Bono has always recommended smiling through crisis, but the message rings hollow this time.
by David Compa
MechaHitler and HiddleSwift, meet RefuJesus. In one of the passages on U2’s Songs of Experience, during which the band tamps down its cheerful noisemaking and lets some anxiety show for a few measures, Bono breaks the gloom with a yelp: “Will you be our sanctuary / Ref-you-jeez-us!” Wait, who? RefuJesus might be the Statue of Liberty, welcoming the tired and huddled. Or it could be the West as a whole. Or just Jesus. Or, naturally, Bono himself. What’s clear is that the religious and political concerns that have threaded through U2’s career are now getting knotted together more garishly than ever. Never go full portmanteaux. “The problem with rock now,” the singer told The New York Times in September, “is that it’s trying to be cool.” Songs of Experience, U2’s 14th album, is meant to remedy that problem with self-help anthems decked in occasional vocal manipulation and AC/DC riffs. The RefuJesus line clearly shows the band is okay with being laughed at. So does, say, Bono lovingly referring to his wife as a “landlady” who “takes me up in the air.” U2 has, for more than 30 years, been pop’s savviest provider of can-do uplift, but Songs of Experience reaches a new level: reckless cheer. The problem with rock now, for the record, is not that it’s trying to be cool. The genre’s two biggest new commercial successes in recent years, Imagine Dragons and 21 Pilots, certainly don’t play coy in the name of hipness. Rather, they channel U2-style tryhard, whether donning costumes or lumbering across genre lines or groaning with arena oomph. No, what really makes U2 out of step in 2017 is their commitment to uplift. The aforementioned two hit bands emphasize ennui and pain; U2 descendants Coldplay and Arcade Fire have entered hyper-cheeky disco phases. The Irish originals meanwhile put at the front of their songs the happy lessons that usually come at the end of sitcom episodes. Just read the titles: “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out of Your Own Way.” Such stridently insisted-upon joy is meant to be political—as Bono put it to the Times, it’s “defiance” in dark times. 2014’s Songs of Innocence was unusually small-scale