If I recall my U2 gossip (and I don’t claim to be as fervent about my fandom as others), the band recorded two albums’ worth of material a few years ago. First, they gave away Songs of Innocence (much to the chagrin of complainers averse to auto-downloaded iTunes library items), and now they’re back with Songs of Experience. If this is true, it makes perfect sense: These songs sound like companions, bookends of one another.
Predicting the sound of U2, I’d venture a guess that there will be moments of joy, followed by brooding, somber moments that explode into a giant, healing, breathing release.
The album starts off with a whisper of a song, “Love is All We Have Left.”
Nothing to stop this being the best day ever
Nothing to keep us from where we should be
I wanted the world but you knew better
And that all we have is immortality
Love and love is all we have left…
Pockets of joy can be found throughout the album, like in the third track, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which is a really good love song. God bless Bono and his wife, Ali. It’s cool that as he celebrates the best in his life (her), he also juxtaposes the tenderness, vulnerability and frailty of human relationships.
You’re the best thing about me
The best things are easy to destroy…
Ultimately, for me, I can still have church with a U2 album. Speaking of church, perhaps she is the “Landlady” this wordsmith is singing about?
What keeps us standing in this view,
is the view that we can be brand new
Landlady, takes me up in the air
I go. I go where I would not dare
Landlady, shows me the stars up there
I’m weightless, weightless when she is there
And I’ll never know
never know what starving poets meant,
because when I was broke, it was you that always paid the rent
With all poetry, it’s just a guessing game.
Right before the album closes, U2 blesses us with almost a doxology of “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way.” Play that one for your congregation, worship leaders. Then, “There is a Light” closes with comfort:
When all you’ve left is leaving
And all you got is grieving
And all you know is needing
If there is a light
We can’t always see
And there is a world
We can’t always be
If there is a dark
Now we shouldn’t doubt
And there is a light
Don’t let it go out
‘Cause this is a song
A song for someone
Someone like me
I know the world is done
But you don’t have to be
I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves
Are you tough enough to be kind?
Do you know your heart has its own mind?
Darkness gathers around the light
Just as predicted, the album does sound like what you’d expect from generations of perfecting a sound. True to form, all the airy atmosphere wouldn’t be the same or have as great an impact if there were not some rocking moments. The poetic politik moment here is found in “American Soul,” which sonically slaps you in the face like “Bullet the Blue Sky” did on the atmospheric Joshua Tree. It starts off in the preceding song with a brilliant, ironic twist on the Beatitudes delivered by Kendrick Lamar in the outro of “Get Out of Your Own Way”:
Blessed are the arrogant
For there is the kingdom of their own company
Blessed are the superstars
For the magnificence in their light
We understand better our own insignificance
Blessed are the filthy rich
For you can only truly own what you give away
Like your pain
“American Soul” then steps up with more:
Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward
This is a true band effort. Adam Clayton delivers great bass lines in “The Little Things That You Give Away.” The Edge’s trademark atmospherics are all over the album, like dashes of salt on this four course meal. Bono’s crooning never sounded better. Larry Mullen’s solid drumming mostly hides in the background, staying silent when need-be and jumping in with a nice build-up, like in “Get Out of Your Own Way” or the full band accents in “American Soul” after each beatitude line is delivered. “Red Flag Day” sounds like the musical companion to “Raised By Wolves,” even with its surfpunk guitar strumming intro. “The Showman” lyrically sounds like a great self mockery of rock’s most upfront frontman. I’m ready to hear songs like “Blackout” in concert, with its infectious chorus and witty one-liners, like: “Earthquake always happen when you’re in bed, Fred.”
After reading a few remarks on this album from others before hearing a single lick, I was ready to be disappointed. I am anything but. U2 is a career band, successfully navigating their creative muse over decades of self discovery, destruction, re-construction, and revival. At this stage in their career, it’s impressive that they’re still making compelling art. U2 is an album band — at least, for the U2 fan in me. I’ll devour the album from beginning to end for endless spins for that honeymoon phase surrounding each new release. As the years go by, however, it’s the songs that stick. Their library holds up as individual books that tell a story, but it’s the chapters or songs that stand taller over time.
I insist on having these songs on my device:
- “A Day Without Me,” “October,” and “Rejoice” (from Boy and October)
- “40” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (War) “The Unforgettable Fire,” “A Sort of Homecoming,” and the musical precursor to “Where the Streets Have No Name” — “Bad”
- Their Joshua Tree masterpiece, like all their albums, can be enjoyed from beginning to end, but it also has at least three stand-alone standouts — “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and the aforementioned show-stopper, “Streets…”
- Their deconstruct-reconstruction facelift album, Achtung Baby, gave us “Love is Blindness,” “Mysterious Ways,” “One” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”
- Zooropa is my forgettable album of choice
- Everyone’s favorite U2 album to throw away (Pop) delivered “If God Will Send His Angels,” which gave us a treatise on their heartfelt faith — if the lines “I believe in the kingdom come, when all the colors fade into one / You carried the cross of my shame” wasn’t enough from the evangeli-troubling song titled, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
- All That You Can’t Leave Behind ushered in a revival or return to the anthemic tunes of the Joshua Tree-era with its post-9/11 wake-up call, “It’s A Beautiful Day.” I also keep coming back to the thundering passion of “New York” on that one.
- How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was chock full of time-lasters, like “City of Blinding Lights,” “All Because of You,” and “Miracle Drug.”
- No Line on the Horizon gave us “Magnificent,” “Moment of Surrender,” and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.”
- Songs of Innocence featured “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” which surely belongs in their retrospective canon. It also dropped “Raised by Wolves” and the roots of joyous discovery of “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).”
- I think “You’re the Best Thing About Me” and perhaps “Get Out of Your Own Way” (from Songs of Experience) will live on long after the calendar flips forward a few times.
Thirteen tracks is just right here, feeding the need. Sometimes less is more. I mean, aren’t you glad “Poor Tom” didn’t make it onto Zeppelin IV? Ever since the 74-minute CD format came out in the ’80s, it seems bands have been trying to fill every second of that disc. Now that streaming is the new delivery vehicle, this is not necessary, but sometimes it’s good. It is good here. I don’t want this musical journey from Ireland’s best to end until I’ve had enough.