* = it occurs to me that my car, a 2013 model, may be the last vehicle I ever own with an actual physical CD player installed. Oh man that makes me feel old.
In a way, that’s actually the best way of judging an album — how many tracks can I easily bear to skip? Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Songs Of Experience is that, after almost two weeks of constantly listening to it, there aren’t any duds. There are some songs I like more than others, yet there aren’t any meandering ‘album tracks’ that musicians sometimes include to ‘help the album flow better’ since they ‘couldn’t come up wth anything interesting with an actual melody or chorus.’
The flip side of this is that SOE is lacking in those singular, “this is an instant U2 classic” type of songs. (There are two of them that immediately stand out to me at the moment, which I’ll get to soon.) But what the record may be lacking in a high ceiling, it makes up for with the highest floor of any U2 album outside of Achtung Baby and Joshua Tree. It’s all killer, no filler.
The track-by-track breakdown…
* Love Is All We Have Left: Okay, so I’ll instantly contradict myself by saying that both the opening and closing songs basically are “album tracks” that don’t really work in the context of stand-alone songs, but they work great as bookends for the record’s theme. (A mediation of morality, as filtered through the idea of Bono writing the songs as letters to important people in his life after he has passed on.) LIAWHL is basically unlike any other U2 album opener, a slow-burn autotune-heavy short number lacking in any instant build.
* Lights Of Home: Aw man, do I have to like Haim now? Can’t I just go on recognizing them as a thoroughly unremarkable band? Can’t I just give them credit for this one riff that the Edge sampled/borrowed as the backbone of this song and keep on ignoring them?
This is a really interesting song, since even after LIAWHL’s slow opening, you’d expect Lights Of Home to be this big-chorus classic U2-sounding type of number. There’s certainly a big chorus and a sing-along quality, though it’s there in a way that sounds unlike pretty much anything U2 has ever done. Of the two versions on the disc (the proper album version and then the strings version bonus track), I actually think the ideal mix has yet to be done — a version that has both the strings and the Edge busting out his acid guitar for the opening riff. If you’ve got these big fat rock chords, no need to use the acoustic guitar, Edge…rock it up! I realize that this could make the song sound a bit like Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, but in what world is that a bad thing? As it is, Lights Of Home actually sounds a bit like the infamous Stand Up Comedy, which wasn’t technically a bad song but just stood out like a sore thumb on the atmosphere No Line On The Horizon album.
* You’re The Best Thing About Me: Speaking of a song that needed another mix, maybe U2 could’ve just gone with the Kygo version? Or the “sci-fi soul mix” (available on YouTube) that smooths out the melody while keeping some electronic and beach rock flavour? This one is pretty good yet a little frustrating in its not-quite-there nature since this feels like it might’ve been an actual massive hit for the band. That said, wow do I ever love Edge’s vocal bridge. That might be my single favourite moment on the entire record.
* Get Out Of Your Own Way: Probably my de facto least-favourite song on the disc, just because it really does come off as a poor man’s Beautiful Day. It might even be a poor man’s Always, the b-side from the ATYCLB sessions that was essentially a Beautiful Day dress rehearsal. Still, not a bad song, and it goes to what I was noting earlier about the album having a high floor. When all you can say about the “worst” track is that is sounds like a diet Beautiful Day, that’s not exactly harsh.
* American Soul: Whereas the previous track just sounded like an old song, here U2 quite directly takes the guitar part and chorus from both Glastonbury and Volcano and re-uses it once more. Frankly, I think it works better here than in either of those previous songs. I do enjoy how U2 took probably the two weakest tracks on Songs Of Innocence (Volcano and Song For Someone) and reworked them into superior versions on Songs Of Experience. Awesome work from Larry and Adam in the rhythm section here, really driving this song and giving it the urgency that Volcano lacked.
* Summer Of Love: A complete classic. Such a beautiful song, with a deceptively-casual beach vibe laid over a serious message about the Syrian refugee crisis. I try to avoid U2 album reviews since they’re almost uniformly terribly misguided or loaded with bias, but I can’t help but note that several reviewers had an instant “Bono + politics = vomit emoji” reaction to this track. These people, better known as morons, would also fall all over themselves in praising a modern musician if they were capable of making such a political statement within the context of a pop song. I don’t want to say that all of U2’s critics are ageist fools, but maybe, 92% of them? Fun fact: Lady Gaga does backup vocals on this song yet is almost invisible within the vocal mix. U2 had three major star cameos (Gaga, Haim, Kendrick Lamar) on this record yet reduced them to just imperceptible backup vocals and a tacked-on spoken word intro. There are no “feat.” credits in U2’s world!
* Red Flag Day: The political argument redux, as it’s a “baby, let’s get in the water” laid-back chorus about….Syrian refugees preferring to take their chances trying to survive swimming in the Mediterranean Sea rather than stay in their war-torn homeland. U2 turning the entire idea of a beach album on its head is one of the more creative ideas the band has ever done. This song has the vibe of a War-era protest song made with modern sounds.
* The Showman (Much More Better): U2 at their most casual and least-insistent upon themselves, which is a look that the band doesn’t often pull off to great effect. It’s funny to me that U2 has this image of being a pompous band, when they literally can’t get through an interview without making fun of a) each other, or b) the entire idea of U2, or c) the entire idea of being in a band itself. This doesn’t always translate well to actual songs, however, like how U2’s attempts at creating light, throwaway pop-rock numbers often sound like the most laboured songs on any album. But, not Showman! Dare I say it sounds a bit like Billy Joel? Is it weird to write a whole “hey, it’s not pompous!” paragraph and then compare the song to Billy Joel’s work?
* The Little Things That Give You Away: Classic #2. It’s funny, when I first heard the song so many months ago when U2 surprisingly busted out a brand new song on the Joshua Tree tour, I liked TLTTYA but literally said “if it’s the best song on the album, that’s probably not a good sign.” Well, now I think it is the best song on the album, and it’s a great sign. I can tell why the band chose this one for the live debut —it’s a great somber, reflection of the album’s dark themes yet it builds into that climax that can only be described as the vintage U2 sound. Within the context of Bono’s yet-unexplained health scare from two years, this song can be summed up as “life is so full of uncertainty, yet ultimately, all we can be is ourselves, U2, and that’s good enough…sometimes.” I’m torn as to whether I prefer the keyboard version on the album to the piano version from the live performances.
* Landlady: Another song that seems like a beefed-up version of an older track, this one “Promenade” from the Unforgettable Fire album. Whereas Promenade was gorgeously incomplete, Landlady feels a bit too overstuffed (Bono could’ve used a word or two fewer in every verse) but it also kind of fits the idea that Bono is just overflowing with love for his wife. The title refers to how Bono’s wife was both literally his landlady in that she paid the bills when they were young so Bono could focus on the band, and also she’s his “land lady” in the sense that she keeps him grounded. I must admit, this is a lovely song and it’s a delightful sentiment, but out of context, that whole explanation strikes me as hilarious. Like the Oscar Wilde sketch from Monty Python, it’s like Bono was put on the spot to explain something nonsensical. “Hey honey, I wrote a song about you, it’s called Landlady!” “Wait, what? Why is that the title?” “Uh…well, you see….um, it’s because…you keep…me…grounded?” “Is there a line in there about me paying the rent?” “For sure.” “You know that the landlady is the one that takes the rent, not pays it, right?” “See, this is why you were in charge of the finances! When I try to handle money, I end up owing back tax in Lithuanian shopping malls.”
* The Blackout: Given how the rest of the album sounds, Blackout really should stand out more than it does as a weird oddball of a track, yet it fits pretty well. I’m not sure I’d put it right here in my ideal SOE track listing, but I’m also not sure where else you can slot it elsewhere. It might be kind of a late wakeup-call kind of number — it’s fun song about being in a band, powerful number about overcoming fear, love song about the wife, and then boom, dance-rock number about how the world’s going to hell. Nobody gets off easy! Another great Adam Clayton bass line here.
* Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way: This is the one that took the most listens for me. At first, it was like “who put this Killers b-side on the U2 album?” and now I find myself humming the chorus and/or the lyric in the bridge about Killiney Bay. Dare I say that this will be the closer for the Experience & Innocence Tour, or will they go with TLTTGYA again? Weirdly, I can also see this song not being played live at all, since I feel it’d be hell on Bono’s voice to do it night after night.
* 13 (There Is A Light): The other good bookend, and I do wonder if I’d like this more as a song unto itself if I’d never heard Song For Someone. 13 drains all of the syrup from the original and just retains its nice melodic spine.
BONUS TRACKS! For the first time in a long while, U2 apparently relegate one of the sessions’ best songs to b-side status, as “Book Of Your Heart” is nothing special. I think it actually was no better than the 14th-best song that U2 came up with during recording. It’s kind of an Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree-type of atmospheric song, so I’m sure some probably love it, though those tracks (the Boomerang II or Deep In The Heart kind of stuff) never did anything for me……I’ve already discussed the Kygo YTBTAM remix and the strings version of Lights Of Home….the SOE tracks seem so well-connected that having Ordinary Love in here really makes it seem out of place. This mix of Ordinary Love is the best of the bunch, though it doesn’t fix the song’s biggest issue, which is that it seems one verse and one bridge short. I get the feeling that U2 really like this track and think of it as something of a missed opportunity, and the Edge will put it through a million mixes until he’s satisfied.
So that’s Songs Of Experience. It was well worth the wait, even if I did have to pay for this one and not get it for free. I was getting used to this whole iTunes sudden release thing!* It’s too early to say where I rank this one within U2’s discography, since the lack of true standout individual tracks may keep it from the top five. But I’m certainly open to hearing an argument for it being #6 at worst, since it is just so deep in quality music. It’s a wonderful artistic statement about mortality and remembrance from a band that is over 40 years deep into its career and is, quite logically, now taking some looks back at themselves.
* = part of me wishes U2 and Apple had released this album into everyone’s iTunes again, just as a complete troll move to bask in everyone’s outrage.
The music, however, is not. It’s easy to criticize U2 for being too open to exploring fresh sounds rather than just rely on their classic chiming guitar rock, though if they did the latter, then The Band That Can’t Win No Matter What They Do would be criticized just as much for repeating themselves. On this album literally all about life experience, U2 touches on their past for song structures or ideas that breathes new life into them. It’d be one thing if they were rehashing their hits (uh, ignore that whole “GOOYOW is like Beautiful Day” thing!) but if you told me that U2 was presenting re-imagined versions of the likes of Volcano, Promenade, Song For Someone, Stand Up Comedy, and maybe even a touch of A Man And A Woman in Summer Of Love…man, that’s just fascinating.
Also, yikes, I’m glad Bono didn’t die two years ago. I kind of don’t want to know any more details about that situation, other than to just be thankful that he’s alive and well. To be clear, this is apparently a separate incident than his infamous Central Park bike accident, which left him “only” badly injured. What a run of bad luck for this poor guy. Beyond his loving family, the iconic music career and the millions of dollars, Bono simply can’t catch a break.