Conventional wisdom has it that U2 lost much of their experimental yen around the time of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but accepting that premise would require discounting 2009’s deceptively wooly and mesmerizing No Line on the Horizon, an album with long, multi-part songs that are about as sonically dense and detailed as anything the band recorded during their supposed experimental prime in the 1980s and ’90s.
The reality is that U2’s longing for critical admiration is still at least as strong as their desire to be stadium-filling superstars—and these two impulses continues to influence their work. That’s a dynamic worth considering when it comes to Songs of Experience, an album that serves as a sequel to 2014’s Danger Mouse-produced Songs of Innocence, one of U2’s more musically conservative releases. The new album generally rebalances the scales of the band’s ambitions, resulting in an aesthetically riskier sound.
The album’s ethereal opener, “Love Is All We Have Left,” seems, in its own understated way, as jarring as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” might have sounded in 1983. The song finds Bono in full crooner mode, his dramatic vocal perilously wending its way through a simmering scrum of strings. It’s a proper overture, cresting ever so slightly with its tuneful chorus—and generous helpings of gurgling Auto-Tune—but withholding a bigger, more direct emotional release.
Formally and textually, “Love Is All We Have Left” provides a spare foundation to build on for the rest of Songs of Experience, an album that tries very hard to turn a musically accessible, lyrically universal set of rock anthems into a decisive political statement. It’s an effort that works best when Bono allows his intended reflexivity the space to breathe: Lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” a pleading paean to a love that transcends self-concern, takes on metaphorical—or at least symbolic—heft through the context of its music video, in which New York City becomes the subject of his adoration.
The epic “The Little Things That Give You Away” likewise benefits from a lack of specificity, which, in pop music—especially U2’s—can lead to a cosmic sense of import. Bono dizzyingly accumulates stray missives (“This freedom might cost you your liberty”) and romantically foreboding imagery (“Saw you on the stairs/You didn’t notice I was there”) over a sprawling slow burn that builds to a cascading eruption of guitar—the one moment U2 indulges its most tried-and-true song structure, and one worthy of its forebears in their catalogue.
The rest of Songs of Experience isn’t nearly as canny. A charging suite of tracks at the beginning of the album attempts to thread a broad moral consideration of the origins of our contemporary political hell, with a spoken-word Kendrick Lamar interlude bridging the reflective “Get Out of Your Own Way” and the militant “American Soul.” The former track lets the polemical dimensions of its lyrics inform a more universal theme of accepting one’s own culpability for misfortune but in the form of the kind of gauzy rock ballad that this band has written hundreds of times before. “American Soul” is far more musically galvanizing, featuring a barrage of fuzzed-out guitar riffs and some dynamic tempo shifts, but Bono’s lyrics give up on any sense of subtlety when he bellows, “Will you be my sanctuary?/Refu-Jesus!”
Ironically, the two songs here that less metaphorically reference refugees fare better. “Summer of Love” considers the migrant crisis from the perspective of rubbernecking tourists bearing witness to mass migration, while “Red Flag Day” is a rousing anthem for the displaced. The latter, with its “baby, lets get in the water” refrain presaging a line about “so many lost in the sea last night,” saunters as close to the line of insipidness as U2 has ever put themselves, but Bono sells it as a commitment to aspirational utopianism.
Nearly all the songs on Songs of Experience have moments that fall back on the kind of hammy, solipsistic autobiographical details that made Songs of Innocence such a self-regarding drag. (“Summer of Love,” for instance, was written by Bono in the south of France, where he and the Edge have houses, as a “letter” to the refugees suffering across the water.) But there’s a genuinely compelling effort here to turn explicitly political songs and themes into personal paeans to love and understanding into pop songs. When it works like Bono and company want it to, it’s a reminder as to why U2’s universalism can feel so aesthetically progressive: Their formal synthesis of pop’s immediacy, sociopolitical consciousness, and moral seriousness always holds the potential to adapt and change with the times.