This, U2’s 14th studio album, comes after 2014’s Song Of Innocence, an album that (after the fuss of its intrusive delivery onto the libraries of unsuspecting iTunes users worldwide died down) carried some hope that the Irish monoliths wouldn’t fade out into a glorified greatest hits band a la The Rolling Stones. This album, whilst not sending them fully over that hill, certainly sees their ascent steepening.
The main weakness is the fact that this band – forged in the twin fires of punk and The Troubles – no longer seem to care about the fact they’ve survived this long by having musical verve and the, well, life experience to back up their proseltyizing. What’s here feels intellectually and even sonically empty. Think the fist-clenched, teeth-gritted backbone running through Sunday Bloody Sunday that still makes it sound like an angry howl rather than grief appropriation, or the self-flagellation-by-irony that runs through Achtung Baby (an album whose lyrics basically form the phrase “wind yer neck in”).
Ah, for those days. “Oh, if I could hear myself when I say/ Oh, love is bigger than anything in its way” is a greeting card rip-off of a lyric that encapsulates the shallow depth Bono is swimming in lyrically. Is this the same man who looked in the mirror after the overly sincere Rattle n’ Hum and then wrote “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief”? This is Coldplay-level banality. The Blackout – sonically this album’s standout rocker – is similarly hamstrung by lyrical stupor. With Adam Clayton’s bass dominating and Larry Mullen’s ever-dependable stickwork set to full stomp, Bono decides to channel the decidedly unstomping Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover, with lines that begin as an angry voice at a rally and end with a rhyming competition at a school in the Hamptons. What else to say about a line like “Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack/We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zack”. He later implores “Go easy on me brother”, but frankly, no. You’re better than this son.
With the signature delayed arpeggios of The Edge turned down, and steals from Bon Iver and other contemporary music scene stalwarts turned up (hello, nice to hear you, Kendrick Lamar), the overall feeling is that U2 sound less like U2, and more like the ageing rockstars they used to fear turning into.
U2’s Songs of Experience is available now