U2 has been the biggest rock band on the planet for almost forty years, a precedence that has never been set before. Usually when rock bands approach even half of that length, they resort to more commercial moves to stay relevant in the evolving music scene, borrowing “newer” techniques like rapping or dubstep, but U2 has always stayed true to themselves, holding title to the last remaining kings of stadium rock.
Their past five years have been interesting so far: their 2014 record Songs of Innocence was forcefully placed onto everyone’s iTunes libraries for free, their career-spanning 20th Anniversary Joshua Tree tour was one of their most impressive to date, and Bono’s activism has taken on the image of the “white savior” more than it ever has before, even by bizarrely granting him the title of Glamour‘s 2016 “Man of the Year” at the Women of the Year Awards.
Bono walks a thin line between activist and self-satisfying egotist—someone who is well intentioned in the causes they choose to shed light on and the people they choose to “save,” but goes about it in a way that ultimately boosts their own image. As George Monbiot of The Guardian wrote in an op-ed entitled “Bono Can’t Help Africans by Stealing Their Voice:”
There is a well-known if dubious story that claims that at a concert in Glasgow Bono began a slow hand-clap. He is supposed to have announced: ‘Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.’ Whereupon someone in the audience shouted: ‘Well f**king stop doing it then.’ It’s good advice, and I wish he’d take it.
Despite adding Songs of Innocence onto everyone’s Apple libraries without their permission, U2 made a great record, though I doubt that most had heard it. U2 has a kind of template to their songwriting and are very secure in their sound—something that has kept them so active and successful throughout the years—which is where Songs of Experience, the supposed second half to Songs of Innocence, breaks new ground for what a U2 album means in 2017.
Songs of Experience has a ton of moments that register as a normal U2 album, but factors such as extensive Ryan Tedder songwriting (OneRepublic, Adele, Kelly Clarkson) and a high focus on the concept of the world coming together for love, throws the record into a new late-U2 category. It’s a style that feels similar to Coldplay’s latest record, pre-Chainsmokers, which works great for Chris Martin but not so much for U2. Bono’s activism has never taken over an entire album like it has here on Songs of Experience, their fourteenth studio album, and it appears like the laziest version of “One” imaginable.
Tracks like “American Soul” sounded great when they were just outro features to Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX.,” but placed under the context of U2’s activism versus Kendrick’s, it feels different when “It’s not a place/This country is to me a sound/Of drum and bass/You close your eyes to look around” is followed by Bono screaming “You and I are Rock N’ Roll!” U2 is a legendary stadium rock band, one that I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see twice, and Bono screaming Rock n’ Roll lyrics into a megaphone while The Edge wails on the guitar will always be an amazing sight (like it was on the latest episode of SNL below), but a privileged Rock musician speaking about the plight of others on a record called Songs of Experience while offering up the solution that love is the simple answer to everything feels a world away from artists dealing with real struggles everyday.
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.