Inoffensive stadium fillers abound as U2 opt for positivity, love and broad-brush political sentiments
U2: Songs of Experience (Interscope Records) ***
Cindy Wilson: Change (Kill Rock Stars) ***
Bdy_Prts: Fly Invisible Hero (Aggrocat Records) ***
Across a 40-year career, U2 have not been ones for taking a break. Taking stock is another matter though. There was a commercial pause for thought following the 2014 release of Songs of Innocence, which was automatically issued as a free gift to iTunes customers, whether they wanted it or not. Many didn’t.
And then there was a creative pause for thought as the band readied its William Blake-inspired companion piece, Songs of Experience, for release at the end of last year but then chose to reassess the album they were making in response to the election of Donald Trump.
A year down the line and the tweaks have been mainly lyrical, as Bono has looked to the widen the focus of an otherwise personal album, conceived as a series of letters to the people and places which have shaped his life. The result is an album which mainly trades in love and hope, crucial currencies in times of unrest.
The album is bookended by a prayer and a croon; in between, U2 tread safely and sensitively, offering inoffensive sentiments to resonate non-controversially round the stadia they will drop in on on the latest leg of their Experience and Innocence tour.
“I can see the lights in front of me,” sings Bono with a muted gospel melancholy on Lights of Home. “I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy,” he teases on You’re The Best Thing About Me, which slicks on the production, reducing the Edge’s signature guitar sound to an embellishment. Then there’s the offer that “I can help you, but it’s your fight” as he tastefully turns up the politics with broad-brush references to freedom and fighting back on Get Out of Your Own Way, a blandly uplifting track which appears to confirm that U2 and Coldplay are now virtually indistinguishable.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar is a far more incisive socio-political commentator and he straddles this track and the next, the muscular American Soul, with his own Sermon on the Mount – “blessed are the filthy rich because you can only truly own what you give away” – for the consideration of noted tax avoider Bono.
As for U2, they sound most fired up when digging back to their musical roots on Red Flag Day, rocking a cocktail of choppy guitar, reggae-tinged rhythms and strident backing vocals in remembrance of the days when they were not quite so coy about embracing their anthemic credentials.
Cindy Wilson is best known for her gloriously strident call-and-response double act with Kate Pierson in The B-52s but she accesses the softer side of her voice on Change, her appropriately titled debut solo album of breathy electronica, created with a couple of musicians from her native Athens, Georgia. The beatific Sunrise and her dreamy take on US soft rock standard Things I’d Like To Say are typical of its soothing soundscape; Wilson only ups the pace on the indie garage number Brother and saves the new wave handjives for another day.
Having cut their teeth in bands such as Arab Strap, Sparrow & the Workshop and Strike the Colours, Jill O’Sullivan and Jenny Reeve are now the sum of Bdy_Prts, where their complementary earthy and airy tones are set against a moderately quirky electropop backdrop. Their debut album Fly Invisible Hero makes a virtue of this blend of organic harmonies and steely arrangements on synthetic pastoral Breathe, while 45 retools the sound of 70s MOR in less antiseptic style than fellow Fleetwood Mac lovers Haim.
The Wagner Project (Harmonia Mundi) *****
Far from being bleeding chunks of Wagner, a phrase originally coined by the critic Donald Tovey, this selection of character monologues by Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with baritone Matthias Goerne, is a feast of choice cuts. Goerne’s rich expressiveness finds emotional truth in each of the characters he addresses, whether in the deep-rooted humanity of Die Meistersinger’s Hans Sachs, the knowing acceptance of betrayal in King Marke’s 2nd act monologue from Tristan und Isolde, Wotan’s pleasure in greeting Valhalla (Das Rheingold) and vengeful anger in his imprisonment of Brünnhilde (Die Walküre), or other delights from Parsifal, Tannhäuser and Der fliegende Holländer. Goerne is magnificent, but so is Harding’s orchestra, which embraces the sung line in a golden web of intricate and intertwining motifs. These performances get right to the heart of Wagner without ever resorting to overstatement.
Hiromi & Edmar Castaneda: Live in Montreal (Telarc) ****
This unorthodox instrumental pairing sees Japanese pianist Hiromi and Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda pair up for a no-holds-barred performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival. They resemble a couple of impish kids on the cover photo and they sound as if they are having a ball. The timbres of the two instruments intertwine or spark apart, both complimentary and combative. Castaneda channels the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius in his exuberant tribute, Jaco; elsewhere his harp glitters sharply like a kora against full-toned thunder from the piano. Hiromi dwells gently on her ballad Moonlight Sunshine while her impressionistic four-part suite The Elements contains both moments of limpid, Debussy-esque calm and explosive outbursts – its concluding Fire fairly sizzles with Latino energy.
They give John Williams’s Cantina Band from Star Wars a Keystone Cops ragtime run for its money, too. ■