By this point, how does one even judge a new U2 album? They are probably still the biggest rock band in the world, able to fill massive sports stadiums with giant tours. They are also one of the most criticized acts in the world, from singer Bono’s globe-trotting high-mindedness to the last record, 2014’s Songs of Innocence (QRO review), being put on everyone’s iPhone – whether they wanted it or not. They have a musical legacy as good as anyone’s today, a legacy that they have singularly failed to match in the twenty-first century. They are U2.
Due to how it was released, Songs of Innocence was easy pickings for critics (even its name was ridiculous), but was actually a heartfelt, decent-if-not-great record by a band that could never match their late greats. Songs of Experience, called a ‘companion piece’ to the last album, thankfully does not have the prior’s release strategy baggage (though its sales were boosted by being bundled into ticket sales on the 2018 ‘Experience + Innocence Tour’). It still can’t match the group’s best material, and treads some familiar ground, but does have sufficient strength to be a welcome-enough record.
Unfortunately, Experience opens with its weakest track, the overwrought open “Love Is All We Have Left”. U2 have long been given to going overboard and obvious in their emotions, even in their eighties peak, and it really stood out with lesser material. Bono can’t help but get emotional on a number of songs, particularly as the record was redone in the aftermath of Brexit & Trump’s election, but outside of the opener it’s never too-too much, and emotion has always been at the band’s core. Pieces like “You’re the Best Thing About Me” and “Get Out of Your Own Way” do it much better – and if they sound like other late period U2 (“Get Out” particularly reminds of 2000’s “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”), at least it’s better late period U2.
Another criticism of more recent U2 has been when they try to sound tough, all strutting Bono and harder edged guitar from The Edge. From a band that’s not getting any younger, and have made a mint over the many years, it can be a swing and a miss. Experience songs like “American Soul”, “The Showman (Little More Better)”, and “The Blackout” aren’t as tough as they want to be, but the group do it better than in recent years. And Bono’s ‘we can survive this’ contemporary lyrics are more honest than grating.
Perhaps because U2 is so big, but neither an original baby boomer rock icon nor a relatively new next generation hit, expectations for them are a little out of whack. Whether a new Rolling Stones record is good isn’t a big deal, and no one expects Coldplay to release anything seminal, but U2 get the worst of both worlds, critically. If you love U2, or even if you just like U2, you will like (if not love) Songs of Experience – and it’s great reason for them to go out on another massive, career-spanning tour.