Following the relative disappointment of No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence seemed intended as an All That You Can't Leave Behind-esque reboot for U2, albeit more explicitly nostalgic; its companion, Songs of Experience, would then shape that youthful vim and vigour into something deeper and more soulful. Yet, like Innocence, Experience neither recaptures past glories nor forges a new way forward, and while it's better than its predecessor, it nevertheless captures the sound of a legacy rock band stuck in neutral.
How did this happen? U2 used to toss off staggeringly massive, uplifting anthems, rousing crowds like no one else. It made them one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years; everyone from Arcade Fire to Mumford and Sons wanted to graft that reach-for-the-rafters quality to their corner of the rock world. Now, they struggle to conjure anything resembling a memorable chorus.
Partially written and recorded while on tour, Experience sounds like a bunch of leftover scraps digitally Frankensteined into a record. On its own, the "Hey now" chorus to "Lights of Home" shows flashes of old, but it bears little musical resemblance to the rejected Black Keys guitar riff that drives the song. Ditto the refrain from "You're the Best Thing About Me," a letdown coming after the decent build-up in the verses — epic riffs and sublime atmosphere used to spill out of The Edge's guitars, often in the same breath. You could lay the blame for the record's jarring tonal shifts at the feet of Experience's battalion of producers, but the fact that the guitarist sounds shockingly disengaged speaks volumes.
It's left to Bono, then, to hold the disjointed parts together. He follows through on the record's title, tackling more mature themes, but they're delivered in the singer's typically hyperbolic universalisms. "You are rock and roll" is about as basic a line as you can get, and unfortunately it drives the chorus to the album's best song, "American Soul."
Put simply, the album's big showstoppers never take off, and its subtle moments are ruined by bland production. "Summer of Love" sounds like U2 doing tropical house, and though Kendrick Lamar shows up briefly on "American Soul," it's unclear what he's doing there beyond lending it some much-needed cred.
Band members have compared Songs of Experience to Zooropa, an underrated gem that was quietly hatched during the massive Zoo TV tour. But these days, when everything that comes out of U2 Corp seems to be treated as an event like a blockbuster film, Experience's existence was announced before the band had recorded a single note. They subsequently struggled to live up to their own hype, taking an extra year to hash out the finished product — and it very much feels like product.
That said, lower-stakes numbers like "The Showman" and "Red Letter Day" are the record's most inspired moments, suggesting that if the band took their own advice and got out of their own way, they might have another great record up their sleeves.
You can pre-order the album on standard CD, vinyl, deluxe CD and super deluxe vinyl editions via MusicVaultz. (Interscope/Universal Canada)