Songs Of Experience (Universal)
If kicking shit out of U2 was a spectator sport it would fill stadiums, and have PETA or some equivalent picketing outside on the grounds of excessive cruelty to defenceless creatures.
Too pious, too eager, too successful, too cocky, too late, too invasive (of your iTunes), too ‘80s, too ‘90s, too extravagant (on stage), too Irish, too internationalist, too benevolent, too tax-free, too often seen in music documentaries, too familiar, too retro, too desperate to be modern, too U2.
Have I missed anything? Probably. Feel free to add your own.
Inevitably there’s grist for that mill offered by the band at various turns, and not just by being successful, which can get up a lot of noses. But overall, I’m afraid I don’t get the hate, not least because I think they’ve made far more appealing than dud albums and because they have successfully reshaped themselves on several occasions.
Even in their musical dotage they don’t stink the place up ala any Rolling Stones album (bar their blues covers record) since the early 1980s and feel like they want to push themselves.
Which isn’t to say the quality has remained consistently high. The past few albums have been solid but lacking in sparkle that ultimately left it little played (How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb), driven hard with enquiry, but not soaring (No Line On The Horizon), and good and revelling in its own past without ever matching that past (Songs Of Innocence).
Detect a pattern there? Good but not quite excellent, whether rekindling an old sound or grasping for the now. Could it be that the moment - their moment, not some sonic or cultural zeitgeist – has passed them? That what creative genius they had has settled into efficiency, never to return?
Songs Of Experience would suggest yes.
This is a record that never really falls flat on its face. even when Bono says “I believe my best days are ahead” in the only mildly swaggering Lights Of Home, or when The Showman (Little More Better), a song which recalls Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, clumsily gets “street” with its echoing chorus line of “little more better”.
It’s an album that touches on elemental U2 (the Edge guitar tone and strict measures of Larry Mullen, the preaching yearning of Bono and his willingness to be touching) and second wave U2 (suggestions of dance, some surprising basslines from Adam Clayton, sampled or guest vocals to contemporise).
And it approaches the world with a kind of optimism and in that spirit wears its answer to most questions on its sleeve: namely, love. Not for nothing does the album open with a swirling, quasi-electronic (with treatment on the Bono vocals) mood setter, Love Is All We Have Left, which says “this is no time not to be alive”, and means it.
That’s a surprisingly mellow start that makes the sharper edged guitar introduction of the second song, Lights Of Home, starker still, even though that song doesn’t live up to its promise of danger. But then this is a bit of a pattern on Songs Of Experience: promise under-delivered.
There is a gentle ballad, in the closing There Is A Light, a punchy, lightly post-punk/pre-discovering America song to sing on a waterfront in Red Flag Day, a loosely funky nod to the remix-to-come in The Blackout, and the now obligatory glam stomper in American Soul.
But Songs Of Experience has too many generic songs which fill the gap rather than own the space. You’re The Best Thing About Me goes nowhere politely in its mid-range rock; Summer Of Love chimes and swells, resists the opportunity to overdo it, but doesn’t hook you;Landlady is a pleasant meander; and Get Out Of Your Own Way seems prepared to reach for the blue sky, but never really fires that bullet.
While Songs Of Innocence went to very personal places, with songs about Bono’s mother, the early days of the band and some of the musical inspirations, this time the lyrics tend to generalisations leaning on positive messages.
It all contributes to the feeling that this is an album that doesn’t do any harm to the band’s reputation – except for the haters, who, after all are gonna hate anyway - but does nothing really to enhance it.
I don’t imagine too many of these tracks will force their way onto a setlist on coming tours.
Nor will they be demanded by the audience. Or for that matter some future history. That moment has passed.