U2's Songs of Experience - Songs of death and taxes
Following accusations of Bono's 'hypocrisy', U2's 14th studio album gives the band a chance to speak to a hostile world, writes John Meagher
'I shouldn't be here," Bono sings on U2's new album, "cause I should be dead." It's a stark opening line from Songs Of Experience's second track, 'Lights Of Home', and one that will beg more questions about the frontman's unspecified recent "brush with mortality".
It's hardly an exaggeration to say he's been through the wars over the past few years. There was a bicycle accident in New York that necessitated five hours of surgery and the fear he would never play guitar again as well as the kerfuffle over the decision to 'gift' half a billion iTunes customers with their last album, Songs Of Innocence.
And then there was the small matter of Bono's tax avoidance, highlighted in the Paradise Papers. Having to read a Guardian headline "Tax rogues like Bono are harming the world's poorest people" will have caused anguish for a man who is as much defined for his Third World campaign work as he is for his music. Furthermore, he will be under no illusion that many people back home have regarded him and his band in a less favourable light since it was first revealed - 11 years ago - that U2 had moved part of their business from Ireland to the Netherlands to minimise their tax bill. Perfectly legal it may be, but accusations of "hypocrisy" from influential Irish broadsheet columnists will have stung.
This 14th studio album offers him a chance to speak to a hostile world, and the image portrayed is a man wracked with anxiety for himself, his loved ones and the globe at large. "I wake at four in the morning/ When all the darkness is swarming/ And it covers me with fear," he sings on one of the album's best slow-burners, 'The Little Things That Give You Away'.
It's the song U2 chose to finish their triumphant Joshua Tree Tour set at Croke Park this summer and lyrics like "I can't believe my existence/ I see myself at a distance" and "all my innocence has died" offer a compelling snapshot of an album that appears to reflect today's uncertain times.
As with all U2 albums this century, Songs Of Experience did not come easily into the world. Various producers came and went and the election of Donald Trump last November apparently caused Bono to rethink, rework and re-record the songs. A conversation with the veteran poet Brendan Kennelly was pivotal, Bono has claimed, not least when the Kerryman urged him to write from the point of view of one who was deceased. The result is a batch of songs that can be seen as benignly instructional to those, such as his children, who mean most to him. (Incidentally, the album cover features his son, Eli, and Edge's daughter, Sian, and echoes early albums like Boy and War, and also Songs Of Innocence which featured Larry Mullen and his son, Aaron.)
It was an Eamon Dunphy quip about wife Ali being the best thing about Bono that inspired the title of 'You're the Best Thing About Me', the lead single. Relentlessly catchy it may be, but it's the weakest U2 single since the throwaway 'Get On Your Boots' in 2009. But even here, on this love letter to his childhood sweetheart and mother of his four children, he shows vulnerability. "The best things are easy to destroy," he notes, before pondering "why am I walking away?"
Several songs from the album have been made available in advance, including a classic U2 stadium belter ('Get Out Of Your Own Way') and a state-of-the-union anthem, 'American Soul', featuring rapper Kendrick Lamar (right) offering his own, singular take on Christ's Beatitudes.
The superstar of hip-hop is one of several far younger guests who may help make U2 more relevant to a younger audience. Lady Gaga supplies backing vocals on the Aleppo-referencing 'Summer Of Love' while Californian sister band Haim pop up on 'Lights Of Home'.
There is a glut of producers too - including long-term collaborator, pop specialist Ryan Tedder and, most intriguingly of all, Lou Barlow from cult electro-indie outfit, Lamb.
One can sense the band anxiously straining to deliver more hits than previous albums and while a number of songs fulfill that wish, the best tracks are those that unfurl more delicately.
And it's on the second half of the album that the riches are to be found, including the aforementioned 'The Little Things That Give You Away'. 'Landlady' - featuring a trademark Edge guitar and a superlative Bono vocal - is bound to be a future favourite and seems to be about Ali Hewson. "I'm weightless when she is there... when I was broke/ It was you that always paid the rent."
It's hard not to be seduced by the carpe diem, optimistic sentiments of 'Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way' with its beguiling arrangements and sumptuous production. A few listens in and one can visualise the mobile phones held aloft whenever it's played live.
The hymnal final track, 'There is a Light', is a companion piece to 'Song From Somebody' and utilises the same chorus - "If there is a light/ You can't always see/ And there is a world/ We can't always be/ If there is a dark/ Now we shouldn't doubt/ And there is a light/ Don't let it go out." The singer urges us to "guard our innocence" in what's one of the loveliest songs the quartet have ever released.
Songs Of Experience has been billed as a companion album to Songs Of Innocence (both titles are inspired by the poetry of William Blake) but while the 2014 album was rooted in specifics like the death of his mother ('Iris') and adolescence ('Cedarwood Road'), the 13 tracks on this latest offering are more abstract. Some are eminently skippable, but most are bound to hit the mark.
It's an album fans will have little problem in embracing, but those keen to toast the end of U2's relevancy are not going to be able to pop those champagne corks just yet.
Songs Of Experience is released on December 1.