Our planet is on fire, so thank goodness Bono is here to smother the flames with a new collection of cross-stitched pillows that boldly declare, "It's children who teach," and "Free yourself to be yourself," and "When you think you're done, you've just begun." Yes, these are real lyrics from U2's 14th album, "Songs of Experience," which means rock-and-roll's most worldly sage now sounds like a Hallmark copywriter locked inside his doomsday bunker, waiting for the big blammo.
"Songs of Experience" was originally scheduled for release last year, but after the double-whammy of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, U2 decided to retreat, reboot and retool its songs for the brave new world they've always aspired to heal. A year later, Bono has come to the conclusion that we can solve the Earth's most complicated problems with the simplest little thing. Love. Love! It's glorious stuff, that love, but does any sentient human being need to be reminded of its power or importance through another bundle of middling U2 songs? If so, this planet really is doomed.
But if you choose to spend the apocalypse in the company of this perversely optimistic rock album, you'll hear love wafting through the entirety of it, sweet and oppressive, like Cinnabon at the airport. "Love has got to fight for its own existence," Bono sings over the tepid pulse of "Get Out of Your Own Way," positing a basic act of decency as a great act of courage.
Most of U2's failures as an activist rock group radiate outward from that idea. This is a band that would rather comfort its flock than mobilize it — something that felt most apparent at a U2 concert in Maryland last summer where Bono applauded the U.S. lawmakers in the audience for contributing to AIDS relief. "If you're a U.S. taxpayer, you're an AIDS activist," he said to the non-senators in the house. "You should be proud of that." Yes, AIDS relief remains a completely righteous cause, but the subtext of that moment still felt icky. The world's powerful will rescue the world's powerless, so sit back, relax, and just keep loving one another.
In these new songs, Bono is clearly trying to chisel away at the cynicism that has hardened our American hearts, but he needs to give us a teeny-tiny glint of anger if he expects us to believe that he's taking the collapse of civilization as seriously as the rest of us. That's what made "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," and all of those other early U2 mega-anthems burst so beautifully — the breadth of Bono's voice communicated hope, but his latent anger signaled his sincerity. Now, he's chosen to outsource the anger. "I know the rage in you is strong," he sings during "Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way," calling on the young and furious to march alongside him in the love parade.
And where Bono's message sounds thin, the music sounds even thinner. For decades, U2 has proved itself capable of achieving a monumental sound with incredible economy, but here, Adam Clayton's bass is on autopilot, Larry Mullen Jr.'s rhythms have been recycled and the Edge's guitar solos sound like they're being played by one of those Nashville studio musicians who makes a living ripping him off. Rap virtuoso Kendrick Lamar and rock trio Haim show up for separate cameos, bringing youth and celebrity, but nothing to thicken the sound.
So it's the end of the world as we know it, and U2 is making rock-and-roll out of particle board. Throw it on the fire and see what happens.