Random Thoughts on U2’s “Songs of Experience”

Now that I’ve had a chance to listen to U2’s new album, Songs of Experience, a few times I’ve started to formulate a few thoughts about it. I’m not going to edit this much, just going to blurt out some thoughts and ideas. It’s my blog, I can publish something unpublishable if I want to! 🙂 I am also FULLY aware that I am committing the sin of reading altogether too much autobiography into some of these songs. Read it like this: when I say “Bono” or “Bono’s wife” or whatever, I really mean “the projected character that is the persona depicted in these songs and may or may not precisely map to the life and loves of the actual human being who wrote the words.” There. Also, pretty much every U2 album can be interpreted through political, religious, or personal lenses. I tend towards the personal because I don’t do religion really and if I look too closely at U2’s politics I start to nitpick. So forgive me if I don’t dive into those aspects of this album.

I’ve seen a lot of hype around this album – initial reviews ranged from “U2 is rejuvenated” to “their best album since Achtung Baby.” I can’t quite jump on board the “best since Achtung Baby” train, as I’m the weirdo who actually likes a fair amount of U2’s 21st-century output, but I will say up front that I think SoE is a very good album overall, if a bit sonically disjointed and all over the place. (So. Many. Producers.)

In interviews, various members of U2 have talked a bit about the backstory of this album, including:

  • The album was pretty much finished, and then the political situation in the US (and by extension in the world) went all to hell, and they pulled it back feeling the need to address that in some way. (To me, some of the political stuff feels grafted on. But U2 gonna be U2.)
  • Bono apparently had a serious medical crisis around the end of 2016, on top of the still-relatively-recent bicycle accident that messed him up pretty good. He hasn’t shared the details of this event publicly, but has alluded to the fact that it was indeed serious and caused him to do some looking-into-the-void.
  • Bono has described this album as a series of letters to the people in his life: his wife, his children, U2 fans, himself, etc. I haven’t quite identified who’s being addressed in each letter/song, but I don’t think it’s always necessary to know.

Cover image of "Songs of Experience" album

I haven’t been reading fan forums for the most part, and haven’t read that many of the reviews, so if there are insights here, I’m pretty sure someone else probably had them first. 🙂 So. Some things I’ve noticed, then:

There’s a recurrent mention of “the world” that seems to relate to opposition within a relationship – a conflict of goals or desires between two people, perhaps, one wanting “the world” and the other not interested in that particular flavor of rockstar success and/or political involvement. (We’ve seen this before – “you say you want your story to remain untold” from “All I Want Is You.”)

  • “I wanted the world but you knew better” (Love Is All We Have Left)
  • “When the world is ours, but the world is not your kind of thing” (You’re The Best Thing About Me)
  • “You walked out in the world / like you belong there” (The Little Things That Give You Away)
  • “There is a light we can’t always see / And there is a world we can’t always be” (13 [There Is A Light])

I haven’t fully gotten my head around this “world” business, but it seems really key to the album.

I think many, but not all, of the songs on this album have direct analogues on the earlier Songs of Innocence and I think the cinematic, atmospheric opener “Love Is All We Have Left” is the analogue to “Iris,” which is addressed to the mother Bono lost when he was young. “Iris” starts with “The star that gives us light / has been gone a while” and muses, “Something in your eyes / took a thousand years to get here.” And “Love Is All…” includes the line “Now you’re at the other end of the telescope / Seven billion stars in her eyes.” So is this letter-in-song addressed to Iris? Yes, but I think it’s also addressed to Bono himself, who has said that when his mother died he wanted to throw himself into her grave, go where she’d gone (“if you walk away, walk away, I will follow”) and who, as mentioned earlier, had that recent medical crisis: “Hey, this is no time not to be alive… Don’t close your eyes.”

Speaking of analogue songs, “American Soul” is a pretty direct rewrite of SoI‘s “Volcano” (itself a recycling of “Glastonbury,” which was performed live a few times but never released) – both musically and lyrically. It’s an interesting choice, with the earlier song an exploration of volcanic anger and the newer song a celebration of the defiant American dream. (And can I just say, every time that song gets to the “RefuJesus” part, I think about possible band meetings involving conversation like “look, they’re going to accuse us of being pretentious and too-clever-by-half anyway, we may as well own it” as well as the fact that the fan community is going to include significant factions who roll their eyes in disgust at “RefuJesus” as well as those who are liable to get “RefuJesus” tattooed on their … well, wherever they have space left for it.)

Another SoI/SoE analogue: “Red Flag Day” feels to me (lyrically, if not so much musically, though maybe some music nerd can tell me whether the chord structures bear any relation to one another – I can almost hear a weird mashup of the two in my head, so maybe?) like the resolution of the romantic standoff posed in “Every Breaking Wave.” Both songs use ocean metaphors to describe the fear of taking risks. Where “Every Breaking Wave” has the protagonist chasing the waves but never getting in the water for fear of being “helpless against the tide,” in “Red Flag Day” he invites his beloved with “I, I will meet you where the waves are breaking” and closes with the entreaty “Baby, let’s get in the water.”

The final, and maybe most obvious, analogue song is “13 (There Is A Light)” which is a revision and extension of SoI‘s “Song for Someone.” It’s really lovely, taking the lover’s sentiment from the earlier song and extending it to an idea of love, or compassion, or hope for oneself and for the world. To suggest that this song, in the way it expands upon the simple love song it’s built on, literally poses love as salvation is probably not going too far, given that it’s U2.

Sonically, I think “Lights of Home” is my favorite, with its excellent blues-stompin’ guitar sounds. This one bluntly addresses the medical scare: “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead” as well as “I thought my head was harder than ground” which evokes the bicycle accident for sure. I think this song might be Bono’s letter to God – though of course U2 has always been that band where you never really know if a song is about God, or a woman, or music/the band – near the beginning, he directly questions his relationship to his faith: “Oh Jesus if I’m still your friend / What the hell / What the hell you got for me?” In this song, “the lights of home” seem to be both the first light you see when you’re born (“I can see the lights in front of me / One more push and I’ll be born again”) and the light you supposedly go into as you die. Death as rebirth, and wrestling with whether he’s supposed to – forgive me – go towards the light right now. The “Free yourself to be yourself” ending seems a little tacked-on to me, though I do think it fits here a little better than it did at the end of “Iris” where Bono tried to get it to stick before.

My other favorite is “Summer of Love.” Edge’s guitar here is simple, elegant, and evocative; the vocals, with Lady Gaga doing some background work, are unforced and airy. Images like “The winter doesn’t want you / it haunts you” (Bono’s crisis happened in the winter, remember) and “We’ve one more chance / before the light goes” touch on what it’s like to face mortality. And “I’ve been thinking about the west coast / Not the one that everyone knows” at first seems to evoke the idea of death happening in the west, where the sun sets – but then the mention of “the rubble of Aleppo,” which is near the west coast of Syria, gives the song a whole double meaning. To me, the song seems to talk about how facing one’s own mortality gives one compassion for those facing mortality elsewhere, even as far away as Syria. Since U2 has talked about the refugee crisis (particularly in Syria) a lot over the past few years, it seems natural for them to set this song there. This album does overall have an interesting balance (maybe at times a little forced) of the super-personal and the global-political. I think someone other than me is going to have to untangle those particular threads, though. U2 is always so metaphorical and indirect, plus there’s all the Biblical references that I always miss, so sometimes I kind of give up on interpreting and just sing along. Anyway, this is a gorgeous song. I’d listen to it over and over just for that guitar line.

I do love the vocal on “The Showman (Little More Better)” – you can almost hear Bono trying not to laugh, bouncing and grinning around the room, reveling in his own position as the entertainer who “prays his heartache will chart.” I love the gleefulness in his voice here, and the idea that although the showman is basically a liar and a fraud, he’s redeemed by the audience: “I lie for a living / I love to let on / But you make it true when you sing along.” It’s a sly, though not altogether uncomplicated, little love letter to U2’s audience.

I also love, though I’m not completely sure why, “The Little Things That Give You Away.” The lyrics are at once terribly vague and highly evocative, and it seems to be about a crisis of some sort (life or death, et cetera) and a conflict, perhaps internal, that isn’t resolving – until the end of the song: “Sometimes / the end isn’t coming / it’s not coming / the end is here / sometimes.” Is this about how, when death seems imminent, you know there’s just not time to resolve all the conflicts and you just have to accept them as you accept the oncoming end? I’m not sure. I’m still untangling this one, but it makes me want to keep thinking about it, so I guess that’s success for a song. Interestingly, when this song was performed early in the 2017 Joshua Tree tour, Bono introduced it as the last song on the new album – but it ended up being about 2/3 of the way into the album, nowhere near the last. Maybe because closing a show with it made it clear that it wasn’t emotionally resolved as we’re conditioned to want an album-closer to be? Maybe because the end wasn’t the end after all? Dunno.

“Landlady” is such a lovely, straightforward love letter from Bono to his wife. If you like love songs, you’ll love this one. I would love it more, I think, if I weren’t so fascinated by the inherent power dynamic in the concept of one’s wife being one’s landlady. Power dynamic? The more I think about it the more I’m not sure that’s quite right; before I bought a house I always felt like my landlords had the upper hand, because they could change the rules and decide that next year tenants weren’t allowed to have more than two cats and those of us with three would just have to find somewhere else to live, or they could arbitrarily raise the rent, or whatever. But I can also see how a touring musician would have an … interesting … relationship with the concept of home. Whose home is it really if one of you is gone for months at a stretch? I bet sometimes it feels to him like “she lives here and I just borrow the space sometimes.” Anyway. I get hung up on that silly stuff when I should focus on what a lovely song this is. Next listen I’ll try to remember that!

I have mixed feelings about “The Blackout.” The line “is this an extinction event?” pops into my head every time I read the news lately, though. Did Bono really stick “Jack” and “Zac” at the end of those two lines so he wouldn’t get caught rhyming “back” with “back”? Lazy. But the band sounds great here and it is going to be a fun song to hear live.

“Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – Bono’s letter to his younger self. Experience looking back at innocence with compassion. This one feels timeless. Has the potential to be a real show-stopper live, if Bono is in good voice.

“13 (There Is A Light)” feels, musically, like a bookend to the opening song (for we dinosaurs who still listen to albums straight through), and perhaps a bit of an answer to the questions posed in “Love Is All We Have Left.” I imagine this song closing the main portion of the live show, perhaps with a re-lighting of the giant lightbulb that hung over the stage – and was shattered when innocence was shattered – on the 2015 tour. That would be a nice full-circle moment, because I think with this song, innocence kind of gets reclaimed from the ravages of experience: “I’ve got a question for the child in you / before it leaves.” (And then of course the band would come back and do a few of the big hits in the encore, similar to the format of the last couple of tours.)

The production on many of the songs goes in a slick, contemporary-pop direction. There’s even some Auto-Tune, for crying out loud, something most producers wouldn’t even dream of plastering on top of one of rock’s best vocalists. I’ve seen a couple of reviews that suggest the sound leans a little too far towards Coldplay (trying to sound like the band who grew up trying to sound like you? really, U2?) and there are moments where I can’t disagree. At times the production tries so hard to sound super-contemporary (trying, I suppose, to position U2 as “relevant! not just old people music! honest!”) and this will inevitably leave the album sounding super-dated in a few years. They do know how to create a catchy hook, though. That definitely hasn’t changed.

Anyway, those are some disjointed thoughts and things I noticed about the album. I am looking forward to hearing some of these songs live, and wishing I could manage more than one show – but between the giant kerfuffle of the ticket sales for this tour, and the hike in prices over the last couple tours, I’m afraid one might be my limit. I’m going to St. Louis, and should serendipity strike with an opportunity for the right ticket, I’m not ruling out one of the Chicago shows (inconveniently mid-week as they are).

 

 

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