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Songs of Experience: U2’s welcome return to form

Wednesday, 5 September 2018  | Andrew Stewart

It is difficult to assess a U2 album on its individual merits. Each new album carries the weight of significant expectation. U2 have held the mantle of the biggest rock band in the world for thirty years and each recent album seems to be a studied effort in trying to retain that title despite the ever-shifting trends of contemporary music.

The recent track record of U2 albums has been disappointing. Their albums have a frustratingly long gestation with glimpses and hints of what is to come, with the final product often bearing little resemblance to what the band has promised in the lead-up. 2009 saw the release of No Line on the Horizon, coming out four years after How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - the longest gap between U2 albums. No Line contained a set of songs that didn’t seem to resonate with fans and it was the first U2 album that failed to produce a hit single.

Yet despite the lacklustre reviews and album sales, the subsequent live show, the 360° Tour, was a phenomenal success, travelling to all corners of the globe and becoming the highest grossing tour of all time. In the past decade, live concerts have been the engine driving U2. While the band has been caught up in the global decline of physical album sales, their live shows have continued to sell out and it is in their live concerts that the U2 magic seems to be very present.

U2 followed up the 360° Tour with the first of a rumoured trilogy of albums, Songs of Innocence, in 2014. The album itself was overshadowed by its unorthodox release strategy of initially being given away via iTunes. The band couldn’t have anticipated the backlash that this goodwill gesture would generate. Four years later, reviews of the new album still typically begin by referencing this so-called debacle.

Songs of Innocence, as the name suggests, was a collection of songs that reflected the bands’ journey growing up. As the album was launched there was already talk about plans for a follow-up accompanying album, Songs of Experience, with a third in the trilogy, Songs of Ascent, being hinted at.

Initially there was talk that Songs of Experience would follow quickly, with recording sessions taking place while the band was on tour for Songs of Innocence. Then, to quote the band, ‘the world changed’ in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump and with Brexit. The band wanted to sit with the new songs and, instead of finalising the album, decided in 2017 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 breakthrough album Joshua Tree with a tour that performed the album in its entirety. This was the first time U2 had gone down a path that a number of artists have embraced in recent years by performing their seminal album live.

While the Joshua Tree tour wasn’t as extensive as previous U2 tours (Australia missing out, for example), touring on the strength of their back catalogue seemed to add to the emerging narrative that U2 have lost faith in their recent recorded efforts to translate well into the live context. As the 360° Tour progressed, fans were treated to fewer and fewer songs from No Line on the Horizon, and the set list for the Joshua Tree tour was anchored in songs written more than 30 years ago. It was a far cry from the days of Achtung Baby, their critically praised 1991 album, where they reinvented themselves with a sound described as four men cutting down the Joshua Tree. Their ground-breaking Zoo TV Tour opened with five songs from that album, which night after night won the audience over to their new sound.

All this background provides the context for assessing the new album, Songs of Experience. One of the reasons U2 has given for taking a while to launch their next album is their desire to refine and hone the songs to ensure that they are ‘bullet proof’ in a live context. When the Songs of Innocence and Experience tour starts in May, it will be interesting to see if the band holds their nerve and continues to showcase the new album rather than resort to the tried-and-true crowd-pleasers with which the U2 back catalogue is littered.

The new album has again divided the critics. While there have been some negative reviews, the US edition of Rolling Stone put the album third on its list of the top fifty albums for 2017. Each reviewer describes a different song as the standout and a different one as the throwaway track on the album.

Songs of Experience provides, in my view, a consistently stronger set of songs than the previous two albums. Both No Line and Innocence suffered from a second half fadeout. Musically, the songs on Experience are strengthened by U2 reconnecting with a song-writing device that has served them so well in the past – the anthemic coda. A number of songs on the album have a final stanza that raises the song to another level and you can easily imagine their rousing finales paying off in terms of the positive crowd response that the band are clearly craving.

Thematically, the songs are a series of imagined love letters that Bono has written to various significant people in his life – his wife, his children and even himself. The introspective lyrics were prompted by Bono’s major health scare, prompting him to reflect on his own mortality and what he would want to leave as his final words to those he loves.

Given the pessimism the world is experiencing in response to Trump, Brexit and other global issues, U2’s unrelenting optimism is infectious. ‘Love has always been our number one subject’, Bono says in the liner notes accompanying the album. The band’s Christian faith is evident in the lyrics but perhaps some deeper insights into how faith can make things better would be welcome. The impression is given at a few points that things would greatly improve in the world if only Bono could give everyone a hug. Songs of Experience does enough interesting things musically and lyrically to ensure that U2 are not going to stop selling out stadiums any time soon. Hopefully the band will deliver on their promise to tour Australia and we will get to experience these new songs live, where U2 still deliver a transcendent music experience.

Andrew Stewart is a chaplain at Mentone Grammar School.

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