The 1990s was the decade U2 gave no fucks. Its output from that era, beginning with the unsurpassed, career-resetting Achtung Baby in 1991, saw the band indulge in its Bowie-like impulses to exhilarating effect. In ’93, Zooropa sounded like it was recorded in outer space; 1997’s Pop saw the group crashing back down onto a mirrored disco ball; in between it wrote a soundtrack to a non-existent film that featured Luciano Pavarotti on one track. The music the band produced in that period remains the nerviest, most audacious songwriting of the band’s catalog. It was a wonderful time to be a U2 fan. Even when it hopped out of a lemon in Eurotrash attire, or announced its tour ironically in the lingerie department of a Kmart, it was all art, baby!
Contained within that glorious weirdness is a lyric from “The Fly” that, as U2 enters its fifth decade, now feels prophetic: “It’s no secret that ambition bites the nail of success.” As the band stumbled into the 2000s after the relative commercial disappointment that was Pop, U2 once again rebooted its sound for All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a back-to-basics record that openly sought chart-topping validation—the word that kept popping up in interviews was “relevance”—even as its gazillionaire members could have easily written space rock operas for the rest of their days. Instead, for the last 17 years and counting, U2 has been a band idling in neutral.
Songs Of Experience, U2’s 14th studio album, revs up the ambition, to embarrassing results. It finds the group desperately searching for a radio hit while pontificating on American exceptionalism, shoehorning the Syrian refugee crisis into not one but two love songs—and on consecutive tracks, no less. It even features Bono’s
first on-album use of a vocoder (surely eliciting cracks of “Bono Iver” from the cheap seats) [Correction: He used vocoder on “Elevation”]. It is the product of a band giving too many fucks.
Its title borrowed from William Blake, Songs Of Experience is a bookend to U2’s 2014 effort, Songs Of Innocence, infamous as the record that appeared, unrequested, in everyone’s iTunes. In Innocence, we find young Paul Hewson, before the “Bono” moniker stuck, penning songs in his childhood bedroom, looking for a way out of the north side of Dublin. Experience, helmed by producers Jacknife Lee and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, is Bono and Co. having found at last what they were looking for. The life lessons they learned along the way are not particularly profound.
Spoiler alert: “Love Is All We Have Left.” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.” Love is an unstoppable force, so submit to its awesomeness. In the blindingly sunny lead single “You’re The Best Thing About Me”—the Jimmy Fallon of U2 songs—it’s articulated with the subtlety of a swinging Trabant to the face: “You’re the best thing about me / The best thing that ever happened a boy.” The lyrics don’t get any more nuanced even when the subject matter gets weightier. “You! Are! Rock and roll!” Bono howls—unbearably—about his beloved United States in the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “American Soul.” The lyrics even invoke the word “Refu-Jesus,” a portmanteau of David Brent-ian insufferableness.
Even “Red Flag Day,” a track with garage-rock intentions and crowd-pogoing potential, screeches to a halt as Bono sings: “So many lost in the sea last night / One word that the sea can’t say, is no! / No! Nooooo! Nooooo!” You guessed it: It’s a toe-tapper about Syrian refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Then there is “The Blackout,” a bit of Paul Simon-esque rhyming around natural disasters: “Earthquakes always happen when you’re in bed, Fred / The house shakes, maybe it was something I said, Ned.” Later he rhymes “Jack” with “Zach.”
A bit of that appealing, Achtung-era cynicism reemerges in “The Showman (Little More Better)”—“The showman prays his heartache will chart / Making a spectacle of falling apart”—which Bono sings over an incongruously jaunty backing resembling an ’80s buddy-cop montage or a commercial for arthritis pills. But for the most part, Experience is heavy on empty sentimentality, packaged around lifeless hooks and trite melodies that few U2 fans will remember, let alone sing along to, in 20 years. Only in its closing moments is there something approaching catharsis with “13 (There Is A Light),” a slow, galloping rewrite to Songs Of Innocence’s “Song For Someone.” But by that point, it’s hard to expect anyone to give a fuck.