Release Date: Dec 1, 2017
Record label: Interscope
It is nearly business as usual. "Nothing to stop this being the best day ever," Bono declares in "Love Is All We Have Left," at the start of U2's sequel to 2014's Songs of Innocence. But the singer's delivery is striking in its restraint: like cautious prayer or a fragile wish, suspended over the rippled-sea strum of the Edge's guitar and Adam Clayton's bass-guitar gravity.
L ast summer U2 toured the world, triumphantly performing 1987's The Joshua Tree in full for the first time. Bono and the Edge made rather a song and dance about this not being a nostalgic event, but there was little doubt that the shows felt redolent of a lost era, when U2 made their unlikely passage from awkward post-punk also-rans to the biggest band in the world seem weirdly effortless. Of course, hard work was put in along the way, but U2 always gave off the sense that destiny was somehow involved in their ascent, that a grandiose masterplan was working out exactly.
U2 has been battered over these last few years. They are one of the last stratospheric rock stars where the genre has all but vanished from the radio. The Apple fiasco overwhelmed the tunes for Songs of Innocence. Their last album that made a lasting impression on the public came out in 2004. Their ….
Three years on, and I can't help but look back quite fondly on U2's decision to release 2014's Songs of Innocence as a mandatory free download to every iTunes user on the planet. Sure, it smacked of monumental hubris and the backlash against the album's means of distribution became a bigger story than the actual album. But fuck it: even if it felt as technocratic as it did Dionysian, it was pretty much the last great rock'n'roll gesture left to make, at the end of the rock superstar era.
There's not much new musical ground U2 can break and not much new that can be written about one of the most well-known and popular rock bands in history. The band of four has had their ups and downs over a sometimes turbulent career spanning the better part of four decades now. While pushing their distinctive rocking style across genre boundaries and logging a slew of top hits and albums along the way, they certainly have nothing left to prove.
"This is good rock n' roll, uhh…music." Without any intention in the moment, this hilariously simplistic statement about U2 from Adam Scott on the U2-centered podcast he co-hosts with Comedy Bang Bang's Scott Aukerman, U Talkin' U2 To Me? is a surprisingly solid summation of what discussing U2 in 2017 is like. No conversation about U2, regardless of scale (whether it be the wide meta pop culture discussion, or one had with your friend at a bar), are solely about the band's music. Instead, they tend to be about perceptions of the band and their public persona.
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.
In the late 1980s, en route to Memphis on the mission that would be dubiously immortalized by the documentary U2: Rattle and Hum, Bono hitched a ride with a stranger whose car stereo dashed his spirits. The young driver had been listening to Def Leppard's Mutt Lange-produced glam-metal opus Hysteria--and it sounded magnificent. Bono was awed. When at last it dawned on the driver who exactly he'd picked up, he switched out the Def Leppard tape for some vintage U2.
"I shouldn't be here because I should be dead" sings Bono on "Lights of Home," the second track on Songs of Experience, the long-delayed sequel to 2014's Songs of Innocence. It's not merely a turn of phrase. Two months after U2 unleashed Songs of Innocence on the world, Bono injured himself in a bicycle accident so severe he suspected he may never play guitar again.
On a warm Houston night this past May, during a stop on U2's 30th anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree, Bono looked tired. Though the band played a wonderful rendition of one of the best rock albums of the 20th century, there was a sense of resignation. Maybe it had to do with recognizing that it had been 30 years since the band's peak at the top of the world, or that their stage design meant that a large section of the stadium they had sold out on their extravagant 360 tour eight years earlier was left dark and empty behind their massive screen.
The gulf between U2's perennially amazing live shows and their almost obstinately pedestrian albums gets wider every year. A belated and much-reworked companion piece to 2014's Songs Of Innocence, Songs Of Experience was recorded with no less than nine producers plus cameos by Kendrick Lamar and ….
When U2 conspired with Apple to force their last album 'Songs Of Innocence' uninvited onto every phone on the planet in 2014, it was a sign of a band shoulder-deep in their own self-important backsides. Thankfully the backlash has deflated Bono's messianic ego to the point where only people showing a modicum of interest in owning the follow-up album 'Songs Of Experience' will be given it, and mostly for cash. Yes, U2 have made the 'adult' sequel to their semi-autobiographical 'childhood' album, full of platitudes about the comfort of home and the power of love.
In the 2016 mockumentary comedy Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, written by and starring The Lonely Island, a Justin Bieber-style mega buffoon named Conner4Real agrees a ludicrous deal with an electrical appliances company to upload his new album onto their products. The result, to the annoyance of the general public, many of whom are not even fans of his, is that they hear the singer's music every time someone opens a refrigerator door. The scene was clearly a well projected jab, and a very funny one we must add, at U2 and the disastrous release of their much maligned 2014 record, 'Songs Of Innocence'.
U2 have long been obsessed with age and youth simultaneously. Their acceptance of age has led them to their greatest triumphs while their longing for youth, their biggest failures. Boy was the first record by Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry when they each were hardly older than one. In an interview after their underrated but still poorly titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that he could have titled the record—“Man”.
Had U2 not caused a kerfuffle by directly uploading their 2014 album "Songs of Innocence" to the iTunes libraries of the world, it's likely the album would have come and gone without anyone outside the band's core audience really noticing. Instead, the PR stunt backfired spectacularly, coming off as the latest unwelcome symptom of Bono's weapons-grade hubris and resulting in a perfectly fine album getting some of the worst reviews of the Irish arena-rockers' career. The public shaming seems to have chastened the group, who, after three years of promising that the companion album "Songs of Experience" was coming soon, have finally released it to about as little fanfare as a band this huge can manage.