I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of a U2 record that isn’t preceded by a lengthy prologue wrestling with the band’s stature, either in the culture at large or the reviewer’s upbringing or both. They’re the kind of band that provokes not just adulation and irritation but qualification, even from their most ardent fans. I guess when you court importance–and the record release as Event–as Bono and co have done so doggedly these past 30-ish years, you’re kind of setting yourself up for it. Whatever the case, people have baggage when it comes to U2.

Earlier this year David Dark tried to put a finger on what irks so many people about them. He theorized:

“It is as if their urgency is an embarrassment to the rest of us somehow, an indictment to the degree that we have given up on the conspiracy of hope, or worse, consigned ourselves to the realm of naïveté or nostalgia.”

Of course, if the response to the Songs of Innocence iTunes fiasco demonstrates anything, it’s that those aren’t the only reasons to dislike the band. They can be a lot to take. But I think Dark has a point. However much Bono couches his ‘moral alertness’ in irony or self-deprecation, its persistence, audacity, and let’s face it, effectiveness is enough to make a person feel bad about themselves. The largeness is inseparable from the band’s music, which is at this point the archetype for wide-lens rock n roll. To some people, the drama feels false, the ambition offensive, or at least, too much. Or maybe they just don’t like the music itself. Fair enough.

Not me, though. I eat it up. All of it.

Yet I suppose you can’t have a career like theirs without leaving a ton of malcontents in your wake. U2 have been at it so long, and they mean so much to so many, that even those who enjoy their records have a favorite version of the band to which the current iteration will invariably fall short. My personal ‘Dream U2’ is the 90s one, from Achtung through Pop. (I number myself among the fans who were resentful of the Joshua Tree celebration this year because it meant they ignored the 20th anniversary of Pop). Which isn’t to suggest the last decade or so has been a wash. I find myself returning to No Line on the Horizon all the time (if only they’d, er, booted “Get on Your Boots” and kept “Winter”), and one-off singles like “Window in the Skies” and “Invisible” rank as classics in my book.

That said, I keep wanting to like Songs of Innocence more than I do. And it’s not the particularity that bogs that record down–i.e. the admirable if not altogether successful decision to play against their populist strengths–so much as the overworked songs, which by and large lack the humor, mystery, and choruses of vintage U2. Again, sub out “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” for “Crystal Ballroom” and make “The Miracle” an album track rather than a single (no singles – just embrace the smaller scale!) and you might have something sturdier. Alas, they didn’t ask me.

Prologue over. How’s the new record?

Really good, it turns out. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but far from a letdown. The initial singles were thankfully not indicative of the whole, and there’s a string of tunes in the back half that can stand with their best work. It’s also a terrific Advent record.

The opening murmur of “Love Is All We Have Left” sets an elegaic tone. We’re now at the “other end of the telescope”, innocence gone, all that’s left is all that you can’t leave behind. It’s a brilliantly brief opener with a simple melody and some great Bon-Iver-ified falsetto. Drew me in immediately. It leads into “Lights of Home”, the album’s first anthem (I may prefer the orchestral mix), where Bono puts his cards on the table: “I shouldn’t be here cause I should be dead.” He’s referred in interviews to a recent near-death experience that narrowed his lyrical focus for this record to what he most wanted to impart to his children, both genetic (e.g., the cover subjects) and spiritual (you and me). The substance appears to have something to do with light shining in the shadow of death, whether that be the light of heaven, or the “light of the world” (evincing new birth!) or the light of love (family, friends)–he leaves it open to interpretation (though don’t miss the “in your eyes alone” addendum). The Edge makes his guiding presence known with the the first of several gorgeous solos on the album.

Light, and the darkness that always threatens to overcome it, both the external and internal varieties; that’s the great theme of the record and what makes the timing of the release so fortuitous.

Third comes “You’re the Best Thing About Me”, a stab at humorous pop directed at his long-suffering wife Ali and the red herring of a first single. It’s pleasant enough if a little cloying. I prefer the remix, to be honest.

Next we have a quadrilogy of outward-looking songs, presumably the primary ones the band went back into the studio to revise after the 2016 election and Brexit vote. The first two, “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul”, are the latest installments of their “Big America Songs”, never my favorite genre of theirs but I suppose it wouldn’t be a U2 album without them. One suspects the wonderful riff and bridge of “American Soul” would’ve been better served with any other chorus. Kendrick Lamar and the Edge provide the high points, respectively. Plenty of critics have pointed out the prime love-it-or-hate-it Bono-ism that is “Refu-jesus”. I like it, but then again, I’m a true believer.

The second two in this section, “Summer of Love” and “Red Flag Day”, reckon with the Syrian refugee crisis, to my ears in a far more compelling way, not the least because the song-craft is more playful. You could make the case that the imagery, especially in the latter War-like track, is a little clunky, but they more than make up for it with inventive arrangements. “Paradise is a place you can’t see when it’s yours” is a great line too. Bono’s heart for the disenfranchised is an international treasure.

First half is now over, and to clear the palette (and poke a pin in the balloon of global seriousness), we have “The Showman”, a rollicking and revealing meditation on the vocation of rock star. “I got just enough low self esteem to get me where I want to go”, Bono tells us, and the humor he weaves throughout works amazingly well (enough to make you realize how a welcome presence it would’ve been on Songs of Innocence). Little do we know he’s setting the stage, pun intended, for the stellar run of inward-looking epics that dominate the second half of the record.

Indeed, “The Little Things That Give You Away” is the first true classic of Songs of Experience (and I’d argue their first since No Line‘s “Moment of Surrender”), with Bono addressing himself from his deathbed and taking no prisoners. The song builds to a dark-night-of-the-soul coda so sublime it warrants reproducing here, in part:

Sometimes
I wake at four in the morning
When all the darkness is swarming
And it covers me in fear
Sometimes
Full of anger and grieving
So far away from believing
That any sun will reappear
Sometimes
The end is not coming
The end is here

Bono’s distress and doubt cannot be soothed by words. It can only be expressed–and met by one of The Edge’s all-time most glorious guitar climaxes. The uplift rings out like an army of bells, not the result of a truism or platitude. They are conjuring the Spirit, full stop, and they could’ve milked it for much longer (and likely will in concert) but they hold back, perhaps because of the counterpoint that comes next, my personal favorite track on Experience and the highwater mark, grace-wise, the gorgeous “Landlady”.

Not the first time Bono has referred to the Almighty in the feminine and hopefully not the last. (He’s made a career out of mixing the erotic with the divine, e.g. “Mysterious Ways”). But he’s not playing with sex here so much as transcendence and assurance, which is part of what makes it the best song they’ve written about G-O-D since “Original of the Species”. Pretty much every line is worth quoting (“how unswerving our devotion to the lies we know are almost true”). Suffice it to say, if “Little Things” somehow doesn’t shoot you into the stratosphere, “Landlady” will. Plus, another coda for the ages:

Every wave that broke me
Every song that wrote me
Every dawn that woke me
Was to get me home to you, see

They’re not finished with us yet. Not before The Edge’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing” guitar tone bursts out of the speakers and hands “The Blackout” riff to Adam Clayton. We’re back to terror and confusion and “the darkness where we learn to see” the world and ourselves, and maybe, just maybe “the light that we can really be”. The drums are mixed a little low for my taste but again, it works much better as an album track than a single.

The home stretch, another pun intended, begins with their answer to the Good Friday of “The Blackout”, namely the Easter Morning anthem-with-a-capital-A, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”. The contemporary production flourishes have put a few critics off, but my feeling is, if you’re gonna name a song that, it better lift the roof off the club, and this one does. Careful listeners will note that Bono hedges the title slogan with the characteristic admission ,”If I could hear myself when I say…” Like any preacher worth his salt, the man is preaching not just to his children but himself, referencing a love that’s bigger than his own hypocrisy and need and flickering faith. The love of God, dummy.

Speaking of which, the final track and benediction, “13 (There Is A Light)”, calls back not only to Innocence‘s (far inferior) “Song to Someone” but War‘s “40”, taking the thirteenth psalm as its basis and inspiration: “Look on me and answer, Lord my God/ Give light to my eyes”. But before Bono addresses the heavens, he reminds us that “darkness always gathers around the light”.  The song is all bongos and piano, i.e. subdued, a return to the nakedness of the opener. “Experience” hasn’t increased the man but decreased him. Bereft but unburdened, he confesses, “When all you’ve left is leaving/ And all you got is grieving/ And all you know is needing”. For a man with that degree of clarity, only one prayer remains, and it’s a timeless one:

If there is a light we can’t always see
If there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

When the rest of the group join him on vocals for the final chorus, they tellingly drop the “if” at the beginning. This still-small-voice of a proclamation, the polar opposite of stadium grandstanding, is made more beautiful and piercing by virtue of its deathbed humility. The light in question is less like the glitz of a “gold guitar”, thank God, and more like the warm glow that emanates from a manger. The kind that shines on those who can’t and won’t live up to it, not on countries or institutions or bands or ideas but on flesh-and-blood individuals like Paul Hewson.

And me. And you. Amen.