Review Summary: William Blake rolls over in his grave, uninstalls iTunes
U2, as taken for granted since 2000, deal in big, big-sounding declarations of bigness. Their canvas is devoid of a centre or legitimate meaning, but splattered with enough colour and hung up so goddamn high it's hard for eyes to wander. To their credit, that's what they know how to do, and vagueisms rarely sound as competently pleasant as they do from U2's mouths. All we're left wondering is what the band is supposed to have learned since their innocence was plastered across the world's iTunes accounts three years ago.
Well, they've learned to make a slightly better Songs of Innocence
, whose first half was so formless the audio files nearly dissolved into mist. This gained knowledge still can't bring us back to the level of No Line on the Horizon
, where traces of The Unforgettable Fire
's quietly experimental U2 poked their heads above the ground, bedraggled survivors having barely weathered the bland pop onslaught of 2000. For about nine songs, Experience
is good: "Get Out Of Your Own Way" and "American Soul" make for a catchy two-parter, both strengthened by the smooth transition courtesy of Kendrick Lamar, while "The Little Things That Give You Away" marries sweet pop with an almost post-rock sensibility a la "City of Blinding Lights", allowing Edge to build from gentle twinkles to a classic delay-powered onslaught. Straight after, the truly gormless one-two of "Landlady" and "The Blackout" allows Bono to clean out his backlog of clunkiest rhymes, but it wouldn't be a U2 album without some filler clogging up the tracklist.
"We came here lookin' for American soul"
, Bono declares over a great chorus pasted over from the bridge of "Volcano". Okay, all well and good – but that's the third time in as many years, so I guess they didn't find it on Rattle and Hum
or "Bullet the Blue Sky". I wouldn't give this a second thought, except that Songs of Experience
is so naively, childishly convinced that it's wizened and adult. The childhood focus of Innocence
managed to wrench up some fossils of Bono's personality, especially on "The Troubles", and glad as I am that Adam Clayton has awoken from a 17-year hibernation to dispel that room-temperature water musicality, it's a shame the echo of emotion didn't carry over.
No one ever needed U2 to be the big political statement band. Actually, as "Moment of Surrender" and "Stuck in a Moment" seemed tacitly aware, their best tunes feel like frozen instants, little memories snuck out of time and smothered in amber. An abused woman buying cigarettes at a 7/11; the moon shining down on One Tree Hill; a black car pulling up outside Bono's childhood home after his mother's death. There is only one such human moment here, when "There Is a Light" reprises and improves "Song for Someone" – the latter a deeply mediocre cut which gave us one of Bono's greatest pieces of unintended comedy, "you've got a face/not spoiled by beauty". Simple-n-dumb highlights "You're the Best Thing About Me" and "The Showman" suggest a version of the band who could broaden their musical scope – a little more vocoder, throw Edge some more bridges, release that No Line
sister album, anything - while just allowing themselves to be stupid fun. ("The Showman" wrestles a serviceable hook out of "baby you look so good/little more better"
, which is pretty impressive in spite of itself). But a few good songs don't stop the Innocence/Experience thing stinking of an Apple-funded gimmick to appeal to the poetry-loving college crowd; especially when it was encapsulated flawlessly on "An Cat Dubh"/"Into the Heart", wait for it, nearly forty
fucking years ago. Somewhere in England, William Blake rolls over in his grave, downs a coffee and puts Allen Ginsberg on his iPod instead. You'd probably be well served doing the same.