Friday, December 1, 2017
By what benchmark should we judge the new U2 album? Should we judge it against past glories (Sunday Bloody Sunday etc)? Should we judge it against contemporary pop music? Should we judge it against what other bands with a 40 year career have done? Or should we just judge it on its merits? Or maybe all of the above? I think subconsciously that’s what we all do. We judge it against all of those criteria even if we don’t do that consciously.
Songs of Experience is the companion album to 2014s Songs of Innocence. In many ways they’ve got the titles the wrong way around. Songs of Innocence was autobiographical. The themes were all about first experiences that the band went through, first loves, first heartbreaks, looking back at the world that shaped them – the songs were all looking back. The artistic intent of Songs of Experience is for the songs to act as letters to people closest to Bono. If you could say one thing to them, what would you say? They are letters to his children, to his wife, to his fans and about the state of the world. He followed the advice “write as if you’re dead” and there’s a certain innocence or playfulness to these songs.
That’s all well and good, but if the execution of the overall idea doesn’t meet the intent is the album any good? As I said at the beginning, how do we judge it? On its own merits the songs are good. Very good. The melodies lodge in your brain almost immediately. The modern musical landscape doesn’t allow for songs to be “growers” or for them to reveal themselves over time. Mostly songs need to be instant to gain any traction. And these songs pretty much do that. So against two benchmarks the album gets a solid pass (in itself and compared to contemporary pop).
But how does it compare to their past glories? There are songs that cover the ground from most of their previous work. There is Red Flag Day that could be a cut from the War album, Get Out Of Your Own Way could be from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, The Blackout takes the spirit and the sound from Achtung Baby, Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way is cut from the same cloth as anthemic U2 (i.e. One or With or Without you). Cleverly there are thematic and lyrical links back to the Innocence album (songs such as Lights of Home, Landlady, American Soul and the final track 13 all have lyrical references to the previous album). It also pushes new boundaries (at least for the band). The Showman captures a Beach Boys meets Beatles vibe that the band have never really touched upon. It is very rare for a band 40 years into their career to sound so invigorated. While all the songs have memorable melodies, when you dig a little deeper they do reveal an underlying soul that makes this album a compelling listen.
Perhaps one complaint would be that with every song designed to have instant appeal the one thing that is missing is that there isn't enough of the U2 that produced their most ethereal songs (Bad, Unforgettable Fire, etc). These were songs that didn’t logically hold together by any normal musical measure. The band was compensating for their lack of musical chops by inventing new musical landscapes. Strangely you weren’t really sure if they meant anything. But, conversely, you know exactly how they made you feel. A little more of that could have pushed this album from being good to being great.
Having said that, the topics covered on Songs of Experience almost feel like every preceding U2 album has been in preparation for this one. The ideas from their previous work are refined, distilled here. If they really are the final letters that will be released (which is what they sound like) they pack a lot of punch. They have both a light touch and also they have emotional weight. I think that balance is called ... Experience.
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Depending on your point of view, on Who Built the Moon Noel Gallagher has either disappeared up his own a*se or he has finally made a record that stretches his talent. Let’s face it, Noel Gallagher has been resting on his laurels for years. No. Decades. His last truly indispensable album was released in 1995. Since then he’s been just releasing the same kind of album – pop/rock guitar based songs. But they’ve just felt like lesser versions of his best stuff. Not bad… but really not great. On Who Built the Moon he has finally broken free of the Oasis template and recorded a much promised “Psychedelic” inspired album.
Not surprisingly he’s taken a leaf out of the Beatles playbook, but this time it’s more the summer of love Beatles than the early hungry years. In fact Noel Gallagher calls WBTM “Cosmic Pop” and that’s a pretty great description of the album. The songs from still have the song writing foundations that Noel Gallagher is famous for, but the production takes them to strange and new places (at least for a Gallagher record). There’s the upbeat optimism of lead single Holy Mountain, the almost Hip Hop vibe of Fort Knox, and the (almost) title track sounds like a Bond Theme on LSD or something. Noel has said that he could never have recorded this album in Oasis and you can see what he means. There’s a verse on one of the songs in French for god’s sake! Actually, it sounds like he’s really inspired on the whole album. Admittedly not all of it is top shelf Gallagher, but it is the best thing he’s done in ages.
One of the many things that Noel Gallagher has said (and let’s face it, he’s a bit of a “Rent a Gob”) was that there’s no such thing as music that is “interesting”. Music is either good or bad. I think that on Who Built the Moon Mr Gallagher has managed to do both. He’s made something that is both good and interesting.