Self-awareness has never been Bono’s specialty. Even those who unreservedly love U2 can agree the band’s glory days are behind them. Creatively, they haven’t taken a fascinating left turn since the ’90s. Commercially, they haven’t had a proper hit since “Vertigo” was popping off in 2004. The only significant indent they’ve made in pop culture since then is when they inspired a massive backlash by forcing their new album onto everyone’s iPhones in 2014. “You’ve got to get yourself together,” one might advise them. “You’re just stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it.” Yet a few years ago, when my colleague Ryan Leas asked Bono if he’d ever considered forgoing crossover bids and making a daring late-career opus like David Bowie’s Blackstar, the U2 singer sheepishly replied, “I thought we had.”
Although I can’t possibly imagine which 21st century U2 album Bono is referring to, I do believe they have that kind of album in them, if only they’d quit working with radio-friendly Jacknife Lee/Ryan Tedder types and stop psyching themselves out attempting to appeal to some stale and outdated concept of the mainstream. If that never happens, at least we have Casper Clausen. In his songs with Efterklang, the Danish musician’s vocals have sometimes resembled Bono’s tender, weathered croon, but they’ve typically been set against darker, grander, artsier music than anything U2 has served up recently. Efterklang specialize in undefinable grandeur — post-rock, I guess, with a chamber-pop feel? With Liima, a newer project featuring several Efterklang bandmates, Clausen began incorporating the influence of ’80s synth music and post-punk. Most recently, he presented a dystopian retro-futuristic vision on the pointedly titled 1982.
On his debut solo album Better Way, out this Friday, Clausen continues expanding and refining his sonic universe, exploring diverse, largely digital terrain and lending a sense of warm, world-weary humanity to it all with those vocals. In stints between tours, Clausen conceived the album at his riverside Lisbon studio before bringing it to production legend Pete Kember, aka Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom. Better Way sounds nothing like Spacemen 3’s primitivist, static-laden drug rock, and it only bears a passing resemblance to the quirky psychedelia of Kember’s work with MGMT and Panda Bear. It does, however, intersect with the hallucinatory synth soundscapes of Sonic Boom’s own 2020 comeback record All Things Being Equal and the way he steered Beach House’s majestic dream-pop into darkness on 7.
The number of tones, textures, and rhythms Clausen and Kember have conjured here is impressive. These are hearty pop-rock songs at their core, but they seem to exist in dreams or alternate dimensions, layering elements of krautrock, shoegaze, post-punk, and various kinds of electronic dance music in consistently engaging ways. Every track is a distinct neighborhood unto itself, brimming with ideas and sensations. Some are grounded in live instrumentation and speckled with electronics; others feel primarily digital, built from looped samples and programmed beats. At times the music is busy, verging on euphoric, but just as often Clausen eases into the blurry realms between reverie and anxiety. It’s an album that can evoke both Caribou’s exploratory psych and dance tracks and the War On Drugs’ heartland rock mirage, all in search of an emotional truth that can’t quite be expressed by words. Despite the sonic diversity, it all holds together as part of the same palette. Partially that’s thanks to the careful artistry of Better Way‘s creative braintrust, and partially it’s because his voice works as the constant across all these variables.
Put simply, the album often sounds like Bono setting his vocals to a selection of tracks far more adventurous and rewarding than anything U2 have recorded in years. You want to hear Bono singing over a peppy, percolating rhythm that recalls LCD Soundsystem, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and all their favorite Bowie and Kraftwerk records? Opening track “Used To Think” is for you. Bono doing his own version of late-period Radiohead? “Feel It Coming,” coming right up! Bono getting his Bon Iver on? Cue up “Dark Heart.” Paul Hewson blearily emoting over one of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops? Behold “Snow White.” And that’s just the first half. From there Clausen’s voice can be found drifting through space-folk balladry, warm floating shimmers, headspun uptempo electronic rock, and — on closing track “Ocean Wave” — a synthetic dirge about disappearing into the sea.
One way Clausen decidedly does not resemble Bono is his lyrics, which are far more elusive and impressionistic than U2’s on-the-nose statements tend to be. As such, Better Way‘s reflections on love and alienation feel like blank canvasses on which you can imprint the events of your own life, whether he’s lamenting, “Never gonna fix it,” at the bottom of his range, rising into falsetto to announce, “Calling out to the future!” or plainly declaring, “The universe is great!” in his speaking voice. In a statement accompanying the album, Clausen explains, “It’s a record about finding a better way, loving stronger, falling harder. It’s about being far away, and it’s about being myself, how I make music by myself.” That’s all extremely vague, and the vagueness suits these songs. They become a series of moods to get caught up in, and they coalesce into a lovely emotional journey.
Look: All due apologies to Casper Clausen and his longtime fans for hijacking this review with an extended U2 comparison. Clausen has a deep discography at this point and would probably prefer to be his own context. But once you hear the echoes of Bono in the guy’s voice, you can’t unhear them — and anyhow the comparison is intended as flattery. At this point Bono is a deeply underrated singer, textured and soulful, capable of making a gigantic chorus soar and mining deep melancholy out of the darker crevices of his low end. He just hasn’t paired that voice up with any decent music in a long time. Fortunately, disgruntled U2 fans no longer have to keep waiting for the band to create something inspired. There is a Better Way.
Better Way is out 1/8 on City Slang.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Steve Earle & The Dukes’ tribute to Justin Townes Earle, J.T.
• Barry Gibb’s guest-heavy GREENFIELDS: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1.
• Viagra Boys’ Welfare Jazz.
• Morgan Wallen’s double album Dangerous.
• Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales.
• Griselda Records’ CONFLICTED soundtrack.