Album reviews: U2 - Songs of Experience, Van Morrison - Versatile, Neil Young - The Visitor, The Rolling Stones - On Air and more

Also: Michael Chapman & Ehud Banai, Alien Stadium and Nitin Sawhney

Andy Gill
Wednesday 29 November 2017 18:06

U2, Songs Of Experience


Download this: You’re The Best Thing About Me; Get Out Of Your Own Way

If 2014’s ill-judged inbox intrusion Songs Of Innocence was titled for its backward glances at U2’s more innocent, formative years tackling the problems and ambitions thrown up by adolescence, then this completion of the Blakean duality surely bears out the jaded weariness inherent in the title. Rarely has a band of such stature sounded quite so enervated and bereft of inspiration as U2 do here, gamely struggling to reconnect with the youthful vitality that roused crowds across the globe, but reduced to hackneyed cheap tricks and tired old truisms barely worth the chords they’re strung on – which are themselves the limpest melodies of their career. There is literally nothing to the bass-driven funk-rock chugger “The Blackout” apart from the bit when Bono sings “Blackout, no fear/So glad that we are all still here”: it’s just something cheaply knocked together to facilitate a simple stadium effect, with all house lights turned off for a moment before blazing back on for the second line. (Cue huge acclaim. Or not, given the song’s blandness.)

Likewise, can you spot the moment in the lumpy rocker “Lights Of Home” when the stage lights get turned on the audience: “Free yourself to be yourself/If only you could see yourself”? It’s chronically underpowered, with possibly The Edge’s dullest guitar break, and Bono blithering on about temptation – such, presumably, being the meaning of the “statue of a gold guitar” glimpsed in the song.

Not that that is the worst lyric featured on Songs Of Experience. Not by some distance. Even the limp – not to mention debatable – claim that “You are rock’n’roll, you and I are rock’n’roll”, in the suck-up anthem “American Soul”, is bested in that category by the extraordinary lines from album opener “Love Is All We Have Left”, where Bono’s voice is nakedly exposed, save for the merest shiver of strings, declaiming “All we have is immortality/Love is all we have left/A baby cries on a doorstep”. Huh? Literally none of these three lines connects with any of the others, so how could it possibly connect with the listener? Then to cap it off, his heavily autotuned voice avers “This is no time not to be alive”. One begs, on this evidence, to differ. And while there’s nothing here quite as maundering as its predecessor’s sub-Coldplay effort “Song For Someone”, neither is there anything with the sheer affirmative brio of that album’s “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”, which is the more telling shortfall.

The songs were mostly written whilst Bono was recuperating from surgery following a bicycle accident, which seems to have served as the intimation of mortality triggering his creativity. Originally planned as a series of “letters” written to his nearest and dearest, the album’s theme was altered to accommodate comments on political upheavals. But neither bit of grit has produced pearls: instead, routine would-be anthems like “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and the assonant pairing of “You’re The Best Thing About Me” and “Get Out Of Your Own Way” simply piggyback on tired old modes, reflecting their former glories in the way that modern glass-box buildings simply serve as mirrors for the more dynamic and beautiful architecture of previous eras.

Van Morrison, Versatile


Download this: Broken Record; I Get A Kick Out Of You; Affirmation; Skye Boat Song

Having served up a sterling R&B covers album a month or two ago with Roll With The Punches, Van Morrison swiftly turns his attentions to his other great love, jazz, for the aptly-titled Versatile. For the most part, it’s a masterclass in jazz phrasing: standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “I Get A Kick Out Of You” are teased gently into new shapes, with no sharp changes, Van’s delivery dancing lightly around the melodies over well-drilled, simpatico arrangements. The only real failure is “Unchained Melody”, which is literally unrecognisable, so much so you wonder what attracted him to the song. But there’s plenty of compensation elsewhere: James Galway lends weightless flute to a version of Jose Feliciano’s “Affirmation” which also features Van scatting “ring-a-ding” like some mystic Frank Sinatra, and the new song “Broken Record” finds him cutely repeating the title, as if the needle’s stuck; and isn’t that Van himself, taking the sax solo on a jaunty instrumental version of the “Skye Boat Song”?

Neil Young, The Visitor


Download this: Already Great; Stand Tall; Fly By Night

Having called for George W Bush’s impeachment on 2006’s Living With War, eleven years (and 17 albums!) later Neil Young turns his attention to a “gameshow host who has to brag and has to boast, while tearing down the things that I hold dear”. There are references to wall-building in “Change Of Heart”; fake news over the fuzz chords of “Stand Tall”; and best of all, a stinging riposte to suggestions of American decline in the affirmative “Already Great”. But as the album proceeds, it frays apart as Neil’s gaze shifts to bombs and babies in the plodding anthem “Children Of Destiny”, and to Mexican fairground fantasy in the ludicrous cod-Santana-style “Carnival”. Despite similarly sluggish, slouchy manner, young backing band Promise Of The Real fall some way short of the full Crazy Horse, trudging rather than imposing a sense of implacable destiny – which is something that the aptly-titled, overlong atavistic fantasy “Forever” could have done with, rather than the lazy swirl of strummed acoustic and congas that carry its sun-baked hippie platitudes.

The Rolling Stones, On Air


Download this: Satisfaction; The Last Time; Around And Around; Down The Road Apiece; You Better Move On

Like the Beatles compilation similarly sourced from BBC spots on programmes like Saturday Club, this collection of early 1960s Stones sessions vibrates with youthful revolutionary fervour – though sadly, there’s none of the witty, whimsical mini-interviews with which the Fabs’ performances were punctuated. Instead, On Air relies solely on razor-sharp R&B, with loose-limbed, lean and rangy covers of Chuck and Bo songs interspersed with early band originals like “Come On” and a chunky “Satisfaction”, Charlie Watts sounding like a marching army on the latter. A wiry, fluid “The Last Time” sounds great, a perfect exposition of their chippy sensuality; while their more restrained manner is best captured on a soulful version of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”. Brian Jones brings spindly slide-guitar charm to Muddy Waters’ emblematic early classic “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, while Keith Richards’ sheer rhythmic panache punches along brilliantly swaggering covers of “Around And Around” and “Sown The Road Apiece”. Remember them this way.

Michael Chapman & Ehud Banai, EB=MC2


Download this: Soulful Lady; Angel; Plain Old Bob; Guitartar; The Mallard

Beauty knows no barriers, as this collaboration between Israeli guitarist Ehud Banai and his hero Michael Chapman demonstrates. The gap between Yorkshire and Galilee shrinks as they tackle songs from all corners of Chapman’s career, from the funky, shuffling version of “Soulful Lady” which opens the album, to more recent pieces like “Sometimes You Just Drive” and the steam-age allegory “The Mallard”, with his weather-beaten voice and tumbling guitar lines further embroidered by Banai’s electric arabesques and occasional keening Middle-Eastern ululations. “Plain Old Bob”, given a mild hoedown flavour on 2015’s Fish, is a delight here, with the classic Chapman descending arpeggios given subtle body by percussion, and upholstered by Banai’s interlacing lines; while elsewhere their union takes more curious forms – “Angel” is Banai’s lyrical adaptation of Chapman’s “Kodak Ghosts”, a lovelorn plaint in two languages, while for “Guitartar”, it’s Chapman’s strumming ingeniously setting the Middle-Eastern rhythm for the tingling tones of Banai’s Tar.

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Alien Stadium, Livin’ In Elizabethan Times


Download this: This One’s For The Humans; The Visitation; The Moon Is Not Your Friend; Titanic Dance

Alien Stadium combines the talents of Primal Scream’s Martin Duffy and Beta Band founder Steve Mason, relocating their sense of musical fun through this mini-album sci-fi fantasy, tracing the conflict between humans and aliens following our call for interplanetary help. Alas, it turns out they’re even more drunk and gun-crazy than we are, and sorely unimpressed by our entreaties. “This One’s For The Humans” sets the droll tone, its alien challenge delivered over an engaging folk-rock stomp streaked with synths like meteor showers; the mood deepens in “The Visitation”, with percolating synth and slap beat fattened by synth horns as Mason receives with wry surprise the aliens’ violent response: it’s not often enough one gets to sing along with a chorus of “Die! Die! Die!”. “The Moon Is Not Your Friend” conjures a breeze of harmonies, synths and harpsichord redolent of Beach Boys whimsy, before the bounding, bass-driven “Titanic Dance” brings full-on acid-house abandon to the theme of dancing to disaster. Great fun, from first to last.

Nitin Sawhney, Live At Ronnie Scott’s


Download this: Homelands; Dark Day; Redshift; The Conference

This latest in the Live At Ronnie Scott’s series may well have been the most challenging to record, involving a precise balance of subtle instrumental and vocal elements that enables Nitin Sawhney’s eclectic, pan-cultural blends to be realised with neither compromise nor disrespect to the various components. Both “Homelands” and “Henrecia Latina”, for instance, find Indian and Flamenco influences in perfect equilibrium, the former’s rhythmic interplay of vocals and darting guitars creating a dazzling bridge between modes. Elsewhere, Sawhney and Eric Appapoulay’s guitars and Aref Durvesh’s tabla are augmented according to needs – a sliding smear of Ian Burdge’s cello on “Dark Day”, undulating lines of Ashwin Srinivasan’s Bansuri flute on the depression reflection “Redshift” – while Eva Stone and Nicki Wells deliver microtonal vocal shifts with easy grace throughout, except for the extraordinary “The Conference”, heralded by a dervish whirl of mostly male voices in a complex five-time skein of staccato syllables.

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