Two Weeks with U2’s Songs Of Experience

It’s been about two weeks since U2 released its latest album, Songs Of Experience. Our crew at atu2.com has already published a group album review — something I declined to take part in because the deadline was way too soon for me to have anything intelligent to say about it. I did take part in a spur-of-the-moment podcast about the album on the day of its release, but I wasn’t even sure of song titles at that point!

Here we are a couple weeks later and I’m still really torn on this album. I don’t feel the same as the U2 fans who are touting SOE as U2’s best album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind or even … gasp! … Achtung Baby. But I also don’t feel the same as the folks who’ve dismissed the album as one of U2’s worst, either. I’ve been listening to it a lot, as evidenced by the stats on my Last.fm profile:

(I’m really surprised to see Arcade Fire there, but that’s another blog post for another day….)

As I’ve listened to Songs Of Experience, I’ve been jotting down my mixed feelings in a list of “yays” and a list of “nays.” I was gonna call these lists “loves” and “hates,” but I don’t feel that strongly about any of it just yet, with a couple exceptions that I’ll note below. So with all of that as an introduction, here’s a snapshot of my current thoughts on the album two weeks in.

Yays

1) “Love Is All We Have Left” is a cool opener. It’s not a great song by any means, but it’s not meant to be. It’s different. It sets a unique mood for the album, and I like that about it. It’s not an up-tempo rocker or obvious single like U2’s started with on its last few albums.

2) The piano in “Lights Of Home.” I’ve always wished for more piano in U2 songs.

3) Speaking of which, “Lights Of Home” is gonna be a killer in concert.

4) “You’re The Best Thing About Me” turns out to be a really strong song. I think it’s one of the best on the album, which was about the last thing I would’ve expected when U2 started playing it on the Joshua Tree tour this fall. But it’s really grown on me.

5) Kendrick Lamar’s guest turn in between “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” is awesome. (As is the fact that those songs aren’t billed as “U2 featuring Kendrick Lamar.”) I wish his rap would continue longer into “American Soul.”

6) The callbacks to Songs Of Innocence aren’t as weird as I expected.

7) “Red Flag Day” is gonna kill in concert, and one of my early faves on the album.

8) “The Little Things That Give You Away” is fantastic, arguably the best song on the album. I’m thinking this is a situation where playing it live first made it better for the album, because I didn’t love it during the JT tour this summer. But I do now.

9) I love “Landlady.” This is also arguably the best song on the album, and I’d say it wins that argument right now. The chorus is beautiful, especially the way Bono sings about being “weightless.” I came to terms pretty quickly with the song title, which is a word in our culture that isn’t filled with positive connotations. My goodness … one of their biggest hits uses the name of a pretty serious medical condition (that I happen to suffer from) and they’ve had plenty of dodgy song titles over the years.

Nays

1) The “free yourself to be yourself” ending on “Lights Of Home” seems out of place and unneeded. It feels like they had this cool singalong chorus that calls back to the last album and couldn’t figure out where to put it, so they tacked it on the end of this song. (That said, I often find myself singing it loudly throughout the day.)

2) The “haaahhhaahhhaaahhhh” part in the chorus of “Get Out Of Your Own Way” is in my top 10 least favorite U2 musical moments ever. I’m talking about what you hear at the :26 mark of the song and then again in future chorus repeats (but not the final ones, thankfully). It’s just awful. It sounds like they’re old men in pain. Why not just stick with a regular “ohhhhohhhhhohhhh” or “yeahhhyeahhhyeahhh”? (And then they repeat this awful “haaahhhaahhhaaahhhh” in the chorus of “The Blackout,” which is an unforgivable sin.)

3) I get that Bono is writing a lot of these songs as letters to people around him, saying things he’d say if it was his last chance to talk to them/us. I get that he’s had a “brush with mortality” and all that. But dang … too many of the lyrics make me feel like I’m at a Tony Robbins self-help seminar.

Nothing to stop this being the best day ever

Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you but it’s your fight

It could be too late
But we still gotta try


When all is lost
We find out what remains

Today we can’t afford to be
Afraid of what we fear

(And that’s just in the first half of the album…)

4) “The Blackout” seems like filler, totally unnecessary. It feels like the latest successor to “Vertigo” and “The Miracle” and all of the other straightforward rock songs U2 has done over the past few albums. And the opening verses — with the callouts to Fred, Ned, Jack and Zac — are a huge nay from me. (Then again, as with #1 above, I often find myself singing the song throughout the day.)

5) Same with “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.” So many fans love this song, but I just can’t get into it. In fact, what I’ve done a couple times is uncheck both “The Blackout” and “Love Is Bigger…” so that my listening experience takes me from “Landlady” straight to “13,” and I really prefer that much better.

So there you have it. For now. I think if I were to make another list of Yays and Nays in a month or two, it would be different. And I’m also reminded that Songs Of Innocence didn’t really take off for me until I saw it in concert in Vancouver at the start of the I+E tour. I’m sure the same is possible, maybe even likely, when I hear this album in concert next year.

But for now, Songs Of Experience is an album I mostly like, but don’t love.

6 Responses to Two Weeks with U2’s Songs Of Experience

  1. David Wallace December 18, 2017 at 8:47 am #

    Agree with you that “The Little Things That Give You Away” and “Landlady” are probably the best on the album.

    One thing that has really stood out for me is Adam’s bass playing. It is superb and love many of the things he is doing within the songs. Another thing that stands out is that The Edge is going to have to stay very focused to play these live with all the intricate pieces and alternating effects, something which is much easier to do in studio with multiple takes and overdubs as opposed to having to play them live and perfectly. I have lots of confidence though that he’ll pull it off.

  2. Matt McGee December 22, 2017 at 12:03 am #

    DW — I agree with you 100% about Adam — I think his playing has been outstanding on the last few albums. I’ve really learned to appreciate him much more than I used to. As for Edge, did you catch any clips from the BBC special this week? It sure seemed to me like there were more pre-recorded bits than usual.

  3. Derek January 27, 2018 at 12:00 am #

    Hi Matt,
    Very nice reading your review. I share your views about Red Flag Day, Landlady and Little Things. All top quality. Also agree with you about the opening track.
    For me the ending of Lights of Home turns the song from being a 8/9 out of 10 song into a 10/10 song. It brings the song to another level I think. I usually don’t like when u2 veer away from rock over to pop too much and I call Love is Bigger than Anything in its Way a pop song, but it’s just too darn good for me to care if its pop or rock. I really hope it’s the third single.
    I think The Blackout is the closest thing to Discotheque since….Discotheque itself. I like when U2 are trying something a bit different. My prediction is this will be the opening track on the new tour.
    For me I place this album as u2’s 4th best, behind Actung Baby, Joshua Tree and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Still early days to know for sure. The album POP gets better for me as the years pass, No Line on the Horizon gets worse for me as the years pass although some of the songs are good. This new album has definitely been good for generating discussions.
    Keep up the good work. Derek

  4. Chip January 27, 2018 at 8:12 pm #

    Well, “Landlady” has jumped from my no. 3 spot to no. 2 since the album came out, so maybe it’ll eventually get to no. 1. But “Lights of Home” has been there since first listen and remains there. Even though I also find the “free yourself” section to be the weakest part of the song, recently I began to wonder if in the context of the song it’s meant to be a point of transition into or connection with the eternal rather than just a link to Songs of Innocience. In other words, instead of Bono once again remembering Iris’s words for their own value, maybe her words come back to him because he sees/envisions her in eternity, or perhaps there’s even a connection with the Christian understanding of the beatific vision there. Either alternative, or some other related variation, improves that section of the song for me a little, although I still much prefer what comes beforehand.

    Regarding the Tony Robbins similarities . . . yeah, I’m there with you, but that was true as well of much of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. (Bono had a major scare in the runup to that album as well.) It seems that such events cause Bono to become much more direct in his lyrics, and in that directness he comes close to or starts using self-help cliches. Maybe it’s because I feel like we already saw this tendency before that it bothers me less this time around.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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