U2: Songs of Experience, review – more self-reference and sub-boyband anthems

It's not U2's fault that so many bands want to sound like U2. But it's no excuse for reheating old glories, trading on nostalgia and writing crap songs

Besides the obvious irritation of them sanctimoniously carping on about countless good causes while at the same time cosying up to morally dubious world leaders and corporations, not to mention writing songs as howlingly shit as Get On Your Boots, you have to feel a bit sorry for U2. Oh yeah and not forgetting that time when they buddied up with Apple to presumptuously spam 500 million iTunes users with a free copy of their Songs of Innocence album. Nor the fact that Bono’s been outed by the Paradise Papers as having some shall-we-say creative tax arrangements. I could go on.

But seriously, you have to feel a bit sorry for U2, when so many of the other huge-selling artists with whom they now share arenas and stadiums – from Coldplay to Muse, The Killers and countless others in between – have made such wonderful capital out of liberally and unashamedly borrowing from U2. Get Out of Your Own Way, one of the most anthemic songs from the Irish band’s 14th album Songs of Experience, actually sounds like U2 trying to sound like The Killers trying to sound like U2. They’re effectively copying themselves by proxy. It must all get terribly confusing sometimes these days, being in U2.

It sounds like U2 trying to sound like The Killers trying to sound like U2. It must all get terribly confusing sometimes these days, being in U2.

There’s been a conscious policy of delving back into their own past for years now by Bono and the Edge and co, ever since 2000’s 12 million-selling back-to-basics album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But that policy seems to have been ratcheted up of late.

Their widely celebrated tour last summer was a 30th anniversary played-in-full retrospective of their defining album, 1987’s 25 million-selling The Joshua Tree. The cover art for Songs of Experience – depicting Bono’s teenage son Eli and the Edge’s teenage daughter Sian holding hands, shot in trademark moody black and white by U2’s longtime go-to photographer Anton Corbijn – reeks of self-reference both in spirit and in detail. By reheating old glories and cashing in on nostalgia, are they finally tacitly admitting that they’ve got arse-all adventure or imagination left in them any more?

U2 would undoubtedly disagree, and Songs of Experience does endeavor to break new ground in some marginal ways. Towards the end of cinematic opener Love Is All We Have Left, Bono’s voice does a weird electro-R&B style screwy pitch-shifter-y thing that helps enliven another song based around one of his trademark windy statements about love – see all from Pride (In the Name of Love) to Love is Blindness to this album’s Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.

An appearance by probably the world’s currently most on-point rapper Kendrick Lamar on American Soul, meanwhile – repaying the favour after U2 were credited on Lamar’s latest album Damn – is a first true invocation of hip-hop on a U2 track, after years of Bono declaring his admiration of rappers from Kanye West to Jay-Z. But it’s an invocation and no more, so fleeting in the first moments of the song as to be negligible; a brief interruption in your usual scheduled broadcast of musical caution and conservatism.

The sub-boyband quality You’re the Best Thing About Me and Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way are much more typical of this Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder-produced exercise in playing it safe. Songs with the sort of standard-issue get-them-singing-in-the-cheap-seats whoah-oh-oh choruses that could have come off any big arena-busting pop album of the last god knows how long, by anyone from Mumford & Sons to Take That.

You do have to feel a bit sorry for U2, it’s not their fault that their influence is so enormous as to have left them boxed in on all sides. But if they’re determined to resist being regarded purely as a heritage act, not to mention atone for the PR disaster that was their Songs of Innocence iTunes album dump, it’ll require a far gutsier reinvention than this.