From the sounds of it, the process of making a U2 album is as laborious as a NASA mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. Ego and ambition and insecurity and technology combine with a near-desperate desire to be relevant, not to mention a quintessentially Irish sense of duty and discipline equaled only by their unimaginable success and wealth. It makes for ludicrously high standards — after all, what’s good enough when the sky is the limit, when money and studio time are no object and anything you want is just a text away? Months in the studio turn into years (five for their previous album) as they rework and remix and reimagine and abandon dozens of songs, working to the verge of self-flagellation trying to make rock music that’s relevant and contemporary and important without coming off like almost-60-year-olds in leather jackets and brand-new Yeezys… even if they are almost-60-year-olds in leather jackets and, okay, maybe not Yeezys but definitely sneakers.
“Songs of Experience” is officially deemed a “companion piece” to 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” — you know, that surprise gift you still can’t delete from your iTunes — and arrives after a gestation that was painful even by U2 standards. The album was finished more than a year ago, but last Nov. 9 the band decided it was out of place in a world with a President Trump in it. While bassist Adam Clayton described the ensuing revisions to Variety as “a little bit of cosmetic surgery,” nine producers are credited, mainly longtime collaborator Jacknife Lee and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder along with seven others, including Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Gorillaz), Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine) and career-long collaborator Steve Lillywhite.
Against those odds — or maybe because of them — “Songs of Experience” is the band’s best since “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” (which won the best album Grammy in 2006) and it’s a remarkable accomplishment for a band in its fifth decade of existence. The unmistakable hallmarks of the U2 sound are there — Bono’s soaring melodies and dog-leg diction (“The Little Things That Give You Away,” “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” are fine successors to “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”), and The Edge’s chiming riffs and the thunderous rhythm section are familiar without lapsing into self-parody. They stretch without going over a cliff: “Lights of Home” has a swampy acoustic groove, “Get Out of Your Own Way” some pulsating electronic percussion and even a cameo from Kendrick Lamar at the end — which, frankly, I was dreading, but is tastefully appended onto the song as a speech rather than an awkwardly integrated rap.
The musicianship is impeccable throughout, although it must be said that The Edge turns in one of the greatest performances of his storied career on “The Little Things That Give You Away.” He drives the song from a gentle beginning to an almost comically melodramatic finale, launching with some trademark clouds of sound —upon closer inspection they turn out to be a densely complicated mesh of chords and echo and rapid notes that sprinkle like rainfall — until four minutes in, when the song bursts wide open and the clouds part and the sun blazes and The Edge climbs onto a windblown mountaintop and (you get the idea). Along with “You’re the Best Thing About Me” and “Love Is Bigger than Anything in Its Way,” it’s a vintage latter-day U2 song along the lines of “Beautiful Day” or “City of Blinding Lights.”
The album sags a bit in the middle but opens and closes strong, and while some of the “contemporary” flourishes hang awkwardly on the band’s sturdy, workmanlike frame (particularly the Tedderesque “hey-yo”s and “woah-oh”s), they sounds much more comfortable in their own skin than on “Innocence” — although honestly, even three years later it’s hard to separate that album from the hubris and schadenfreude of its launch.
But as big and loud and insufferable as U2 can sometimes be, God love ‘em, after all these years and millions and triumphs and pratfalls and embarrassing over-reaches (ahem “Rattle and Hum” cough “Pop” erm “iTunes”), at a time when most of their one-time contemporaries have either given up or should, they’re still stretching, yearning, trying so hard to be great — and you can’t reach for the stars without jumping up and down like an idiot.