“Too big to fail” usually refers to financial institutions which are so large and entwined that their failure would have drastic consequences on the broader economy, but the phrase could easily be applied to the Irish quartet U2. Not for any fiscal reasons – after all the failure of a band, tour, or album has never brought about a recession – but rather because their endeavours are all but destined to succeed by the simple virtue that they are U2. Think of it as the momentum of past success and fame. And, as the controversy that surrounded the release of 2014’s Songs of Innocence fades into memory, the group is relying on this momentum to propel their fourteenth album, Songs of Experience, off the shelves and up the charts.
At first blush, the thirteen tracks of Songs of Experience make for a fun listen that poses a counter-argument to the claim that U2 have turned into a pale shadow of their former selves, carrying the listener along from opening number Love Is All We Have Left to closing track 13 (There Is a Light). While it is true that Songs of Experience offers up some of the best songs U2 has released in nearly two decades, a closer listen reveals an uneven album that feels bolted together from spare parts. Love Is All We Have Left is an overproduced – but blessedly brief – piece of sonic bathos, while tracks like Landlady and Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way are anaesthetising in their blandness.
Lead single You’re the Best Thing About Me is largely unexceptional aside from how the drums and bass ‘pop’ within the mix – and truly Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton are the heroes of the record, delivering their performances with a consistency that elude the more prominent Bono and The Edge – while second single, Get Out of Your Own Way, shakes things up with an electro-beat. Kendrick Lamar provides the outro for the latter track, which meshes with the intro he provides for American Soul, a song which sees U2 engage in some serious riffing. American Soul is engaging enough, but lines such as “you are rock and roll/you and I are rock and roll”, “RefuJesus”, and “believe the lie” are a bit on the nose, with the political sentiment feeling very much like an afterthought.
The pro-refugee message of Summer of Love – which includes Lady Gaga as a backing vocalist – is more coherent than on American Soul, and the Californian chill-out vibe of the music provides an interesting juxtaposition to the lyrical content. Musically The Blackout is potent, thanks to fuzzed-out guitar and heaviness from the rhythm section, though the song enters bad teenage poetry levels of banality with the lyrics and rhyme pattern. Co-written with HAIM, and featuring the sisters on backing vocals, Lights of Home is easily the album’s best track with its strong riff and groove, and a chorus which has a Coldplay vibe about it – perhaps closing the circle of influence.
A string version of Lights of Home is included on deluxe editions of Songs of Experience, which adds a nice dimension to the song without supplanting the original as the definitive rendition, as is a remix of You’re the Best Thing About Me by Norwegian DJ Kygo. But ultimately the handful of extra tracks fail to increase the record’s appeal. Elements of Songs of Experience dispel the idea that U2’s creative well is dry – which would be understandable for a band that has been around for forty years – but the fact remains that they are still a long, long way from the band they were at the height of their power, and it is unclear just how much momentum remains to push U2 along.