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Nothing to stop this being the best day ever, nothing to keep us from where we should be
With typical outreaching lyrics, Bono introduces us to U2’s most contemporary album to date and in this listeners opinion, their best record of the 21st century.
A new U2 album has more weight on its shoulders than it can ever carry – and this album has something for everyone to hate. For many fans of the 80’s, its nods to pop-rock are anathema. Fans of U2’s 90’s reinvention may find its continuity with post-2000’s U2 bothersome. Fan’s of 2000’s U2 will find little to encourage them that U2 can find that breakout hit song that has eluded them for the last decade – though I would not be surprised if Love is bigger than anything in its way burrowed its way into the heads of mustachioed millennials against their will. Those who just love to find a reason to hate on U2 will no doubt point out that several recycled ideas from 2014’s overlooked Songs of innocence are evidence that the once-biggest band on the planet are at the end of their creative journey.
But those who can get past all the usual stereotypes and nay-saying and judge this album on its merits rather than dismissing it as U2’s latest incarnation, will enjoy one hell of an album.
Edge is in particularly good form throughout, both with sharp guitar sounds and great backing vocals. For much of the album, he avoids the familiar echo and effect driven guitar sound that has defined him. Bono is more convincing than on recent albums as he takes the flip side of his younger-self persona from Songs of Innocence. On Experience, Bono ‘writes as if he’s dead,‘ penning letters to loved ones – and America – from beyond the grave. Bono’s vulnerability about his own mortality on this album is the most stunning acknowledgement of age from a band notorious for fighting their own gravity. Adams bass is deeper and more consistent than on recent U2 records, and though the electro-drum trend continues, there are moments where Larry shines, most notably on Red Flag Day.
U2 had previously tried to complete Songs of experience in 2016, but cancelled their plans to release it, as the worlds most effortlessly political band reeled in the wake of events like Brexit and the election of President Trump. While some fans believed this was merely an excuse to delay an album that was promised but incomplete – which might be true – the album is indeed loaded with politically relevant songs like American soul, get out of your own way and summer of love. A fair criticism is that it is at its worst when trying to comment on global themes. Get out of your own way and American soul are not terrible tracks, but they are not nearly as convincing as the albums deeply personal second half.
Bono is in stronger lyrical territory than he has been in a while, though there are some snafu’s. He sounds forced when he tries to echo Paul Simon’s 50 ways to leave your lover by rhyming men’s names. Maybe it was something I said, Ned. Ouch. On American Soul, the only saving grace from the lyric ‘Will you be my sanctuary, Refu-Jesus,’ is that U2 didn’t invent the word Refu-Jesus. Phew. When Bono makes the lyrics personal, he hits some real highs. On the raucous The Showman, Bono says of himself: Making a spectacle of falling apart is just the start of the show. On the excellent slow-riser The little things that give you away, Bono acknowledges his own ridiculousness: Sometimes, I can’t believe my existence, I see myself from a distance, I can’t get back inside. He concludes in the recycled melody 13(there is a light) by telling those he leaves behind, If there is a light, don’t let it go out. This is a song for someone, someone like me.
U2 renews their production relationships with One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, long-time collaborators Jacknife Lee and Steve Lillywhite, and adds new flavors with Andy Barlow of Lamb fame and Gavin Friday collaborator Jolyon Thomas. With such a variety of production influences spanning multiple genres, the album should sound disjointed, but it doesn’t. Somehow, the mix of pop-rock, new wave, dance, electronica and ambiance works.
Overall, the companion to 2014’s Songs of innocence is a huge improvement. The songs are catchier, the lyrics crisper and the choruses extremely accessible. Of course, that accessibility might be the albums Achilles heel. At this age, it’s unlikely that even the hit-worthy material on the album will pierce the generational bias in the cultural zeitgeist. For existing fans, it is possible that in a year, these accessible songs will sound repetitive and dull. But I doubt it. I think this will be remembered as a late-in-career classic. The less-than-inspired pop songs in the albums soft-center are enough to kill any aspirations this album may have to join U2’s most celebrated works, but this album is good enough to stand side by side with albums being produced by bands thirty years younger.
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Song by song review follows:
Love is all we have left
The albums uncharacteristically slow, atmospheric opener lacks the bombast of previous introductions and sounds like it belongs on the Passengers album, but it sets the scene nicely, and the auto-tune of Bono’s voice in the second verse – which could have been awful if not done right – works nicely to set a great tone. The scant sketch tees the album up nicely.
Lights of home (featuring Haim)
Edge lights up this husky anthem with an opening riff that Jimmy Page would be unashamed of, though he then gets cut short too quickly. Bono’s most fragile lyric takes over and draws you in. I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead. Bono references his 2014 cycling accident and recent ‘brush with mortality’ to ask Jesus if he’s still his friend. In the chorus, Bono appears to still be talking to Jesus when he asks: “Hey, now, do you know my name or where I’m going?” Heaven or hell, Bono? The song ends by repeating the advice given him by his mother: Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself. Is Bono asking if he can soon get home to heaven and meet his mother? Heavy stuff. I can see myself still liking this song in ten years.
You’re the best thing about me
Though this uninspired pre-released pop-rock effort is typical of U2’s promotional singles, it does actually sound better in the context of the album. This love-song to Bono’s wife Ali is slightly modified from the single version, but it’s one of the few songs on the album that will not be remembered in ten years.
Get out of your own way
Another pre-released tune, this kicks off the promised Anti-Trump section of the album, but it can be argued that the album is at its least convincing when veering away from personal territory. Bono invokes the spirit of Lincoln’s ghost to ask America – and democracy in general – to get out of its own way. The Kendrick Lemar postscript blends the song into American Soul with tongue-in-cheek benedictions like ‘Blessed are the arrogant for theirs is the Kingdom of their own company.’ Now, to which politician may this refer? Yeah, we get it, you don’t like Trump. But it’s not likely that any minds will be changed politically with this tepid effort.
Kendrick Lemar opens the song with a continuation of the previous songs defiance, after which Bono reminds us of the spirit of the American Dream – set to the same chorus as Volcano from the Songs of Innocence album. It’s not entirely convincing when Bono sings You and I are rock n’roll or will you be my sanctuary, Refu-Jesus. But the air and theme is definitely an improvement on Volcano. For all the lyrical snafu’s – add let it be unity, let it be community to the list – the song still evokes a bring-out-the-best in us feeling that echo’s Beautiful Day. I won’t remember it in ten years, but I think even Refu-Jesus could dance to it.
Summer of Love
“I’ve been thinking ’bout the west coast” is not a beach-boys-esque surfing chorus, but a Syrian telling his family he’s thinking about getting out of the country before it’s too late. Edge has a haunting bridge solo in this toe-tapper. Bono tells us that when all is lost we find out what remains. There are good strings and a catchy guitar hook, and the song is quite upbeat considering its heartbreaking subject matter. Not a classic, but definitely a song you’ll be tapping your feet to.
Red Flag Day
The most early-U2 sounding song on the album – other than maybe Book of your heart, which is only on the deluxe edition. Bono once again takes on the refugee crisis. Despite it being a (coastguard designated) “red flag day,” because of dangerous currents and strong waves, a man tells his wife on a sinking refugee boat Baby lets get in the water. I can feel your body shaking. I’ll meet you where the waves are breaking. The energy in this song is reminiscent of the Boy album and the clear political message sounds like something from WAR. A truly great, if somewhat too-short, U2 classic.
The Showman (Little more better)
“Singers cry about everything.” Bono is back to personal territory on this catchy, fun tune. The lyrics carry this song. Showman prays his heartache will chart. Making a spectacle of falling apart is just the start of the show. A catchy chorus will make this sound good in a live setting, but I doubt this passes the ten year test.
The little things that give you away
A weak electro-drum opening disappoints, but the song quickly more than makes up for it. Little things easily grows, especially after Edge’s signature guitar echo kicks in at the first chorus. A strong bass line and great lyrics – this freedom might cost you your liberty – get this song under your skin. About half-way through, the melody changes and the song seems to start over – but it builds to an amazing crescendo reminiscent of their best slow-burners. A complete U2 classic.
The phone is where i live ’till I get home.
Bono refers to his long-suffering wife, Ali, as a Landlady – acknowledging his absenteeism while also thanking her for when I was broke it was you that always paid the rent. An understated song with a verse that outshines the chorus, i’m not sure this one will live well on stage, but it definitely stands up to repeated listens.
Bono met Paul Simon on the Innocence and Experience tour, and it seems he borrowed the idea to rhyme using names, James. It doesn’t work, but if you can get past that, the song itself is rollicking. It will sound great live. A great bass and solid, jagged guitar riff counter Bono’s softly spoken request Go easy on me. The upbeat tempo once again masks a grave theme, with Bono asking plainly about Democracy Is this an extinction event we see? Given that, unlike the other lines in the song, he doesn’t rhyme this line with a persons name, its logical that he is asking all of us this question.
Love is bigger than anything in its way
The albums standout track starts with another guitar segment that wouldn’t sound out of place on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, but it quickly changes to an electronic guitar hook that truly grabs you. The song then builds quickly into an amazing chorus of “oh-oh’s.” The lyrics are uninteresting until the bridge, where we learn that the song is once again about Ali – if the moonlight caught you crying into Killiney bay, oh sing your song. Killiney bay is the long-time home of Bono and Ali in South Dublin. If I have one criticism of this song, it’s that it needs a third chorus. But this is a song I can still hear myself enjoying on my deathbed. Another classic
13 (There is a light)
The non-deluxe edition of the album ends with a song to Bono’s children, a vast improvement on Song for Someone, and another possibly long-term classic despite its blatant self-sampling. Bono ends the album by telling his children to guard their innocence. It might sounds like typical Bono arrogance to end the album with the phrase This is a song for someone like me. But it isn’t. It isn’t a song for him, it’s a song for his children, a poem from father to son. A song for someone whose innocent young-Bono-like face graces the cover of the album that closes with a hymn to him. A song for someone just like Bono.
Additional Songs only on the Deluxe Edition
Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)
If you didn’t like Ordinary Love when it got U2 a golden globe and an oscar-nomination two years ago, there is little in this mix to change your mind. It’s slightly more coherent but no more remarkable than it’s – well, ordinary – predecessor.
Book of your heart
This song grows nicely on you after deliberately grating you with a sharp electronic high-pitched opening effect. This song would not sound out of place on Unforgettable Fire. Edge’s backing vocal is haunting, and Bono’s low register is more convincing than its been in recent years. The lyrics are outstanding, the drums echo the best of the late 80’s era and there is a great outro to conclude the song. Passes the ten year test. Why this is only on the deluxe version is a mystery. Another classic.
Lights of Home (St. Peter’s string version)
A slightly more acoustic version of the song with, as the title implies, a string section added. An impressive string section. An excellent – you’ll never guess – violin – introduces the second verse. Edge impresses on piano. Larry’s bass drum in the second verse is outstanding. I’m not sure this song is good enough to have two versions last with me for years. I think this might be the version that lasts.
You’re the best thing about me (U2 Vs Kygo Version)
The worst of U2-as-hit-making-relevant-dance-king-wannabe, this remix featuring Norwegian Disc Jockey Kygo has a sharp dance beat. But it does not belong anywhere near this otherwise-excellent U2 album. You can argue about whether the original version belongs on the album. I doubt too many will argue that this one does.
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