SOE Review – By “an tha”

So studio album Number 14 has been with us (officially) for just over a week now.

All the speculation and all the debating about what it will sound like, when or if it will arrive and so on is sadly over….we love the speculation and debate about what is coming/what we want, don’t we!

The good news is though we get a new record and the discussion moves on to what we think of it.

One of the ‘loudest voices’ or should that read ‘busiest typers’ is usually yours truly – of course most of what I say is unintelligible waffle but writing it keeps me out of trouble, exercises my few active brain cells and saves Mrs Tha from having to listen to me and I also enjoy sharing my unintelligible waffle with you all…….but I have been unusually quiet so far about this record and that has been something I decided even before the release I would be for a little while.

My silence to date about this record is connected to the release of the bands last record and my immediate reaction to it which I in typical An Tha fashion foisted upon the masses of the atu2 forum by way of a long self indulgent review where I lauded the album……’Mr Negativity’ was borderline fawning in his praise – it was like Rolling Stone magazine had hacked my account and hired a barely literate 8 year old to write the most positive review he possibly could….

Highlights (for want of a better phrase) included:

“The Miracle – First impressions were arrrgggh this is a Love and Peace or else style clunker or even worse a Stand up Comedy like clunker.

I don’t think it is – it has a vitality and a wide eyed innocence that gives it more legs than those duds. It is joyous, catchy and has a riff that whilst a bit corny maybe is hefty and you know what is Edge cutting loose…”

“EBW – it has an epic, wide screen quality and U2 whilst having trodden that path many times, they tred it well when they get it right – they have got it right here…”

And on I went (as I do)…..

“U2 and I have been sleeping apart for the last 17 years – Today I welcome the band back into my bed… Is this album up with their very best? No, not for me. But it is a lot better than I expected, a lot better for me than the last 3 and whilst there may be an element of new music giddiness in my review and thoughts – i stand by what I said earlier, “you just know” and with this album I feel that is the case. I am excited by the journey I am going to go on with this album and it has been a long time since I have felt this way.

It isn’t ground breaking it isn’t hugely experimental, but it has charm and style and a swagger that says – “I am what I am, I am proud of what I am” and you know what this U2 fan is proud of it. It isn’t self conscious even in it’s slightly clumsy moments – the band sound energised and confident and at this stage of their career it is no mean feat.

Welcome back, lads”

I have a confession to make, I very quickly got bored of those songs and the album as a whole (SLABT and The Troubles aside) and within a very short time I just had no desire to listen to the album – my review which was posted about 24 hours after the album was released was a review written by someone with new music excitement syndrome! A kid with new toys that at first glance I loved but after playing with them for a little while became bored and those toys were very quickly left gathering dust under the bed.

SOI is in my view not a terrible album, it is just one I find largely terribly dull, beige and MOR (Chalk one up in the An Tha’s favourite pejoratives count!)
I haven’t listened to it at all since a few weeks after it’s release and have no desire to return to it.

So to avoid knee jerk or new music giddiness affected comments I have been listening to this new record over the last week and just living with it and I haven’t even been commenting about the record on the forum never mind thinking about and writing a review….I also kept away from the leaks and the songs released ahead of the album release.

So Friday 1st December a new u2 album was released and it was an absolutely brand new collection of songs to this old fella!

I’ve lived with these songs now for just over a week – they have travelled to work with me, they have provided the soundtrack to my lunch breaks, they have accompanied me on the journey home from work, they have sat with me in the dentists waiting room, on the bus on the way to the pub, late at night while I chilled out on the sofa and I now feel ready to share my thoughts about the songs and the album.

I downloaded the album on Google Play onto my phone as the clock struck 0000 hrs on Friday 1st December and a few minutes later Songs of Experience was in my ears….

My verbosity has seen me take god knows how long to get to actually talking about the record, I apologise for that but we are here at last!

FIRST LISTENS…..I played it twice (well nearly)

It isn’t ‘good news’ in fact if I was writing this review straight after my first listens then ‘Negative’ would barely do what you would be reading justice……I have talked in the past about listening to ATYCLB for the first time and getting a horrible sinking feeling – first listen to this record was worse….I even found myself struggling to make it all the way through some songs ‘Best Thing’, ‘Summer of Love’, Love is Bigger’ I am looking at you especially…

It is hard to recall thoughts from a week ago in a detailed way and write them down so they make some kind of sense but hey since when has making sense stopped me from writing stuff on the internet! So here goes…..a rough summary of my thoughts during and after those first listens:

Love is all we have left…. I like the idea – i like the idea a lot – i just can’t get on board with the lyrics, but the arrangement, the atmosphere, even the vocoder treatment on Bono’s vocals is a ballsy start to the record and one that has me thinking ‘hmm this is a good start’

Lights of Home….Anyone else hear/feel Cedarwood Road here? The promising start that gives way to plodding almost empty feeling verses that is then lifted by a decent chorus but ultimately falls flat quickly….oh and Edge please stop the workmanlike slide solos…

Then suddenly -What the fuck is the free yourself bit tacked on at the end….it feels so awkward so forced – like they had this piece and randomly drew which song they’d tack it onto…it just does not fit…..Urrrrrrgh.

YTBTAM…..I can imagine I may surprise a few here – i quite like this, well i do until the chorus which just kills the song stone dead and it feels like the song is a pastiche of ideas thrown together that sit uncomfortably together…the song goes from a decent start that makes me think hmmm this is loose and quite interesting to irritating me with the overload of ideas that suffocates the song…..the ending makes me laugh it is as if the band realised it was a mess and just stopped suddenly….a classic case for me of u2 over thinking it…i bet there is a good version of this on the cutting room floor.

GOOYOW…….Abysmal stuff – utterly forgettable pop rock that just goes nowhere….the rap at the end comes over as pretentious and acts as a segue into possibly the worst u2 song i have ever heard and i’ve heard Elevation!….

American Soul…..The old ‘America isn’t a place platitude’ that Bono loves to trot makes an appearance here. That is bad but then suddenly from nowhere comes the you are rock n roll part from volcano….really….really….give me a fucking break the worst type of tub thumping and grandstanding -then to top it all if we get REFUJESUS!

They even have the brass neck to repeat the part lifted from volcano over and over…is this really the same band who brought us Zooropa, Dirty Day, etc…?
Awful, just awful…

Summer of Love arrives and I find it so insipid, so unremarkable that I can’t even be bothered to think about describing it…

Red Flag Day …..This album is dragging now and really badly at this point I am struggling to recognise this as a u2 album….it is just a swathe of unremarkable pop rock where the songs just limp along in a haze of shiny pop mediocrity embellished with the odd flash of something that lifts me from a slumber before settling back into a malaise…the last minute or so of this song is an example of a flash that lifts me!

Then THE SHOWMAN arrives and i want to gnaw off my own arm as i cringe whilst listening to bono play the self deprecation act over and shouting a chorus that makes my ears bleed!

This isn’t going well…

The opening strains of the next song TLTTGYA make me sit up……and as this song builds i start to think ah now this is interesting…….once again less is more works, boys….ok this is no ground breaking sound – but it is mature, it feels natural and authentic within a record that feels too often like it is trying so so hard to say a lot but actually is just rambling and not really saying anything (like me I suppose!)

It has emotion and it is easily the best song on the record so far….the first song that isn’t utterly forgettable, feels like a missed opportunity or frankly garbage – I like it.

Landlady……nice idea….i just can’t get on with the lyrics – niceish atmosphere but it needs something IMO to lift it, it just sort of circles around but never takes off….its growing on me though especially during the 2nd listen….as it goes on it wins me over a little more.

Blackout…..It is a break from the overall mid paced tone and the first 30 seconds or so make me think ‘yes here we go’ really interesting start then Bono starts singing and the song begins to fall apart, worse still is to follow as that ‘duh duh duh duh duh’ part kicks in (really Edge?) and its all down hill from there, Claire!

Love is bigger….Oh oh oh oh oh…..NO!

U2 doing a very ordinary impression of Coldplay

13….Beautiful, sparse, enchanting……oh u2 less is more….it really is.

A beautiful effortlessly likeable closer to a record that tries too hard too often and only really lifts off when it takes a subtler hand and cuts the platitudes/the self deprecation and the bland pop rock out.

Lyrically i just can’t feel any love for this record…it is full of cliches, platitudes and it almost constantly says a lot like Bono is crow barring as much as he can in but actually says nothing really…….

Record feels full of arena-sized generalities/platitudes thrown together over a plodding pop rock sonic landscape.

Where is the nuanced, subtle songwriting and interesting sonic landscapes this band is known for and that I fell in love with?

I took the headphones off, put my phone on charge and went to bed with the overarching feeling being one of massive disappointment. I had NEVER skipped through songs during first listens to a u2 album before but had done so here.

u2 had dropped another bland, shiny collection of MOR pop rock songs so firmly planted in the middle of the road that they should come with a big white line pained down the middle of them and cats eyes!

A few hours later I was up and in a good mood as I had a day off work – a bit of a dampener though was the fact that I had a dental appointment, a dental appointment that unfortunately saw me needing some extractions and other work, gonna be a sore old mouth for old An Tha!!

The 20 minute walk from An Tha towers to the dentist gave me the chance to listen to some music – now with the disappointment of my first listens to SOE still swirling around my mind I have to admit that SOE was hardly head of the queue for my companion on the walk to the dental gallows but u2 and I go back a long way and I owe them a fair hearing….so off we set together, headphones and play pressed!…

Still liking the opener – the lyrics don’t bother me as much as they did on the first couple of listens and the song is definitely an interesting one, is certainly not the kind of fare I have been so critical of from u2’s post Pop cannon and one I can see growing on me further.

I skipped YTBTAM.

I skipped GOOYOW.

I didn’t skip American Soul – I wanted to see if it really was as toe curlingly bad as I thought it was…..IT WAS!

Red Flag Day reminds me of The Police is the thought in my head and as I walk quite quickly to the aforementioned Dental Gallows I find myself enjoying this – Bono’s lyrics are again grating a little but I like the energy of it. I stick it on repeat and listen again.

I stop the album there as I am rapidly approaching the dentist.

Fast forward about 45 mins or so and numbed up, slightly battered An Tha emerges from the dental pits of hell and hits ‘shuffle songs’ on his phone as he walks home…….The first song is the fantastic ‘England’ from PJ Harvey’s masterpiece ‘Let England Shake’ this lifts my spirits, my favourite lady singing into my ear as I feel a bit sorry for myself is just what I need!

What I don’t need is what follows ‘Summer of Love’….or so I thought! As I walk and listen to it it seems much less insipid than I found it on first listen and the half a listen I managed second time around – OK it is pop music but it has something – no hang on it is just the effects of the injection I have had isn’t it? I don’t like this kind of stuff, do I?….do I?

No more SOE songs pop up on shuffle on the walk home and I go about my day without revisiting the album…the weekend sees me continue to 1. Not have any desire to listen to the album and 2. Be quite busy with the usual being a Dad stuff etc so fast forward to Monday.

I have quite a long journey to work which is made up of a 15-20 minute walk (depending on how my old legs are feeling) to my local train station – a 3 minute ride to my first ‘stop’ – a 10-15 minute walk (again depending on how my old legs feel like carrying my what is these days a little less than svelte frame) to stop number 2 and then a 30 minute ride to London Blackfriars station followed by a 5 minute stroll to my place of work – I largely hate it but music makes it tolerable….I decided that after a couple of days of separation from SOE that I would play it all the way through on my journey…..

I played it during my lunch break too, but frankly I still wasn’t really feeling it and my initial thoughts were mostly still the same…..

Too ‘poppy’

Lyrically clunky

Too much of a mid paced MOR feel

And all the political stuff just coming across as empty posturing/tub thumping….for instance ‘Democracy is flat on its back, Jack’ – is it?….Why is that then? Because your ‘team’ didn’t win?….

My journey home saw me accompanied by Savages (the band as well as the rush hour commuters!)

Once home after some time with my little lad, bedtime story etc it was time to jump in the shower….

“GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY AH AHA AH AH” I found myself singing……WTF?

I dare say that I have tested to the limit or I am severely testing even the kindest and most sympathetic readers patience by now so I’ll stop the almost hour by hour/day by day breakdown of living with this record over the last week or so and say that the shower ‘phenomenon’ would repeat itself throughout the week – The Blackout, GOOYOW, Lights of Home, Red Flag Day and to my ‘horror’ Summer of Love all making appearances and being sung (badly) during the week under the water!!

As the has week progressed I have gone through phases of wanting to listen to the album and not wanting to listen to it, I have tried to not over think it – I am a fan/a normal (ish) guy not someone working for a magazine who has to get a review out for the readership, so I took the approach of just listening to the songs as and when I felt like it and just took them for what they were…

As a part of doing that I tried to not read too many reviews/too much of what our community here were saying – it is hard to not get caught up in ‘confirmation bias’ or question my own feelings if i read stuff from others who have opinions I usually agree with strongly or disagree with…..Just live with the album, An Tha and see how you feel!

Well that is what I have done (in my own mad way!) and at the moment (this could and in fact probably will still change) this is how I feel.

U2 have made an album that at first glance I could not possibly like let alone love – it is overtly ‘poppy’, it feels like the band have tried really hard to try and appeal to everyone by throwing in as many tricks from their bag as possible…..a bit of an early u2 feel here, a tiny pinch of 90’s u2 there, oh hang on don’t forget we need to appeal to the kids!…..some wide screen u2 stirred in, got to have some big arena singalong moments, politics don’t forget the politics!…..It feels too much, it feels too forced, overworked, over egged….

You can’t accuse u2 of phoning it in though – they have worked hard on this record, the 2,789 producers, engineers etc and the fact it was recorded in 834 different locations shows how much work has gone into this – the production is tight, it has been slaved over – you can feel how hard the band have worked on this – I would argue at times that is to the detriment of the record but the effort is there, boy is it there….

They clearly care….they clearly care a lot and because I care about them and them caring I stuck with the record this week and I am mostly glad I did.

Let’s get the ‘negativity’ that I am of course so renowned for out of the way – American Soul is to me beyond redemption – I simply can’t stand it, everything about it grates…..I’d rather listen to Elevation on loop all day whilst being forced to watch East Enders…for our American friends East Enders is a soap opera and I used to live with a soap fanatic who watched it every night and I hate it with a passion!)

The Showman is still as bad as I thought it was on those first listens and I can’t ever see it growing on me, lyrically and musically it is nails on a blackboard territory.

YTBTAM…I have tried I really have but I just can’t grow to like it – it just does not seem to know what it wants to be, it really does come over as some kind of pastiche of styles forced into a 4 minutes or so song that I find just irritating. It is cliched and it is completely disposable to me.

The rest of the album though has grown on me in varying degrees….

Love is all we have left – The lyrical ‘clunkiness’ aside is an interesting and affecting listen – like a lot of the good on this record it has room to breath, whereas the bad on this record is where there is too much being said, or too many ideas being forced into songs…..This song knows what it is, knows what it is saying and says it simply – yes it has the vocal treatment ‘trick’ but that trick is allowed to breath rather than fight for my attention like the bag full employed in YTBTAM for example.

Lights of Home – i find it a little workmanlike and I still think the verses feel empty and are forgettable, but there is a charm to the song even with the less than welcome to me ‘Free yourself’ part that makes me come back to it, and though I can’t see it being a song I or people in general will have much to talk about in even months to come never mind years it is OK as far as post Pop u2 goes.

GOOYOW – Now it is no secret I am no fan of Beautiful Day or Invisible which this song of course has strong echoes of and I am not as I have already alluded to especially enamoured with u2 these days when they clumsily thump the political tub……but there is a charm to this song and a melody that if I put aside any musical ‘snobbery’ I may be prone to makes it one that has become a bit of an ear worm over the last week and one that I have untunefully (is that a word?) sung in the shower this week and in my head – and yes I have enjoyed listening to it…despite it being something I would not normally go for. It isn’t my ‘type’ but I find myself attracted to it.

Summer of Love – This is the one that has me scratching my head the most. It is the antithesis of the type of music I usually like and is the sort of u2 song I have openly panned – BUT it is a song I like, it is probably as good a pure ‘Pop song’ as u2 have written in many a year and remember I consider u2 a band who write largely bad ‘Pop songs’. It has Ryan Tedder’s fingerprints all over it but I refuse to allow any bias to convince me of anything different to what I am hearing and what I am hearing is a decent Pop song.

Red Flag Day – Still hear The Police, still like it – it gets better as it rumbles on and despite it being another song where Bono’s lyrics threaten to hijack it (I think the album is one of his worst lyrically) the song is a nice change of pace and tone and it is alright in my book.

The Little Things… This was the one I felt the most for originally and even though it probably isn’t as affecting as I first thought it was I still find it a statesmen like, mature listen – it builds to it’s crescendo nicely, maybe a little too slowly but I enjoy it and it feels like a song that has come from the gut rather than the head and for me u2 pull much better songs from their guts than they do their heads – feels more natural, more ‘real’ and more authentic…..

Landlady – Again I can nit pick at the lyrics as a bit cloying, but that is probably harsh – it is quite beautiful once it gets to where it is going, you can tell Bono means it and you know what i’ll take that over some of the platitudes that can be found in this records weaker moments.

The Blackout – I read the ‘u2 goes back to AB’ comments and had high hopes for this…..honestly i am on the fence with this song – I like the ‘go easy on me’ parts for example but I don’t like the chorus….I actually don’t mind the names stuff really (seems it is all a nod to a Blake poem after all) but I find some of the music lumpy…..over a week in and I remain undecided about this track, Jack!

13….I don’t like SFS I do like this, a lot! Once again the ‘less is more’ approach on this record wins me over. It is beautiful, sparse but meaty and it tugs at the heart strings….That’ll do for me.

I have left a song off haven’t I……The one where u2 do a bad Coldplay impression…..I’ll leave it off as I literally have nothing else to say about the song – Love is Bigger….

So overall this record is for me a mixed bag – it is one I have lived with this last week or so and already seen my opinion change about, surprise me, harden, soften, and make me challenge myself….A week or so isn’t a long time really with a new record and I think a lot will change in the coming weeks and if the record ‘survives’ that long the coming months.

I do think the record is over cooked in places – I do think the record is probably worse off for the revisiting and changes post the US elections and I think it suffers from too many cooks and u2 wanting too many flavours in the pot.. but I also think it may well turn out to be a grower rather than a shower! u2 have worked very hard on it and after all they have given me down the years I am happy to give the fruits of their labour time and see how it grows with me over time.

It isn’t a great record for me – it isn’t a late career classic or a huge return to form – but it isn’t a bad album either. I find it quite ordinary in places with the highlights not reaching the heights of days gone by and the lowlights whilst quite low are thankfully not great in number.

Let’s see how time treats it, but for me for now it is an OK record, steady but unspectacular, a record marginally better than the sum of it’s parts but for me a record that as hard as it strains for greatness just can’t get there. A record that actually would be better getting out of it’s own way!!

6/10

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