Even as U2 were summoning their own illustrious past on The Joshua Tree 2017 tour, they were looking forward to their next recording adventure. From the opening shows onwards, the rock giants were offering a preview of it by performing the appealing new song ‘The Little Things That Give You Away.’
When that adventure reached fruition with the 1 December release of Songs Of Experience, the immediate response was an iTunes No. 1 in a mere 45 countries. Q Magazine described it as a “classic,” while for Mojo, it was “U2’s strongest album this century.” Associated Press heard “an exciting, stage-ready album that doesn’t blush or blink in its use of the band’s signature sounds.”
Songs Of Experience may have been titled as the complementary bookend of its 2014 predecessor Songs Of Innocence, but what was really on display was the collective experience of a rock institution with more than 40 years of friendship on the clock. As the pleasing symmetry extended from the studio to the road, the new companion album was made flesh by 2018’s Experience + Innocence tour, which started in Tulsa in May 2018. It did so fuelled by the weighty 14th studio entry in the U2 canon.
Songs Of Experience revealed a band still so nimble that they could draw on the weight of their achievements, not be dragged down by them. In the process, they created a deftly updated version of themselves. New textures and fresh filters abounded, for what is still one of the world’s most cohesive and visceral rock outfits. The contributions of Kendrick Lamar, Lady GaGa and Haim may convey this work to a younger audience, but not at the expense of the essence of U2.
Some listeners sensed an enforced optimism about the album’s lyrical demeanour, but when Bono introduced the opening ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ with the words “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever/Nothing to keep us from where we should be,” it was with a sense of informed realism and his an entirely believable, undimmed positivity.
The dreamy, almost celestial hue of that opener quickly blended into the infectious, ragged rock shuffle of ‘Lights Of Home.’ Like much of the album, it was live enough to retain a demo-like energy, yet as it progressed, big enough to have stadiums singing along to it. And there goes Bono again: “I believe my best days are ahead, I can see the lights in front of me.”
Thus they proceeded on an odyssey that, on the album’s deluxe edition with its various mixes and alternative versions, embraced no fewer than 17 tracks and 67 minutes, created in London, Dublin and Los Angeles. Production, by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder, with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow and Jolyon Thomas, was ever-imaginative, focused on innovation without smothering the spirit of the song in its presentation. The Edge’s guitar leads were as admirably nuanced as ever and the Clayton/Mullen rhythm section had the kind of intuitive depth that can only come from this quartet’s unbuyable symbiosis.
The album also exuded sharp-eyed lyrical observation, from the zeitgeist phraseology of ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’ and ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ to some moments of poignant observation. These included the moment in ‘Red Flag Day’ when Bono noted how inured we have become to shocking world events such as the global immigration crisis. “Not even news today, so many lost in the sea last night,” he sings. “One word that the sea can’t say is no, no, no.”
Moods undulated from the stripped back, acoustic guitar and tambourine set-up of ‘The Showman (Little More Better)’ to the laid-back ‘Landlady’ and on again to another potential anthem in ‘Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.’ To quote themselves, U2 got out of their own way and added a significant new chapter to their epic story.
The vinyl edition of Songs Of Experience can be bought here.
Follow the official U2 Best Of playlist.