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U2's 'Songs Of Experience' Is The Reboot The Band Needed

Dec 2, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 7:44 pm

Irish rock band U2 has been plagued with artistic missteps for the past few years. Its 2009 album, No Line On The Horizon, misfired. The next year, lead singer Bono and guitarist The Edge signed up to write a bunch of U2-style tunes for Broadway's Spiderman: Turn On The Dark. Critics called the music "dreadful."

Songs Of Innocence, the band's last album, was its first attempt at a reboot. The 2014 album landed free in every iTunes library on the day it was released — and the move made U2 the target of ridicule. Songs Of Experience, the band's latest and 14th studio album, is its second.

U2 is at its most convincing when it has a mountain to climb. This time, the mountain is of the band's own making and involves erasing a decade of unfavorable impressions.

The band's early hits were marked by fierce idealism — these were true believers on a quest to shatter every status quo. The passion in Bono's lyrics was magnified exponentially by the roar of the rhythm section — particularly a guitar attack that transformed ordinary chords into massive weather systems. The new album returns those elements to the forefront: It's got a lusty, snarly, "band playing live in the garage" energy going.

In interviews, band members acknowledge that the last album was a bit too manicured and preened over. This time, U2 recorded the basic tracks in several different studios, trying to capture a live feeling. The album was ready for release last fall, but then the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election happened. Bono has said he wasn't interested in making political screeds. But he did rewrite some lyrics to reflect the changed landscape, which can be heard in the track "The Blackout."

The band has been together for 40 years now and it's been using pretty much the same musical toolkit and slinging the same self-help slogans about devotion and grace the whole time. A few new tracks could have been slapped together by robots in U2's rock-anthem factory. But for the most part, the reboot works: What came across as pompous and contrived last time now registers as earnest, genuine — and even a little bit scrappy.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

If you use iTunes, you probably remember the last time U2 released an album. It was 2014 when the long-awaited "Songs Of Innocence" landed free in every iTunes library on the day it was released. The move made U2 the target of ridicule. This week, the Irish four-piece returns with "Songs Of Experience." Music reviewer Tom Moon says the band's 14th studio effort is an attempt to make a change.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE THE BEST THING ABOUT ME")

U2: (Singing) You're the best thing about me. I'm the kind of trouble that you enjoy.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Really, U2's creative troubles began before the Apple deal with the 2009 misfire "No Line On The Horizon." Then the next year, lead singer Bono and guitarist The Edge wrote tunes for the ill-fated Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn On The Dark" (ph). Critics called the music dreadful. The "Songs Of Innocence" album was the first attempt at a reboot. This is the second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED FLAG DAY")

U2: (Singing) Today we can't afford to be afraid of what we fear. I, I can feel your body shaking. I, I will meet you where the waves are breaking. Baby, it's a red flag day.

MOON: U2 is at its most convincing when it has a mountain to climb. This time the mountain is of the band's own making. It involves erasing a decade of unfavorable impressions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED FLAG DAY")

U2: (Singing) Baby, it's a red flag day. Baby, let's go a bit further.

MOON: The band's early hits were marked by fierce idealism. These were true believers on a quest to shatter every status quo. The passion in Bono's lyrics was magnified exponentially by the roar of this rhythm section, particularly a guitar attack that transformed ordinary chords into massive weather systems. The new album returns those elements to the forefront. It's got a snarly, band playing live in the garage energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN SOUL")

U2: (Singing) It's not a place. This country is to me a thought that offers grace for every welcome that is sought.

MOON: In interviews, band members acknowledge that the last album is a bit too manicured. This time U2 recorded the basic tracks in several different studios trying to capture a live feeling. The album was ready for release last fall, but then the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump happened. Bono has said he wasn't interested in making political screeds, but he did rewrite some lyrics to reflect the changed landscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BLACKOUT")

U2: (Singing) Statues fall. Democracy is flat on its back, Jack. We had it all...

MOON: This band has been together for 40 years now. It's been using pretty much the same musical toolkit and slinging the same self-help slogans about devotion and grace the whole time. A few new tracks could have been slapped together by robots in U2's anthem rock factory. But for the most part, the reboot works. What came across as pompous and contrived last time now registers as earnest, genuine and even a little bit scrappy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY")

U2: (Singing) I can sing it to you all night, all night. If I could...

MCEVERS: The latest from U2 is called "Songs Of Experience." Our reviewer is Tom Moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.