Review: U2 Faces Down Mortality, Reconnects With the Power of Music

The rock icons come to grips with the future – with flashes of their past – on 'Songs of Experience'

U2's 14th album is 'Songs of Experience.' Credit: Anton Corbijn

It is nearly business as usual. "Nothing to stop this being the best day ever," Bono declares in "Love Is All We Have Left," at the start of U2's sequel to 2014's Songs of Innocence. But the singer's delivery is striking in its restraint: like cautious prayer or a fragile wish, suspended over the rippled-sea strum of the Edge's guitar and Adam Clayton's bass-guitar gravity. Bono quickly straps on his bravado in "Lights of Home": "One more push and I'll be born again," he crows, framed by the Edge's skidding-blues licks and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.'s rock-grip twist on hip-hop stride.

You hear near-fatal reckoning too. "I shouldn't be here 'cause I should be dead," Bono admits in that song's first line, alluding to his recent "brush with mortality" (as the Edge put it in a recent interview). If Songs of Innocence was rock's most persistently hopeful band looking back in wonder at its punk-rock origins and unlimited dreaming in late-Seventies Dublin, Songs of Experience is U2 in late-middle age coming to grips with an inevitable reality: They no longer have all the time in the world.

That urgency binds and propels the mosaic jump of Experience: the eerie, hesitant beginning; the sunrise drive of "You're the Best Thing About Me"; the pleading psychedelia of "Summer of Love," set in a devastated Syria. As they did with Innocence, U2 made Experience with multiple producers, including veteran hand Steve Lillywhite. Earlier U2s flash by, like the streaming of a greatest-hits album: the Pop-like contradiction of boogie nights and apocalypse now in "The Blackout"; the echo of The Joshua Tree's shadows and spaces in "The Little Things That Give You Away."

The mounting effect is a charge of dynamic moods and a still-certain mission – the choral-army light of "Get Out of Your Own Way," speared with rusted-blade guitar bravura; the seesaw of punchy-funk riffing and breakneck vocal glory in "Red Flag Day" – set in candid summations of what's been gained, lost and left undone. "American Soul" is a metallic-guitar letter of gratitude to the roots and ideals that drove U2 forward (with a warning-sermon cameo by Kendrick Lamar). Other songs face home and the band's debt to family and fidelity. "I will win and call it losing," Bono pleads through the icy-guitar rain of "Landlady," "if the prize is not for you."

Songs of Experience ends like it opens – in a hush; "13 (There Is a Light)" also circles back to Innocence, reprising the chorus of that LP's "Song for Someone." But where the latter was Bono's wide-open love song to his wife, Ali, "13" renews his commitment to the purpose and sustenance he still finds in music, songwriting and performance. If experience has taught U2 anything, it is that a great new song can still feel like the first day of the rest of your life. Songs of Experience is that innocence renewed.