Having been to 23 shows—and with a tattoo of a heart in a suitcase on my forearm—I can feign no objectivity when it comes to U2. Yet as fan, I take the U2 canon too seriously to fawn over every album uncritically. Yes, I would contend that in 13 previous studio albums, they have yet to have a real embarrassment. But I would also concede that U2’s albums in the 2000’s (post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind) have fallen just short of greatness. Granted, the standards set by the back catalogue are impossibly high: the towering genius of consecutive rock classics in Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, were followed by the apocalyptic Zooropa and the horrifically underrated Pop, both of which pulsed with brilliance in their own way. When U2 stopped trying to chop down The Joshua Tree and came to the new construction on the other side of the deconstruction, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the sound of a band that had mastered the art of fully being themselves.
Since then, vultures gather upon every release for signs of the band’s descent into irrelevance. But the restlessness at the center of U2 has remained in tact, and the albums that followed have still had the ache of a band straining for great songs, not infrequently finding them. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, No Line on the Horizon, and Songs of Innocence in fact contain some of their finest work—tracks like “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” “City of Blinding Lights,” “Moment of Surrender,” and “Iris.” But in Bono’s own words on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “It’s the best collection of songs we’ve put together, but as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of the parts, and it f*^#ing annoys me.” The collective, widescreen ambition of a truly great start-to-finish album has been more elusive.
But then comes Songs of Experience.
This album did the one thing I wasn’t sure if the veteran band could still do, especially after already hearing 4 pre-released tracks—it surprised me. The first full-listen was a little dizzying, because I felt the same sense of heights I did listening to Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind for the first time. That seemed a bit too lofty, so I listened again—and thought it might actually bump ATYCLB.
Lyrically, Songs of Experience is Bono at his fragile best (and his bravest). It is an album soaked in mortality, music that faces death straight on—but with fearlessness. “Love is All We Have Left” is a disarming left hook of an opener, lush and gorgeous, a little bit into outer space. “Lights of Home” is more earth-bound, grittier and groovier, a track that reminds you this is not a band that has not yet given up on rock and roll. The lighter “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” captures the zest, vitality, and boyish energy of their early work. “Get Out of Your Own Way” is audaciously sincere and pastoral in the way only U2 can be, a summons to the foolishness of love in a time where pragmatism or cynicism make much more sense. Kendrick Lamar’s inverse beatitudes bridging into “American Soul” brings a prophetic edge into the center of the album, and “American Soul” itself, a protest song, is the world’s most mainstream rock act tapping into the authentic rage of the punk rock that first grabbed a hold of them, for love’s sake.
The trinity of “Summer of Love,” “Red Flag Day,” and “The Showman” incorporates the sonic sense of mischief, slyness, and the lighter touch U2 honed in the 90’s, even while “Summer of Love” invokes images of Aleppo. “The Little Things That Give You Away,” my current favorite track of the album, is U2 at their most unabashedly U2—like “Beautiful Day,” a return to the sonic landscape they mastered, dragging me helplessly to euphoria (Bono’s vocal delivery on “Sometimes, the end is not coming…the end is already here” is the most devastating single moment on the album).
Indeed, it is in the thick of these tracks that Songs of Experience proves that it belongs in the top-tier of U2’s canon—it is the first time since Achtung Baby that the second half of an album has been better than the first. Whereas, “The Little Things That Give You Away” takes us to the heights we partly always want U2 to take us, “The Landlady,” an exquisite love song to Bono’s wife Ali, embodies a beautiful restraint. “The Blackout” is a straight rocker with pop sensibilities, like many U2 songs, destined to be defined live. “Love is Stronger than Anything in It’s Way” takes a record swaddled in mortality into a defiant sendoff, the triumph of the human spirit in the face of the unknown. In experiencing the death of my most significant mentor last week, it has been the hymn that has carried me along. Finally, “13 (There is a Light)” both completes the album thematically and brings it full circle to where it began—to a place of meditation. It also bookends Songs of Experience perfectly with Songs of Innocence, both calling back to it’s predecessor, and transcending it. Songs of Experience is the sonic equivalent for me of Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2—in that the second act both surpasses the first and elevates it, perhaps demands it to be reevaluated differently.
U2 has always swung for the high places, and yet existed as a high wire act—walking a tightrope of vulnerability and swagger, artistic soul music aspirations with stadium rock ambition. Theirs is a big an open sound, but a very delicate business that thrives off of contradiction. U2’s heart has always been on the sleeve, even when it was buried in irony. The irrepressible earnestness of spirit that underwrites the entire project walks a thin line between being too cool, and too awkward. And yet there are moments when they walk this thin line into a thin place, where the glory touches the ground. The singer becomes a shaman, Adam Clayton’s groove takes hold of your body, Larry Mullen kicks open the door to your soul, and The Edge takes us all the way through the portal. In that place, we are exposed, vulnerable, human…and somehow, something more.
This is the magic U2 has always aspired to. When it works, there is nothing else like it.