**** (Four stars out of 5)
By Neil McCormick, music critic, The Telegraph
U2's 14th studio album opens with one of the most vulnerable and fragile songs of their 41-year-career. Love Is All We Have Left swells on trembling strings and synths, with Bono's close, cracked vocal blending into digital auto-tune as he conjures a space age lullaby for an impending apocalypse. "This is no time not to be alive," he sings.
It's a short, strange, sparse vignette, its spectral beauty interrupted by a gnarly distorted guitar riff as the veteran band turn on the power, and roll exultantly into Lights of Home, a chunky anthem brushing off near-death experience ("I shouldn't be here cos I should be dead") to reach for the light at the end of the tunnel. "Free yourself to be yourself," choral voices command in a coda purpose built for mass singalongs. This is surely closer to the idea that most listeners have of U2 as an upbeat, inspirational, anthemic rock band. And Songs of Experience is full of such moments: big meaty hooks matched by singalong aphorisms ("Get out of your own way!" "Love is bigger than anything in its way"). But the sound of a man in conflict and crisis also runs through the centre of this highly personal collection of songs, undercutting and ultimately deepening the spirit of can do positivity.
Songs of Experience is a companion to 2014's Songs of Innocence (the one they controversially gave away free on iTunes, whether you wanted it or not). It even reuses some themes. A fantastic throwaway coda from that album's Volcano returns as the hook to anti-Trump political anthem American Soul. Closing track There Is A Light is a tender reworking of Song For Someone, shifting its focus from the singer's wife Ali to their four children, urging them to summon the strength to face uncertain times: "I know the world is done but you don't have to be."
As chief U2 lyricist, Bono has been at his most confessional on these two albums. Innocence was an autobiographical look back at the forces that shaped U2 growing up, its modern pop textures filtered through their new wave rock roots, as if debut album Boy was being revisited through the prism of a grown-up. On Experience, that same Man is in the grips of mid-life crisis, confronting problems in the world and himself. It was conceived by Bono as a series of letters to loved ones, something that you might write if you knew you were going to die. There have been hints of a health scare in recent interviews, although the big surprise to anyone who has known him as long as I have is that he admits to his first real crisis of faith. "Oh Jesus if you're still my friend / What the hell you done for me?" he cries out on Lights of Home. "Sometimes the end is not coming, the end is here," he sings with a tone of shattered bewilderment on existential ballad The Little Things That Give You Away.
U2's familiar optimism is still present on good humoured songs like The Showman and Landlady, but it's undercut by the inescapable impression that this is music made to keep pessimism at bay. Meanwhile personal struggles are made explicitly political on the album's punchiest sequence, where he moves from grappling with America's swing to the right on Get Out of Your Way ("You got to bite back / The face of Liberty's starting to crack / She had a plan until she got smacked in the mouth / And it all went South") to the human cost of Europe's refugee crisis on Summer of Love ("In the rubble of Aleppo / Flowers blooming in the shadows" ).
Musically, though, Experience is perhaps their most old fashioned album, in part because they are no longer so reliant on conjuring science fiction soundscapes to compensate for musical limitations. Adam Clayton's bass playing has never been as nimble, Larry Mullen's drumming never more loosely free-spirited. Even inventive guitarist the Edge seems less reliant on effects, relishing juicy Beatle chords and carefully articulated slide guitar solos. As a lifelong fan, I'm not sure I entirely approve of this development, however. There are harmonic shades of the California soft rock of Fleetwood Mac, while You're The Best thing About Me essays the raunch of the Rolling Stones - the kind of band the young U2 wanted to sweep away but now cite as role models. Jacknife Lee and a whole team of state-of-the-art producers and engineers have been brought on board to lend everything a detailed, dynamic, up-to-date sonic polish but only one track, The Blackout, pushes towards the kind of audacious cyberpunk energy of Achtung Baby. This is a band who are now perhaps over eager to compete on the radio and in the charts with their successors, Coldplay and The Killers, but might be better served following artier trajectories of their own.
But as the title makes plain, Songs of Experience is not the work of young men. It showcases U2 at their most mature and assured, playing songs of passion and purpose, shot through and enlivened with a piercing bolt of desperation. "The showman gives you front row to his heart / Making a spectacle of falling apart," Bono sings with defiant humour on The Showman, and it is this spectacle that makes Experience so compelling. A little battered by time and bloodied by events, U2 remain defiantly unbowed, as determined as ever to make mass market music that really matters.
'Songs of Experience' is released on Friday
© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2017