If you approximate my age group, then U2 is essentially your Beatles. I can think of no other musical act that really comes close. At least for me, this statement is true. With the exception of perhaps REM, The Alarm, and the author William Faulkner, no other artistic outlet had more to do with the shaping of my adolescent mind than “the boys,” from Dublin (not Liverpool). In fact, they did more than that. Their music, which at its best is a sort of Celtic-Christian post-punk, actually helped me to survive what were at that time considerable trials, not the least of which was a violent, tyrannical, alcoholic father. Their music also aided in instilling the courage to rebel against his authority, no matter how extreme the consequences.
But as I crossed the bridge into adulthood I found their music did less and less for me. By my mid-twenties I was connecting more with country music than anything rock had to offer (mainly neo-traditional acts like Dwight Yoakum, George Strait and Clint Black).
Listening back, it’s not that everything post-Achtung Baby was really that lacking, but that I was no longer running from my roots. Rather, I embraced them. No matter how many pairs of boots or hats U2 donned on Rattle and Hum, come their reinvention in the mid-nineties, they just didn’t speak to me anymore. Not on a gut level. Sure, there were a few songs that stuck, but the albums, at that time, seemed lacking.
It wasn’t until the release in 2005 of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that the band seemed to be firing on all four pistons again. But then the two subsequent releases, No Line on the Horizon and Songs of Innocence, respectively, they again—from my perspective—returned to what appeared to be uninspired music.
So in late November of last year when satellite radio started to hype the new record, Songs of Experience, I was less than interested. That is, until I listened to a few tracks.
Front man Bono has always been a gifted vocalist and poet. His one flaw, in my opinion, is his tendency towards preaching rather than teaching. In the early days of the band, this distinction was less relevant. Largely because the music, spawned against an age of synthesizers, was so fresh and uplifting. But at his best he is not the politician or the world’s savior (I’m not diminishing the band’s bi-partisan activism in any way. How many celebrities would have dinner with Jesse Helms?), but the romantic at odds with circumstance. And this characteristic is what shines above all on the new album.
On Songs of Experience (the title of which, like its predecessor, is purloined from the poet William Blake), Bono is largely bereft of righteous armor. In fact, he hasn’t been as self-questioning since Achtung Baby, their last great album from over a quarter century ago. In many ways the songs are a sort of love letter to his wife of nearly four decades. A marriage of any kind that can survive that long, let alone endure the trials of fame and fortune, deserves recognition, if not praise. The muse is elusive and often times flippant. With Bono the courtship never ends. This is the essence of survival in all things amorous. Astute in the guiles of metaphor, his love letter to his wife acts as microcosm to the world at large.
Even at its weakest philosophical points SOE prevails. For the record is full of civilizational disillusionment. It doesn’t take a legislative mind to glean that Bono’s crisis is rooted in the West’s present recoiling from globalism, if not the election of Donald Trump. Though this is never stated overtly, it is implied in such songs as, “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “Blackout”. (For those distraught by the accession of The Donald, these songs as well as a few lesser tracks can serve as guide to get up off your ass and quit complaining.)
Then there is “American Soul”, the weakest track on the record. Bono’s belief is that America belongs to the world. Okay. But I find it hypocritical that a man as proudly Irish as he would deprive American citizens of their own sense of nationhood. This foiling of identity for all but the elite is yet another reason for globalism’s decline.
The best cut overall is “The Little Things That Give You Away”. It is here that the self-questioning romantic is at his most vulnerable. Unlike previous records, it is not performed as self-parody, but with plain honesty; the man in the mirror, so to speak.
Musically the album holds nothing new (this is an operatic record). They have their style at this point, much like the Stones have, well…forever. You either like Edge’s playing or you don’t. For those that do, there is stunning guitar throughout.
U2 had the great fortune of producing compelling, original music in the last decade where that was possible. Western popular culture has devolved largely into a series of lowest common denominators. In the early nineties, grunge, although it produced a handful of truly great records, and not withstanding that it was the final chapter of rock, left little legacy. In fact, it proved ultimately to be a cleansing agent to its nemesis, heavy metal (sweeping clean its decadent glamour into the dynamic purity that exists in the genre today).
I give this album five stars, and for abnormal reasons. U2 has survived as the last solvent remnant of rock and roll as an institution. Their ilk will perhaps never come again, at least not in English. And also because they have found a way of preserving, largely on their own terms—the only way it can exist—that increasing rarity of modern life: Artistic Genius.