U2, whilst still huge on the live stage as evidenced by this year’s Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour, have become something of a polarising entity in the studio. With as many misses as hits in recent years, we have to look back to their 2004 effort, “How to Dismantle an atomic bomb” for their last truly well received album. The last two efforts – 2009’s No Line on the Horizon and 2014’s Songs of Innocence – have received mixed responses at best.
Songs of Experience represents a return to the form found early in the 21st century for U2, being a suitable successor to All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb – if not in sound in spirit. The album opens with the haunting ‘Love is All We Have Left’, which makes for a much better album opener than their past two efforts. ‘Lights of Home’ is a more mediocre cut, clearly designed for the live arena. However the 2nd part of the song is at least interesting and showcases some neat musicianship from bassist Adam Clayton and guitarist The Edge. ‘You’re the Best Thing About Me’ was the first single released from the album. It is a much stronger single than anything released post-2009, with a very solid opening half that is undone by a mundane and unnecessary chorus that damages the initial strengths of the song.
The next section of the album features two brief guest appearances by star of the moment, Kendrick Lamar. This follows U2’s winning collaboration on his album DAMN. on the track ‘XXX’. Whilst these do not match ‘XXX’ in quality, they do showcase U2’s knack for strong collaborators following their famous collaborations with BB King, Johnny Cash and live with acts such as Arcade Fire and this summer with Noel Gallagher. The track ‘American Soul’ which features Lamar is a reworking of XXX and is a rocky number that is a bit on the bland side.
‘Summer of Love’ and ‘Red Flag’ are two of the strongest numbers on the album with ‘Summer of Love’s’ sounding more like a commercial pop track. This song focuses heavily on Bono’s vocal and is both an ode to California whilst also drawing attention to the ongoing situation in Syria. This is also touched upon with ‘Red Flag’, which many have cited as a return to U2’s early raw sound as heard on albums such as Boy and War.
U2 still have life left in them
The Showman is another highlight of the album and should go down well on U2’s next tour. With a gentle acoustic opening, the song is a touching tribute to a loved one. ‘The Little Things You Give Away’, which featured at many of their summer shows, is another strong song in the closing stages of the album. It contains distinctly Edge guitar tones and the beat is a reminder of drummer Larry Mullan’s powers. The crescendo the song builds to is evocative of many of the songs during U2’s Achtung Baby period, and at points on the album this album’s influence is notable. The intro of ‘The Blackout’ is reminiscent of the fuzz guitar sound found on ‘The Fly’ and ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ and is the most anthemic song on the record.
Whilst the album is not another Joshua Tree or War, it is a strong indicator that U2 still have life left in them and the collaborators on this record (Lamar, Lady Gaga, Haim) show their influence on modern pop acts. Whilst the album can be disjointed in places, it is still a vastly enjoyable ride and a welcome addition to their canon of work. Whilst keeping the style of the last couple of records, they make it much more agreeable.