U2 Pushes the Boundaries of Optimism on ‘Songs of Experience’

When the rollout for U2’s last album, 2014’s “Songs of Innocence,” eclipsed a great record, it became the band’s biggest blunder. Like kids who resent their parents for making them eat vegetables, people didn’t hesitate to voice their displeasure with music giant iTunes forcing the album into their music libraries. Whether a mistake or not, U2 ended up creating quite a stir with “Songs of Innocence.” 

When it comes to “Songs of Experience,” the rock legends took a much more measured approach. Originally intended as a companion piece to the previous album, the band elected to leave many of its songs unfinished while they acclimated to the drastically altered political landscape. Eventually the album saw a few re-writes, additional studio sessions and quite a few new passes at songs as part of a full on re-tooling as the band worked to fashion a fresh message. Even now when “Songs of Experience” is available for purchase just in time to fulfill its role as a digital stocking stuffer, it’s still unclear if its message is in any way cohesive. Hampered significantly by shoe-horned commentary on the current social climate, “Songs of Experience” finds itself in an unenviable position of sounding arbitrarily optimistic, lacking any compelling ideology and instead feeling like an attempt to engage listeners, only to end up lukewarm. But where the band’s 13th studio album lacks potency it more than picks up the slack with a sonic revitalization, with the vets braving new musical territory and fashioning songs beyond their signature sound.

“Love is All We Have Left” is the first message that kicks off U2’s deluxe 17-track album, an addition to the band’s already staggering catalogue, and it does so in quite an indulgent way, complete with dancing strings creating a sense of cinematic splendor coupled with some jarring auto-tune. It also starts an unfortunate trope for much of the album, with Bono launching what feels like a steady stream of disjointed motivational slogans and pieces of imagery designed to sound like something greater. Instead, lines like “nothing to stop this being the best day ever” make Bono feel more like that friend constantly posting inspirational quotes on social media instead of the seminal rocker the world has put on a pedestal. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with several tracks on “Songs of Experience.” Parts of the record feel stilted, like a call to “free yourself to be yourself” on “Lights of Home,” or a bold declaration that “love has got to fight for its existence” on “Get Out of Your Own Way,” ironically getting in the way of one of the album’s best tracks. Things don’t really reach their crescendo, though, until Bono tackles the issue of refugees on “American Soul,” crying “for refugees like you and me / a country to receive us / will you be our sanctuary/refu-Jesus.”

Sonically, “Songs of Experience” has much more going for it, from the upbeat jaunt that is “Red Flag Day” to the acoustic guitar-tinged “The Showman (Little More Better)” that unfurls with all the bubble gum pop you could ever want. The standout, though, has to be the ferociously fuzzy and groove-centric track “The Blackout,” with bass and synth dueling it out for the listener’s affection. It wouldn’t be a U2 album without a stadium rocker, and “Love is Bigger than Anything in its Way” satisfies that requirement, while sounding too close to Coldplay for comfort. When that’s just a little too exhilarating, turn to more muted fare like the unabashed pop of “The Little Things That Give You Away” or the unfurling anthem that is “Landlady.”

If “Songs of Experience” wasn’t caked in overly optimistic cliches and re-treads, it could be the first U2 album to make its way into permanent rotation since 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” Unfortunately, aspects of this album feel inauthentic, and when something doesn’t feel real, it’s too hard to buy in. For a band that can easily pack arenas for years to come, though, getting fans to buy in on “Songs of Experience” has to be at the bottom of U2’s list of priorities.

Songs of Experience” is available Dec. 1 on Apple Music.