Secret Meeting score: 56
by Philip Moss
U2’s sound is engraved into the populous. The intertwining of Adam Clayton’s rumbling bass and Larry Mullen Jnr’s drums, layered under the tripping, delayed guitar of The Edge is a classic sound. But, unfortunately, this has been barely matched by their song craft on recent outings. 2014’s Songs of Innocence was met with almost universal distain when Apple CEO, Tim Cook, sanctioned the impregnation of the record into every iTunes account in the world. Ever the romantic, Bono adopted Andy Warhol’s philosophy of ‘count the column inches, not what is written in them.’ But, the general consensus from the 500 million who received the free gift was one was of negativity, including U2 fans who deemed the record – the magnificent duet with Lykke Li, The Troubles, aside – to be a bit of a duff. A theme which has become all too frequent over the last decade.
So, much to my surprise, I must report that the opening track – Love is all We Have Left – from U2’s 14th record, Songs From Experience, is beautiful. A hauntingly slow synth, paired with Bono’s hushed, optimistic vocal, builds to a gorgeous vocoder middle eight, where Bono and the gang show their experience and take inspiration from the best of contemporary music, Bon Iver. A subtle change of direction, but one which suits the band and brings them squarely into the new.
However, from here the album descends into misstep after misstep. Red Flag Day is the most throwaway piece of songwriting in Bono’s cannon, as a nothing chorus, lazy melody and unimaginative arrangement peters out into a damp squib. And, sadly a blueprint for the record, The Showman (Little More Better) continues this theme with the pairing of nonsensical lyrics and predictable rhymes.
One song I was looking forward to after the band’s fantastic, tasteful feature on Kendrick Lamar’s, Damn, was the ‘full’ version of XXX, or as it’s known here, American Soul. But, where Lamar’s version feels vital and with its finger firmly on 2017’s pulse, U2’s version is, again, wide of the mark. Lamar takes the song’s centre piece to feature on his track with the rest tumbling into dad rock fodder, with Bono yelping, ‘You are rock n roll!’ over and over and over again.
Nine different producers worked on Songs Of Experience, including some of the most en vogue and widely respected (Paul Epworth – Adele; Ryan Tedder – Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Maroon 5; Jacknife Lee – The Killers, REM, Snow Patrol), but no amount of fairy dust could save this middle of the road collection of tepid songs. Biggest band in the world they may once have been, but on this showing, they’re looking up at the new stars.