Of all the mortal sins U2 have laid down on record over nearly four decades — lust, wrath, pride (in the name of love) — sincerity might be the only transgression a modern rock fan wouldn’t understand. In an age of hot takes and cold snark, the band’s grand earnestness feels like the artifact of another time, an art lost to nearly everyone save a few fellow statesmen (Mr. Springsteen comes to mind). And it’s all over the group’s 14th studio album, aptly titled Songs of Experience, a record so defiantly full of hard-earned hope and fortitude it seems to blot out the bleaker realities of 2017 through sheer Irish willpower. “Hey, this is no time not to believe,” Bono pleads on the glimmering, expansive opener “Love Is All We Have Left.” (If you doubt his commitment to that particular four-letter word, “Summer of Love,” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” are still to come.) Lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me” spins its soaring chorus into a classic U2 confluence of strummy jangle and tumbling kickdrum, and the electric “Red Flag Day” echoes the thrumming theatrics of ’80s touchstones like “Bullet the Blue Sky,” minus the specter of Reagan-era wrongdoings. The current world intrudes more jaggedly on “American Soul,” with its fuzzed-up guitars and quick, fierce Kendrick Lamar cameo. (It’s also maybe as close as Bono comes to fully acknowledging the darkness, on rueful lines like “There’s a moment in a life where a soul can die/In a person, in a country, when you believe the lie.”)
According to an early press statement, the album’s lyrics were conceived in the form of intimate letters to family and friends, an approach inspired by poet and novelist Brendan Kennelly’s advice to “write as if you’re dead.” Many tracks were also at least partly sprung from sessions for the group’s last record, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, whose deepest faux pas was that it dared to appear free and unbidden in iTunes subscribers’ libraries — oh, the holy outrage of the cloud! — as well as from the globe-spanning Innocence + Experience tour that followed. But they feel colored too by this year’s road revival of what is probably considered the band’s most enduring achievement, 1987’s The Joshua Tree, and whatever memories that may have brought back. All firmly in their mid-50s now and global icons for far longer than they were ever ordinary citizens, the band still somehow manages to sound like four guys giddily messing around in some dank garage on “The Showman (Little More Better),” a salty-sweet mash note with more easy swagger than anything they’ve done in years. “The Little Things That Give You Away” slides in on a yearning, prettily reverbed haze before blooming into slow-motion majesty; a few moments, like the woozy, whomping “The Blackout,” even build a bridge to the disco-decadent mode of 1993’s Zooropa.
It’s an immutable fact that any band as deep into living legend-dom as U2 are will be compared with their past peaks, and almost as inevitable that the current version will be found wanting. There is no “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Where the Streets Have No Name” here; how could there be? But the thread from scrappy Dublin agitators to graying superstars feels as organically drawn as it’s ever been: the enduring alchemy of a band who commit so wholeheartedly to long roads, American souls, and songs strong enough to heal the world that you almost believe in them again too. B+