REVIEW: U2 returns to new relevance with sloganeering rock

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U2 has rarely been accused of lack of ambition, from record-breaking tours to headline-grabbing human rights campaigns, yet after four decades together the band inevitably has wondered how to move forward.

If 2017 has been chaotic for the world, the year has given fresh relevance to U2. The group’s first album in three years, “Songs of Experience,” sees Bono and Company returning to U2’s founding faith in rock as a means of inspiration, at a historical moment when many listeners may be better disposed to activism than cynicism.

President Donald Trump’s shadow hovers over much of the album, which comes out Friday after a delay of a year, which U2 said it needed to fine-tune its message after the right-wing tycoon’s shock election victory.

“Don’t take it lying down / You got to bite back / The face of Liberty’s starting to crack,” Bono sings on “Get Out of Your Own Way.”

On “American Soul,” the Irishman longs for the United States as an ideal higher than a messy, divided nation, singing: “It’s not a place / This country to me is a thought that offers grace / For every welcome that is sought.”

Kendrick Lamar, one of the most venerated voices of hip-hop, brings together the two tracks as he flips around the words of the Gospel of Matthew to ironize: “Blessed are the bullies / For one day they will have to stand up to themselves.”

– Flashes of early U2 –

“Songs of Experience,” U2’s 14th studio album, is a companion of sorts to the group’s last album, 2014’s “Songs of Innocence,” the juxtaposed concepts in the titles an allusion to a poetry collection of William Blake.

“Songs of Experience” maintains the confessional approach of the previous album, with Bono, when not taking up the state of the world, reminiscing about his life’s 57 years from his gratitude for support early in his career to his enduring love for his wife.

But if “Songs of Innocence” saw U2 half-heartedly adopting the lighter pop-rock style of bands whom the Dubliners once inspired, “Songs of Experience” carries flashes of U2’s earlier passion, even if few tracks seem destined to join the band’s classics.

“The Blackout,” the first song released off the album, brings the energy of 1980s U2 with Adam Clayton’s bass line pounding the way for The Edge’s heavily distorted guitar.

“The Little Things That Give You Away” and “13 (There is a Light)” show anew U2’s knack for the understated, with The Edge comfortably in the background, while the band stopping short at a return to full-effect ballads.

– No more free album –

U2 also steered clear of the most memorable feature of “Songs of Innocence” — its much maligned format, as a free release on iTunes.

Apple sent out “Songs of Innocence” to iTunes’ half-billion users as part of a promotion, delighting some fans but triggering a flurry of complaints that the band was presumptious in believing the whole world wanted to listen.

Bono still has no shortage of detractors. Weeks before the album’s release, the longtime advocate for international development was among wealthy figures named in the leak of the so-called Paradise Papers showing how he parked money overseas to avoid tax.

There is no indication Bono did anything illegal and he welcomed the transparency. Still, he may find embarrassing, even out-of-context, his line on “Red Flag Day” off the new album, “Paradise is a place you can see when it’s yours.”

But “Songs of Experience” shows U2 thinking large, opening with an unusually futuristic meditation for a band so focused on problems on Earth.

Bono, at once reflective and triumphant, sings: “So many stars / So many ways of seeing / Hey, this is no time not to be alive.”



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