Album: Songs of Experience
Released: December 1st, 2017
Highlights: Get Out of Your Own Way, Summer of Love, Red Flag Day, 13 (There Is a Light)
In their never-ending quest to be perceived as the biggest band in the world, it seems that – somewhere along the way – U2 completely lost the ability to reinvent themselves. Gone are the days when the Irish were able to take weird and productive stylistic turns, such as the one that gave birth to the excellent “Achtung Baby”. And, likewise, ambitions and the passing of time have apparently eroded their ability not to take themselves too seriously. As such, “Songs of Experience” is not different either in spirit or purpose from “No Line on the Horizon” and “Songs of Innocence”, its two immediate and bland predecessors: it is a record clearly written with the purpose of being listened by as many people as possible. Consequently, U2 runs away from production and songwriting choices that have the slightest possibility of throwing the average listener off, settling for what is safe, familiar, and – ultimately – insipid.
Seeing mass appreciation as a starting point for the album, rather than a natural consequence of writing great tunes, causes the band to be stuck in the meandering land of soft adult-oriented rock. “Songs of Experience” is a work where the guitar, drums, and bass are stripped off their power, making the bed on top of which Bono’s voice and lyrics, by all means the stars of the show here, stand feel lifeless. Directing the spotlight towards these two elements is somewhat ambivalent: while it is a move that highlights the fact Bono can still magnificently belt an emotional tune, it also makes the flaws of his lyrics greatly apparent. Throughout the record, and perfectly aligned with the work’s title, he wears the mantle of a wise spokesperson on the hardships of life; however, his pep talks do not carry the revelatory wisdom he seems to think they posses: what he says, as evidenced by the titles of many of the tracks, is quite mundane.
For all the criticism it deserves, “Songs of Experience” is not without qualities. At this point in their career, the members of U2 know a solid melody when they see one, and through the length of the album the melodic hooks are plentiful, both in the poppiest side of the spectrum (“Lights of Home”), in the touching quiet moments (“Love Is All We Have Left”), and when the group rocks out (“American Soul”); all of those moments, however, come with the caveat of occasionally veering towards the cheesy and commonplace. The pieces that are enjoyable without any sort of warning labels are, unfortunately, not numerous: “Summer of Love” is a nice percussive tune with a Caribbean sway to it; “Red Flag Day”, by a large margin the best track of the bunch, could have been written by U2 during the recording sessions of “War”, as it carries the aggressiveness and heart of that period; “Get Out of Your Own Way” blows up into a cathartic chorus (which instrumentally recalls “Beautiful Day”) where The Edge’s guitar, for a moment, puts the band back on its track; and “13 (There Is a Light)” achieves gorgeousness in a non-forced way, a rare achievement for U2 these days.
As a whole, “Songs of Experience” will undoubtedly fulfill the plan U2 held for it when they entered the studio. It is easy to picture how many of the cuts contained within will be the soundtrack to gargantuan stadium concerts that will continue to build upon the band’s mythological aura; its success and sales will keep one of rock’s longest-running institutions away from being at the risk of living the twilight of their career as an act that leans on the distant past for survival. It punctually refreshes the setlist to what will be the greatest concerts of the lives of thousands of people, and keeps the group’s creative juices flowing. At the same time, from an artistic standpoint, it carries little value, because not only is it devoid of unexpected twists, but it is also mostly unremarkable.
Album: The Visitor
Artist: Neil Young and Promise of the Real
Released: December 1st, 2017
Highlights: Almost Always, Change of Heart, Carnival, Forever
With the coming and passing of yet another year, the ever restless Neil Young finds yet another worthy cause around which to construct an album. As such, “The Visitor” marks the fourth time within the past decade the legendary singer-songwriter sits and writes topical tunes in which he wears his still-strong hippie mantle and takes it upon himself to wield his guitar and his pen in an attempt to fix the problems of the planet and rise against those he feels are destroying it. After “Living With War” attacked the Iraq War and the Bush administration, “Fork on the Road” served as an ode to electric cars and an angry letter to the oil industry, and “The Monsanto Years” defied the titular corporate giant and its genetically modified crops, “The Visitor” catches Young aiming his canon of vitriol towards Donald Trump, his anti-immigration policies, and the hurtful hatred found in the speeches of the incumbent president.
Neil Young, himself a Canadian who has adopted the United States as his home since the start of his career some fifty years ago, praises the freedom and prosperity that lured him into the country, and argues the current political scenario of the nation is corroding the ideals that made America great in the first place. It is a worthy message, and one that Neil was unquestionably eager to shout about; so much, in fact, that “The Visitor”, continuing a tradition that has been the norm in the late part of his career, was quickly recorded and cut, coming out one year after his most recent batch of original songs, “Peace Trail”. Due to that, “The Visitor”, at points, feels rushed and not thoroughly developed: there is no subtlety whatsoever to most of the lyrics, emptying them of any poetic value and making the words come off as a straightforward (and punctually cheesy) speech; and some of the tracks, namely the bluesy pair “Diggin’ a Hole” and “When Bad Got Good”, are blatant throwaways both musically and lyrically.
However, where the equally rushed recording pace of “Peace Trail” yielded an album that was devoid of qualities, “The Visitor” hits surprising highs. Its three acoustic numbers are touching: “Almost Always”, which borrows a hook from the classic “Unknown Legend”, reads like a journal where Neil expresses his sadness with the state of his adopted country; “Change of Heart” carries a simple melody and a half-folk-half-country rhythm that make it sound like a track from the wonderful “Comes a Time”; and “Forever”, led by a simple strum, is a ten-minute tune that does not overstay its welcome. On the electric end of the spectrum, the brief “Fly by Night Deal” is rather entertaining not only for its groove and catchy chorus, but also because Neil talks and rants through most of the track; and “Carnival”, with its Spanish guitar and circus vibe, is a rare case when an artist with an extremely lengthy career suddenly finds new unexplored territory and goes on to produce something entirely unique and remarkable.
Everywhere else, however, “The Visitor” is a patchy work. “Already Great”, where Promise of the Real pulls off a solid Crazy Horse imitation, is passable, with its obvious lyrics, weird backing vocals, and awkward protest chants ruining what is a decent instrumental track; and both “Stand Tall” and “Children of Destiny” rank as unbelievably corny, with the latter being one of the worst tracks Neil has ever put put, sounding as if it belongs to a soundtrack of a lousy Disney movie that stumbles upon all possible save-the-world clichés. Consequently, while “The Visitor” is a work whose heart is in the right place and that continues to show the astounding and rare prolificness of a brilliant artist at an old age (a gift that should be treasured by all lovers of rock music), it is also an album that could have benefited from a longer incubation period. The urgent need for its message, though, partially justifies its irregularity and bluntness.
Album: Who Built the Moon?
Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Released: November 24th, 2017
Highlights: Holy Mountain, Black & White Sunshine, The Man Who Built the Moon
Three albums into his post-Oasis career, “Who Built the Moon?” indicates Noel Gallagher has wisely come to grips with the fact the sound he had established alongside his High Flying Birds was in need of a shake-up. The group’s self-titled debut as well as its sequel, “Chasing Yesterday”, were solid records that faltered for being stuck in light mid-tempo rockers, an area that Noel had deeply explored for the good part of two decades whenever Oasis veered away from the bombast of their massive guitar walls. As a consequence, the second leg of his artistic trajectory – albeit falling on the positive side of the rock-star-goes-solo chart – lacked a defining trait, a colorful tinge that would elevate the band from an act that is listened to by many because they are led by a brilliant songwriter that once guided a phenomenon, to a group that has caught the public’s attention because it does, with a good degree of quality, something different.
Truth be told, “Who Built the Moon?” does not quite achieve that goal. It is a big and commendable step in that direction, for it decorates Noel’s songwriting with a great number of effects and musical elements; but it falls short from its target due to one simple characteristic: its occasional lack of inspiration. One of the greatest songwriters of modern rock, Noel – through some borrowing and some creating – has always had an uncanny knack for capturing engaging melodies that are so natural they sound like they have always been part of the fabric of the universe. In “Who Built the Moon?”, though, they are not always there; it is hard to pinpoint whether the punctual absence of hooks is due to a shortage of ideas or a more experimental approach to composing. However the reason, though, “Who Built the Moon?” and its wild and wide palette of instruments and production touches, which lend it an almost psychedelic aura that nods towards hippies and the Summer of Love (a perfect fit for Noel’s signature simple feel-good lyrics), end up being held back by that issue.
When its punches land, “Who Built the Moon?” sounds like one of the greatest works Noel has ever birthed. “Holy Mountain”, with its horns and tin whistle, recalls glam rock, Marc Bolan, and T. Rex; the jangle of “Black & White Sunshine”, the pulsating beat of “She Taught Me How to Fly”, and the marching strum of “If Love Is the Law” pave the way to great choruses; and “The Man Who Built the Moon”, with a dark vibe emitted by a sinister guitar tone and an ominous electric piano, boasts impeccable melodic work. Contrarily, when it does not succeed, it hits some very unremarkable spots: the vocal passage that is meant to be the hook of “Keep on Reaching”, delivered by a choir of backing vocalists that constantly reappear through the record (often to good effect), does not work; the bluesy guitar lick of “Be Careful What You Wish For” is mundane, and it is used to take a song that does not shift its rhythm at all close to the the six-minute mark; the riff and melody of the verses of “It’s a Beautiful World” are dull, and the chorus is as predictable as the song’s title; and the instrumental “Wednesday”, broken up into two equally monotonic parts, does not go anywhere.
As “Fort Knox”, the semi-instrumental that opens the album, announces when it throws all elements of the record at the listener (including an alarm bell), “Who Built the Moon?” is unique within the canon of Noel Gallagher. It is worthy of applause due to how it fearlessly walks away from the production and musicianship style he has employed during much of his life, and about half of its content shows the songwriting gift the more centered of the Gallagher brothers has. The fact it does not come off as a fully realized piece, though, reveals it may end up working as a transitional effort that will eventually lead the band to greener pastures. If that is the case, then, the future looks promising for Noel and his High Flying Birds; for now, though, the results of this still young journey are average.
Album: Meat Is Murder
Artist: The Smiths
Released: February 11th, 1985
Highlights: The Headmaster Ritual, Rusholme Ruffians, I Want the One I Can’t Have, Well I Wonder
Although it was not The Smith’s first record, and despite the fact it had been preceded by a strong album (the band’s self-titled debut), “Meat Is Murder” was quite revelatory to the general public. Like many musical works of the 80s, “The Smiths” had its good songwriting undermined by misguided production techniques: the group’s post-punk aggression – which was veiled by Morrissey’s drama and melody, and Marr’s otherworldly instrumental gift – came off as muffled; the band’s greatness shyly shinning through an overly reverberant soundscape that was not suiting for many of their edgier tunes. Conversely, “Meat Is Murder” marks the first time The Smith’s fantastic sound was successfully captured and translated onto a full-length piece of vinyl, and “The Headmaster Ritual”, which opens the album, is quick to announce that victory: traveling through quiet segments that, guided by Marr’s signature jangle, alternate between lamenting the tyranny of authoritarian teachers and rising to confront it, it culminates in an aggressive riff which serves as a chorus that propels the song forward and back to its verse.
And right there, inside that quiet-and-loud dichotomy whose two extreme spectra are perfectly captured, “Meat Is Murder” declares it contains both sides of The Smiths’ in an immaculate state; and both Morrissey and Marr find a way to rise to the occasion and amplify that quality by considerably polishing their songwriting. When they aim for the looser shade of their nature, The Smiths sound, at least in instrumental terms, as frantic as any punk group: what sets them apart, however, is the orchestral aura Marr’s guitars lend to the songs and Morrissey’s alternation between being tongue-in-cheek and tragic. In “What She Said”, as the group threatens to implode over a vicious circular guitar-and-drum pattern, Morrissey sings of a girl who is eager to meet an early death to escape her misery; meanwhile, in “I Want the One I Can’t Have” and “Nowhere Fast”, whose bouncy fast riffs beg for listeners to move, he – respectively – says that the poor can only find happiness in love and proclaims that, given the utter boredom of his life, he pines to shake it up by dropping his trousers in front of the Queen and exposing his slender means.
On the other hand, when they go for sheer misery, The Smiths sound ominous and disheartening. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” echoes inside a wide space worthy of Joy Division while a haunting slide guitar looms over Morrissey’s sadness like a gliding vulture; and “Well I Wonder”, in which the singer ponders if the one who broke his heart can hear him cry at night and has any knowledge of his existence, is lifted into the air by the gorgeous acoustic strum of what sounds like an orchestra of guitars. Besides evolving, the group also moves forward by dabbling, with productive results, into unusual grounds: “Rusholme Ruffians” borrows from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and uses rockabilly to describe a tragicomic British carnival; and “Barbarism Begins at Home” highlights the power of The Smiths’ rhythm section of Joyce and Rourke by taking a fantastic funk rock groove past the six-minute mark.
The final experimental piece of music that “Meat Is Murder” holds is the closing title track, which in spite of more than one minute of animal grunts and Morrissey’s overly self-righteous lyrics about vegetarianism, is positively sinister in its combination of a dark cyclical guitar and piano pairing, and bizarre sound effects on the track’s background. “Meat Is Murder” is, therefore, a record that is astoundingly consistent in its greatness, displaying considerable growth in terms of songwriting, sound, and variety, and catching one of the finest rock groups of all time close to its peak, which would come right afterwards.