Has there ever been a band that feels as desperate a need to matter as U2?
The Irish rock superstars, whose 14th album, Songs of Experience, comes out Friday are still wildly successful when it comes to selling concert tickets. Bono and the boys packed Lincoln Financial Field on their Joshua Tree redux tour this year, and they’ll be in South Philadelphia to play the Wells Fargo Center on June 13 and 14.
But filling arenas and stadiums on the basis of a career’s worth of much-loved songs is a qualitatively different achievement from continuing to make new music that speaks to the here and now.
That’s what U2 has so earnestly aimed to do for decades, including in the 1990s, when they smartly positioned themselves as anti-earnest on a series of glitzy albums starting with 1991’s masterwork Achtung, Baby!
Don’t knock them for it. Sure, even his most ardent fans must get sick and tired of the lead singer, the most messianic frontman in the history of rock and roll, whose save-the-world hubris was made manifest in the rollout of the 2014 album Songs of Innocence, which was placed in the music library of iTunes users throughout the world, like it or not.
But it’s that stubborn insistence on keeping pace with the times — and trying to say something serious about them — that has propelled Bono, guitarist Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. into the position of maintaining a mass audience without entirely succumbing to becoming an oldies act. The band finally caved with the Joshua Tree anniversary tour, but until then, the foursome that has been together for 40 years without a lineup change had held nostalgia at bay.
So Songs of Experience (Interscope ** 1/2) has plenty of work to do in hopes of getting the band back on track and making U2 sound relevant in 2017.
The album — which, along with its predecessor, takes its title, with characteristic chutzpah if not insufferable pretension, from a 1789 William Blake poetry collection — has been much delayed.
It was initially scheduled to follow swiftly after Songs of Innocence but was pushed back after that album’s not-terrible music was overshadowed by its botched release. Then Bono suffered a debilitating bike accident in Central Park in 2015, which he sings about on the new album’s “Lights of Home” (“I thought my head was harder than ground”). That song also seems to allude to another as yet not-spoken-about health crisis for the 57-year-old songwriter, who coyly shares: “I shouldn’t be here, ’cause I should be dead.”
And then there’s the matter of Donald Trump. With Songs of Experience all but finished, the music was overtaken by world events. First, Britain retreated from the international stage with the Brexit vote, and then Trump was elected on a build-a-wall platform that’s anathema to Bono’s vision of the United States as a beacon offering hope to the hopeless around the world.
That perspective is put forth on Songs of Experience’s “American Soul,” which features a guest appearance by rapper Kendrick Lamar that’s neither fully integrated nor well thought out. (In fact, the Irish band didn’t seem to know what to do with the Compton emcee’s verse, which is inserted between “American Soul” and the previous track, “Get Out of Your Own Way.”)
“American Soul” itself feels like a pasted-together song, in which the Edge rocks out and the band bangs away at familiar themes with the ham-handed chorus: “You and I are rock and roll, you are rock and roll / We came here looking for American soul.”
But to be fair, the verses also neatly summarize the message of inclusiveness the band aims to get across: “It’s not a place,” Bono sings, “This country is to me a thought that offers grace.”
The premise of Songs of Experience is that the promise of acceptance has been betrayed, and the beacon of light dimmed, if not fully extinguished. As Bono puts it on “Blackout,” one of the album’s strongest tracks, whose wildcat energy evokes the 2004 hit “Vertigo,” it seems that “Democracy is flat on its back, Jack.”
In that grim environment, what is the role of music, of art, and, most important in this case, of U2? The answer, the album that was chiefly produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic (with assistance from many others) suggests, is to provide optimism and inspiration, and to repeatedly revisit the motif of shining a guiding light just when the night is at its darkest.
That concept is first floated on the quiet, maybe too-obvious opener “Love is All We Have Left,” in which Bono’s vocals are mildly AutoTuned. The lyric argues for a carpe diem engagement with rather than a retreat from the world: “This is no time not to be alive.”
Things get uneven from there, however, and recurring imagery suggests the band is short of ideas. “Light of Home” finds the road warrior rock star being pulled back to the comfort of his domicile, and he takes a similar trip in a love song to his wife, Ali, called “Landlady.”
Songs of Experience is autobiographical in content for Bono, and by design it contrasts with Songs of Innocence, which looked back on adolescence and U2’s formative years. The new album falls far short of the band’s best work, but it is more aggressive and energized than its predecessor.
And it has some fun along the way, as Bono cops to the narcissism of the lifelong entertainer in the strutting “The Showman” (who “prays his heartache will chart” and “makes a spectacle of falling apart”) and mocks his big mouth in the agreeably catchy “You’re the Best Thing about Me.”
Songs of Experience rounds to a close by repeating itself. “Love is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” strikes a tender chord as it addresses a younger generation, warning against cynicism. (And, yes, those are Bono’s son Eli and Edge’s daughter Sian on the album cover.)
But U2 has played the unity-will-conquer-all card too many times already for it to resonate fully. With an encore closing anthem as stadium-worthy as “One,” what’s the point of going down that road again and again? And “Love” is followed by yet another track about finding the way out of the darkness, “13 (There is Light.)”
There’s nothing the matter with the song on its own: A wash of keyboards slowly builds in intensity, and Bono’s vocal gains power as he resists oversinging while bucking himself up to not stop believing. It just would be more effective if we didn’t have the sense that we’re experienced it all before.