rock of the Zoo TV era. The fact that the lyrics elsewhere are not always particularly explicit in their subject matter may be one of the record’s few downfalls. Nonetheless, there are still some puzzling decisions. The incorporation of a riff from a HAIM track on ‘Lights Of Home’ feels somewhat lazy and crass as does the clunky, predictable guitar rock that permeates the verses of ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’.
U2 have spent the last decade or so drifting, seemingly bereft of inspiration. ‘Songs Of Experience’ doesn’t have the sublime depth of ‘The Joshua Tree’ nor the jagged post modern edge of ‘Achtung Baby’ or ‘Zooropa' and it would be ludicrous and rather churlish to suggest so. It may not even share the same ambition as ‘No Line On The Horizon’ however, it’s an undeniable improvement on their two misfiring predecessors, marking this collection as their most cohesive and heartfelt in almost 15 years. Perhaps for the first time in their long and illustrious career, U2 are content with simply being themselves and right now, that appears to be more than enough.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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