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U2’s New Album Is a Study in Forced Optimism

There’s a gritted-teeth quality to ‘Songs of Experience.’ (The jokes are not great, either.)

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Let’s talk about two great U2 songs. As tends to happen with this band in the 21st century, the first one is more than a quarter-century old.

“Acrobat” is buried deep on 1991’s Achtung Baby, a furious anomaly even on the band’s brashest, noisiest record. The mood is near-apocalyptic, the discord as close as stadium rock stars can get to “punk” without embarrassing themselves. Bono’s opening lines: “Don’t believe what you hear / Don’t believe what you see / If you just close your eyes / You can feel the enemy.” The Edge’s seething guitar solo is one of the few that makes no attempt to train its eyes heavenward. U2 sound pissed.

The result sounds so pissed, in fact, that the band has apparently never played “Acrobat” live, for fear of terrorizing the audience. Bono sang a little bit of it once during a 1992 soundcheck in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but that’s about it; he acknowledged this full-scale exclusion but didn’t much offer to explain it during an onstage 2014 fan Q&A in Germany, for which it really helps to know German. (“I mean, ‘Acrobat,’ for sure, I guess,” sniffed the Edge in a Rolling Stone interview early this year, asked about fan favorites that might make future tour set lists. “It was one of those kind of more dramatic pieces from Achtung Baby. But that's interesting. I'll take note of that.”) This song is a ghost, an emblem of the Cormac McCarthian road not taken. I want to live in a universe where it’s the first single from U2’s new album in 2017, heralding a darkest-timeline reboot that intensifies society’s general dystopian mood. The song’s chorus, after all, ends with Bono wailing, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

The second great U2 song we should talk about is called “Get Out of Your Own Way,” from their actual new album, Songs of Experience, which came out Friday. It illustrates the desperately sunny and mostly optimistic road they took instead.

I haven’t loved a new U2 song in ages; the ephemeral 2004 goof “Vertigo” was the last one to come anywhere close. And I feel silly even loving this one, given that “Get Out of Your Own Way” is a hilariously shameless throwback. Its opening flourish—the gentle drum-machine patter, the steady and stately bass line, and Bono’s croon at its suavest and dreamiest—is expressly designed to echo 2000’s “Beautiful Day,” the band’s last bulletproof classic, and itself a sheepish tribute to their soaring Reagan-era glories. But when the chorus hits exactly as you expect, right down to the backing-vocal chorus of ohhhhhs, the effect is overwhelming to a degree you might not expect. “Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside,” Bono wails, and that’s extremely debatable, but the cumulative effect still delivers an impressively large percentage of the uplift he’s promising.

Pretty good song! And just in time. The band spent most of 2017 honoring 1987’s rightfully deified The Joshua Tree with a gala stadium tour: It was quite possibly the best show I saw this year, but nonetheless yet another reminder that U2’s past has almost always been much brighter than their future. Their last album, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, was a feisty but slight tribute to their hardscrabble childhood roots best remembered for the disastrous decision to cram it onto everyone’s iPhones without their consent. Consequence: None of Bono’s lyrics evoked half as much pathos and regret as these step-by-step instructions on how to rid your library of the album entirely.

The Songs of Experience rollout has been practically modest by comparison. (I said by comparison; this new PR campaign includes the phrase, “Alexa, play the U2 Experience.”) But it’s enough that this record will be judged as a piece of music, not a piece of malware. As such, this is not a great U2 record by any means: Its best moments are recycled, its jokes are bad, its attempts at reading the global political mood are clunky, and its insistence on bright-eyed good cheer (from the swoony opener “Love Is All We Have Left” to the likewise debatable “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way”) borders on naivete. You likely won’t believe it, but it’s enough that you’ll want to believe.

The problems are evident throughout, including the deeper you get into “Get Out of Your Own Way” itself. The second verse is unfortunate: “The face of liberty’s starting to crack / She had a plan up until she got smacked in the mouth / And it all went south.” And the song concludes with an awkward verse/sermon from Kendrick Lamar that bleeds into the next track, the awkwardly strutting “American Soul,” which revives and unhelpfully expands upon the “It’s not a place / This country is, to me, a sound” hook that Bono moaned on one of the lousier tracks on Lamar’s Damn.

The other singles aren’t much better: “The Blackout” struts a little less awkwardly (impressively laconic bassist Adam Clayton sounds awake for once), but the second verse proves even more disastrous:

Statues fall
Democracy is flat on its back, Jack
We had it all
And what we had is not coming back, Zach

Elsewhere, there are stilted metaphors (“Landlady”), freewheeling goof-offs that uncharitably evoke the Killers (“The Showman”), and wayward experiments like “Summer of Love,” which attempts the ominous ambiance of “Time of the Season” and sounds awfully wintery. The lyrical theme—expressed far more earnestly than elegantly, in time-honored Bono fashion—is I’m trying to put a brave face on things. “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever,” he sings at the onset of “Love Is All We Have Left,” nearly convinced but mostly unconvincing. “Nothing to keep us from where we should be.”

There is a palpable gritted-teeth quality to all of this. U2 very publicly delayed the release of Songs of Experience so as to better respond to recent world events, from Brexit to Trump, that seemed to emphatically reject the band’s bleeding-heart worldview. (One of the more striking songs they’ve been playing on the Joshua Tree tour is the 1995 extended-universe deep cut “Miss Sarajevo,” with a grimly vivid video backdrop starring a 15-year-old Syrian girl.) But the final result is neither a fiery protest album nor a raging Dark Night of the Soul lament on the order of “Acrobat.”

Instead, Songs of Experience doubles down on willful optimism: a U2 specialty, of course, but the band’s bag of tricks is no longer overflowing, and the best moments here look backward, not forward. Deep into the record, we get “The Little Things Give You Away,” which shares its title with a particularly pessimistic Linkin Park song, and builds to an anthemic-enough coda that both reaches for the stars and cowers in the gutter. “Sometimes the air is so anxious / All my thoughts are so reckless / And all my innocence has died,” Bono sings. “Sometimes I wake at four in the morning / Where all the darkness is swarming / And it covers me in fear.” The Edge’s guitar cranks up, and the volume rises, and we’re building to the sort of triumphant climax on which bands like Coldplay built entire careers. But Bono’s final lines create a dissonance instead: “Sometimes the end is not coming / It’s not coming / The end is here.”

He doesn’t sound convinced, but the effect is still a little too convincing, and might be enough to send you right back to “Get Out of Your Own Way.” Don’t fight that impulse. It’s a great song, and true enough, for now. Right this second, it is a salve even to linger momentarily in the dim light and heat of somebody else’s colossal self-belief. Even Bono’s.