There's a moment in the early-2000s 'U2 Go Home' tour DVD where Bono, to the clear irritation of drummer Larry Mullen Jr., counts in the band's rhythm section. U2 was Mullen's band before Bono joined, and there has always been an element of tension between the frontman and the unflappable man with the sticks. Songs of Experience, the latest release from the quartet, again brings out that distance between the band's members, but adds in a confusing supporting cast of producers, collaborators and redundant ideas. Somehow, some true gems poke out from within the grey.
Songs of Experience also brings out the distance between where U2 wants to be, and where it creatively can be at the band's advanced stage of existence. Songs of Innocence, possibly the least-welcomed free download to an iPhone since Google Plus, was a poor album. After having trudged through the leaden, memorable-chorus-free, fun-deficient 2014 album again in preparation for this review, I was left with the sinking feeling that things might not get better. U2 have been together for 40 years now; that's longer than the Rolling Stones took to get to Voodoo Lounge, Bridges to Babylon, Stripped, and their other less-than-essential releases of the nineties and 2000s that suggested that they were better off touring the hits.
"Nothing to stop this being the best day ever," says Bono in the opening line of Love is All We Have Left, a track that would not sound out-of-place on the B-side of an Achtung Baby single. It's brooding, insecure, and quite beautiful, even if it has another of Bono's clunking saviour references, "a baby cries on a doorstep," to hamper it. It is a brave choice to start Songs of Experience with what is effectively the Acrobat of this album, the dark track, and it leads to a fleeting hope that U2 have recovered their bravery when it comes to revealing inner turmoil, as they did so well on their best albums.
That hope lasts until Lights of Home, on which The Edge's guitar is fuzzed up like it's 1974, and Bono puts his vocals further back in the mix than usual in what would seem to be an attempt at a Plastic Ono Band-type vibe. It doesn't work, and it sounds like what it is, a band past their best, pushing for a stadium rock high, when it's just not happening tonight. You're the Best Thing About Me sounds positively majestic next to that faltering step, and sonically it is lifted by some classic Edge reverb and Adam Clayton, back to his best, and back to those peak moments when his 'lead' bass was the most memorable part of songs like Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World. We'll come back to this shortly, but the melody in the verses is pretty much Even Better Than the Real Thing in a higher key.
Ostensibly the lyrics are Bono's personal letter to his daughter, "when you look so good, baby you don't even know", but the singer, who has always shared lyric duties with The Edge, sounds more and more like he is writing using a lyric generator; where almost any Joshua Tree song was full of desire for him, or his persona, to learn more, to experience more, to be a better man, now Bono's autopilot lyrics are all about preaching to what might as well be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. More than anything, You're the Best Thing... lacks the charisma needed by a lead-out single, although it's better by some measure than dead-weight singles from the previous album like The Miracle of Joey Ramone, or Every Breaking [Wind?] Wave.
The following track is one of two soaring peaks on this otherwise identikit U2 album, Get Out of Your Own Way. Hearing it for the first time on Spotify's New Music Friday playlist a couple of months ago, it had the power to grab my heart from my chest and imbue a fresh flush of self-confidence. Much, in fact, like Beautiful Day could. That's the conflicting emotion that is brought up by enjoying Get Out of Your Own Way - it's a soft reboot of Beautiful Day, from the slowly-ascending volume and pit-pat drum machine of the start, right up to the multi-tracked harmonies at the end. The band show they're in on the joke with a sly call-back to the "your heart is a balloon" lyric that opens their 2000 comeback song, but it feels like seeing a reunion of your favourite 2000s TV show - comforting, nostalgic, while at the same time fist-pumpingly exuberant, but a recycled emotion, the joke from another era retold for a fresh laugh.
The difference is, Beautiful Day begins appearing to implore to a "you" who had thought they had found a friend, "to take you out of this place," etc etc, but in fact turns out to be all about a wish for personal renewal, "take me to that other place, teach me Lord [which became "teach me things" in the single release, presumably to make sure secular rock fans weren't put off buying the record, back when people still bought records]." Get Out of Your Own Way sounds about as despondent as such a hopeful melody can, with the "hey-hey" refrain sounding almost resigned, while the message seems to be one of a man saying he'd love to help "but it's your fight." That the convoluted hookline might have been borrowed from a Justice League cartoon probably shouldn't come as a surprise given that it was U2 that felt so passionate about Spider-Man that they wrote the music for Turn Off the Dark. Get Out of Your Own Way replaces Che Guevara with Leonid Brezhnev, but that can't stop the pure blood-rush of emotion whenever the song is on the speaker. It's the first U2 song that could conceivably find its way onto anyone's best-of playlist since, if you're being generous, City of Blinding Light in 2004, and if you're not, Walk On in 2000.
American Soul, Summer of Love and Red Flag Day are three earnest attempts at mining the same seam as Songs of Innocence, all three tracks going for an intimate, stripped-down sound that evokes variously Iggy Pop, The Ramones and Jefferson Airplane, without ever seeming like the band are that much into it. These tracks are the ones that amateur curators on Spotify will presumably cull from the deluxe cut of the album. They're not the first dud tracks on a U2 album by a long way. The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby (with the possible exception of Zoo Station on the latter) are as perfect as rock albums can get, with barely a bad song on there. The other albums all have at least two tracks that only completists could love. Even All That You Can't Leave Behind, the revival album in every sense (given that it also reannounced an interest in Christianity after three albums that barely addressed religion unless through the prism of Northern Ireland politics and terrorism), had Wild Honey and In a Little While. The worry is that these nondescript moments, when you forget to listen and let your attention divert to whatever you were doing, are becoming the new normal.
In some ways, U2's career mirrors that of Tom Cruise. Given little chance of megastardom in the early eighties, U2 and Cruise both stayed ahead of the competition through recognising when the formula got tired and reinventing themselves, while remembering how to appeal to a broad audience who stuck by them. U2 are still making stadium-rock battle-tank songs, the same way Cruise still makes action movies, but these days even a reasonable Tom Cruise movie sends thoughts back to Top Gun or Minority Report.
The Showman (Little More Better) is the first time on this record that U2, and specifically Bono, sound like they're actually enjoying the process of being in a studio together. It's full of the contradictory self-deprecation that could always raise a smile on those postmodern albums, lines like "I've got just enough self-esteem to get me where I wanna go" lifting the mask a little and showing that the band's songwriting doesn't just speak from the pulpit.
It's followed by The Little Things That Give You Away, the album's second standout track, and proof that you should always write more songs than you need when you're at your peak; it was originally written during the All That You Can't Leave Behind sessions, and everything about the production sounds like 17 years ago, in the sense that it takes the bags from the eyes, the weight from the shoulders, and stops trying so damn hard. Most of all, it sounds genuinely soul-baring and affecting, and appears to be written about real emotional issues, rather than just being a story about a girl written while on the beach or in the home studio. The Edge's guitar once again provides sonic sails for the track, while the band's harmonies build up to a crescendo. It sounds like a band that are together because they want to be, not because it makes sound commercial sense.
There is residual sadness that it's unlikely U2 could write and record anything new that was this good, but it's negated by this being a song for the ages. Landlady is clearly a more recent composition, as it drifts listlessly through to The Blackout. This begins in a way not dissimilar to Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me from the Batman Forever soundtrack, before Clayton's throbbing bass recalls the unfairly-maligned Magnificent, from the forgettable 2009 outing No Line on the Horizon. That record was a last gasp for the U2-Brian Eno-Daniel Lanois-Flood brains trust, but it's on mundane tracks like The Blackout that Eno's knack for finding clear, free and original thought, along with Lanois' otherworldly sound-engineering skills, would seem to be most useful, suffering as it does from a one-dimensional production.
Overall, the problem isn't that the production lacks focus, but rather that there are 13 separate focuses. This is a result of the revolving door of producers and collaborators that have worked on an album that is mottled with revisions, rewrites and rerecordings. Producers like Ryan Tedder come with a huge reputation, but seem hand-picked to create a sound that is enough like the U2 of old, without causing too many arguments with the band. Tedder, through his band Onerepublic, has spent his career trying to replicate the major-key thrills of classic U2, and he does a competent enough job behind the mixing desk, as do the other producers, but can you imagine him, or Jacknife Lee, challenging U2 on any major production decision? The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and All That You Can't Leave Behind are good or great albums because Eno, Lanois and Flood set a language that each album communicated in, a common DNA for the record. Most of the glue that held together U2's best albums is lacking from Songs of Experience.
We do, though, finish, as is the way with U2, in a way that leaves the listener feeling like they have just heard something they want to go back to. Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way, in spite of another lumpy title and tagline, achieves transcendence in a way Imagine Dragons and the other newer rock bands seem to have eschewed, while 13 (There is a Light) ensures further light and shade by closing the album on a thoughtful note. It's because of these, plus Get Out of Your Own Way and The Little Things That Give You Away that Songs of Experience is worth returning to for a repeat listen.
Whatever way you look at it, it would take delusion to say that any other of the other songs that pad out this album would make it onto a record by U2 made between 1984 and 2000. Yes, I'm calling it - even Pop has more good tunes. Discotheque, Staring at the Sun, If God Will Send His Angels, Last Night on Earth and Please were all deserved hit singles from that album, and Gone could have been. Love or loathe Pop, that was the end of U2's postmodern electro-hipster chapter, and it had an infectious identity as an album that gave you a reaction, good or bad. No-one should end a U2 album thinking "it was okay." That's what's just happened.