I want to briefly talk about U2. They have a new album out this week, Songs of Experience, which Rowan described as ‘an Apple-funded gimmick to appeal to the poetry-loving college crowd.’ It’s ostensibly a companion to 2013’s Songs of Innocence, and it’s bad. Not offensively bad (not that U2 ever have been offensive, moreso bland and boring, spiritless and soulless, pedestrian and ponderous), but bad enough to warrant derision and mockery. What is it exactly that Bono stands for when he sings ‘I can help you, but it’s your fight,’ when we all know that he hides money in tax havens and has powerful friends compromise editorial integrity for him? I don’t know. For the record, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” the song that line comes from, isn’t completely awful, and could well have been successful had it not been compressed so heavily and recorded by a band with more clout and pertinence than U2. But the entire album is so completely diluted with the sentiment of nothingness that you can’t help but feel as if everything is painfully familiar; lyrically and thematically, its anti-Trump vitriol is obvious and well plundered; musically, it’s repetitive, blase, samey, and unoriginal. This was the band that wrote Achtung Baby, criticized the technocratic revolution, and then preceded to redefine the frightening implications of digital distribution. Nowadays, I would rather listen to The Killers.
So, to simplify, it’s what we would otherwise expect from a new U2 album. But, perhaps most bizarrely, Songs for Experience is one of the more interesting examples of an album salvaged almost entirely by the appearance of Kendrick Lamar, who appears on the aforementioned “Get Out of Your Own Way,” and “American Soul,” more recognizable for being sampled on DAMN.’s (far better) “XXX.” In that song, Bono’s meditative refrain– ‘it’s not a place / this country is to me the sound / of drum and bass’– gave respite to Kendrick’s frantic and uncharacteristic revenge fantasy. Here, that refrain is grafted onto a subpar glam rock stomp that gives The Edge’s guitar tone a softened, Malcolm Young-like effect that doesn’t riff as much as ruffle and ring. It’s less affecting but, next to Kendrick, also a lot more urgent than anything else on the album. It’s also the place where Lamar gets in his most steely tongued criticisms of Donald Trump, spitting between the two songs (rather succinctly, I might add):
Blessed are the arrogant
For there is the kingdom of their own company
Blessed are the superstars
For the magnificence in their light
We understand better our own insignificance
Blessed are the filthy rich
For you can only truly own what you give away
Like your pain
Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward
Without wanting to overrate the chances of those words getting back to Trump, or the possibility that those words would even inspire a nasty and ill-tempered tweet, the intent behind them is pretty damning; he’s essentially draining away the idea of sympathy for Trump voters, and the possibility of benevolent support for him, by claiming that this is a normal, just, and predictable way for America to operate. In Kendrick’s telling, vanity, pomposity, greed, abuse, and deceit are inherent within the White American structure. It’s an injustice U2 have railed against here and elsewhere, and have become markedly poorer at addressing in recent times. Accordingly, it speaks to Kendrick’s skills that, whenever he appears between the brackets, he’s likely going to become the better, defining aspect of that song. That was true of “Nosetalgia,” true of “Yeah Right,” true of “Perfect Pint,” as it is true of a passable, inconsequential, late career U2 album.