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The forgettable fire: U2's 'Songs of Experience' can’t get out of its own way

I wish I could recuse myself. The jury has been tampered with. Impartiality cannot be assumed.

Alas, there's a new U2 album, and I've got to deal with it, despite the fact that so much potentially damning information seeped through the cracks before the case even made it to trial.

Exhibit 1 is Rolling Stone's breathless review of the new "Songs of Experience," and its rush-to-judgement inclusion in the magazine's "Best Albums of 2017" list. Exhibit 2, that same magazine's tawdry history with recent-period U2 – namely, head honcho Jann Wenner's insistence that the band's rather awful  2014 album "Songs of Innocence" be named "Record of the Year" based on his relationship with Bono, as revealed in Joe Hagan's recent book "Sticky Fingers." (According to Hagan, Wenner dismissed his underlings' protestations with a brush-off. “My dictate. By fiat, buddy. That’s that.”)

All of this is infuriating and calls to mind the feeling you get when you realize that money and influence are routinely changing hands in the corridors of power, and that the fix is in.

"Songs of Experience" is not a great U2 album, as it turns out. It has its moments. But they add up to something indistinct, nebulous, uninspiring and, sadly, forgettable. The band is capable of much better work. It's recent "Joshua Tree 30" tour made it clear that there's plenty of gas left in the tank. Bono is in excellent voice. The shaming that resulted from the band's forced drop of their 2014 stinker into the libraries of millions of unwitting iTunes users around the globe has largely subsided. And the world is in a heightened state of crisis – which is a climate that U2 generally responds to with an inspired forcefulness.

So why does "Songs of Experience" sound like a collection of musical clichés? Why do so many songs begin with promise and then waste that promise, come chorus time? Why are there so many chant-along, wordless vocal hooks, several of which sound like something even Coldplay or Arcade Fire would have the wisdom to avoid? Why do I feel like I should be waving my lit-up cell phone in the air while I listen to this thing? What happened to that unforgettable fire? Did it turn out to be forgettable?

"Experience" was meant to be a follow-up to "Innocence," but in the wake of Bono's serious bicycle accident, and the arrival of Brexit, Trump and a seemingly worldwide swing to the political right, the band decided to readdress some material and scrap the rest. This was probably smart. Enlisting the help of no fewer than five producers, none of whom are named Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois, was probably not.

The result is an album that is simultaneously over- and under-cooked. The "live band" element captured by producer Steve Lillywhite lends a primal thump that faintly echoes early U2, but the overdubbed sweetness meant to offer a sheen of modernity to the proceedings sounds, at times, ridiculous, as if your 65 year-old uncle insisted on crashing the keg party in his Kendrick Lamar t-shirt. As soon as you try to be hip, you instantly are not.

Bono performs with U2 during the band's "Joshua Tree" anniversary tour. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Things start promisingly enough with the lilting chord wash backing an earnest, beautiful Bono vocal on "Love Is All We Have left." But then, bam, a heavily auto-tuned Bono arrives, and the magic quickly evaporates in a cloud of self-conscious stink. That stink lingers through "You're the Best Thing About Me" and "Get Out of Your Own Way," tunes that Bono's heartfelt lyrics cannot rescue from the lack of surprise afforded by the melodies and hooks. It's hard to be emotionally engaged as a listener when you know what's going to happen.

Just as your heart is sinking, along comes "American Soul," a reworking of "XXX," the collaboration with Lamar that originally appeared on his s "Damn" album. Here's a little bit of fire, some nice, dirty Adam Clayton bass lines, a welcome break in the rhythm section from the disco and electro-pop grooves that appear repeatedly throughout the rest of the album.

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It's a temporary respite, however. The slickly produced arena-sized pop-optimism that is the album's dominant flavor leaves a cloying, thick after-taste. You just can’t help feel that the whole thing has been cooked to death.

My own biased investment in all of this is impossible to brush off. The truth is, I care deeply about U2, and have since I was a 15 year-old falling hard for the "Boy" album, and commencing a love affair that would crown them my favorite band by the end of the '80s. After a few listens through "Songs of Experience," I pulled out my weathered bootleg cassette tape of a favorite show from the European leg of the band's 1984"Unforgettable Fire" tour, for the sake of comparison. Instantly, I remembered what a fantastic and fiery band U2 was. That the four men managed to retain that fire, intensity, passion and desire to experiment through 2009's "No Line on the Horizon" is remarkable.

However, for the first time in its career, U2 has released two weak, unfocused and over-thought records in a row.

Watching the fire go out has not been pleasant. But it is reasonable to believe that the band might somehow find the spark again, if it heeds the advice proffered by one of its own new songs – "Get out of Your Own Way."

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