U2 has been doing what they do for a long time. Now they’ve finally released their follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence with their 14th studio album Songs of Experience.
To be honest, I previewed it online and thought, “Meh!” In those brief excerpts, my first impression was not very favorable, there was nothing that grabbed me, nothing that stood out and said, “You need to listen to this!” But it’s U2! This is the band that has reinvented itself over and over again and I can’t think of a better name for this latest offering of theirs than Songs of Experience.
I remember the Fall of my freshman year of college when Achtung Baby came out. It was a little hard to take at first. It seemed like such a leap from The Joshua Tree that I wasn’t completely convinced. As much as I can be a change junkie, more often than not, I can be a creature of habit who loves the comfort of those warm and familiar things, like a band who knows how to ride a winning formula.
But I listened to it, then I listened to it again, and I kept listening to it over and over again. In fact, between Achtung Baby and Metallica’s black album, the sonic world of my first semester of college was filled. I could have been complete with just those two albums alone (but there was more).
Songs of Experience, like its predecessor was an album that needed repeat listening for me. I wasn’t fully convinced. As I listened, I was reminded of a scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus. The main character has just been told by his wife that she is pregnant. He is imagining all of his dreams drifting out the window with this sudden change in his life. His wife is upset at his less than enthusiastic response to this news. After a moment, he recounts the story of his introduction to John Coltrane after a recommendation from the guy at the record store. After his initial listening, he hated the album, but he listened to it again. Then he listened to it again and again and again until he couldn’t stop. In that moment he realized that he had fallen in love with the music of John Coltrane. He tells his wife that learning about her pregnancy will be like falling in love with John Coltrane all over again.
I kind of feel like this is a similar experience with U2. Listening to this album, I mean really listening to it and digesting it, picking it apart, spending time with it, wallowing in it, and hearing every word and every note. It is like falling in love with U2 all over again.
Bono was involved in a bicycle accident in 2014. After the accident, he embraced the challenge shared by poet, Brendan Kennelly, that if you really want to get to the heart of writing, you need to write as if you’re dead, writing retrospectively and introspectively. When you factor that in with the political landscape after the election of Donald Trump and the consideration that U2 recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of their album The Joshua Tree, Songs of Experience feels almost like an honest and reflective journal entry. This album is an intimate and introspective exploration, asking more questions than offering answers. It doesn’t feel preachy, which I think Bono has been accused of in the past, it feels more like advice offered from the experience of mistakes and even regret.
Like the album cover from their last offering, this one offers a more intimate connection to the band. The cover of their last album, Songs of Innocence, showed the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr., hugging his shirtless son around the waist as if he was pleading with him not to leave his innocence behind. The cover of Songs of Experience depicts Bono’s son and Edge’s daughter (the latter donning the soldier helmet from their Best of 1980-1990 album). They stand there on the cover barefoot, hand in hand, dressed in black. It’s almost a paradox in a picture, the juxtaposition of youth and experience shrouded in black as if they are marking the death of something. Ready for the battle with life that is ahead of them.
– “Love Is All We Have Left” – Bono sings, “Love is all we have left” to begin the album. It acts as a Call to Worship of sorts, inviting the listener into the liturgy of the next hour as U2 engages them with their thoughts on the state of things. The double negative that, “this is no time not to be alive.” Defiance against improbable odds, against death itself, love will carry us.
– “Lights of Home” – “I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead” referring to his bike accident that sidelined him; asking Jesus if he’s still his friend; launches right into this uptown, driving song. “I believe my best days are ahead.” It ends with Bono singing, “Free yourself to be yourself.” A reminder of where we can go to find hope, in the eyes of those we love, there we find the hope to push on. We move forward as we remember where we’ve been.
– “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – Bono makes reference to not only the band’s past album, “Boy,” but also himself as he explains more of the album’s title, saying that he is no longer who he used to be. Paying homage to those around him who have helped him become who he is today, those whom he loves and who have loved him. It’s a humble statement of acknowledgement that we become better by the people with whom we surround ourselves.
– “Get Out of Your Own Way” – Listening to the interview that Bono and The Edge did with Howard Stern, Bono talks about how he wrote this song for his daughter. It’s a love letter from a father who is offering words of wisdom as much to himself as he is to his daughter. He is offering to her from his own experience. The end transitions into “American Soul” with words that play on the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the arrogant, the superstars, the filthy rich. Tongue firmly planted in cheek.
– “American Soul” – “Blessed are the bullies for one day they’ll have to stand up to themselves. Blessed are the liars for the truth can be awkward.” This song continues where the previous one left off with the alternative Beatitudes. Appropriate considering who this song is to: America. This could easily have come from All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Bono says this is a love letter to America who is. “still inventing and reinventing itself.” It feels like he is lamenting what America has become, painting a picture of what it was, at least in his mind. It’s a sound of drum and bass, a though that offers grace, a dream the whole world owns, it’s not a fantasy but a call to action. America is rock and roll. Having lived through the political turmoil in Ireland, this is not just facsimile, this is personal.
– “Summer of Love” – With the subtle nod to the 60s and even The Beach Boys, it seems that Bono is using slight of hand even as he sings, “I’ve been thinking ‘bout the west coast, not the one that everyone knows.” It’s a nod to the Syrian refugees who were leaving everything behind and believing, hoping, that their best days were ahead of them, something Bono wishes for himself elsewhere on this album. “When all is lost we find out what remains.” It feels a little like a sequel to “Walk On” when he sang of all that you can’t leave behind and then proceeded to encourage his listener to leave it behind.
– “Red Flag Day” – This one feels a little like early U2, like Boy and October, especially on the chorus with the backing vocals repeating “Red flag day.” The Edge’s guitar has that post-punk feel to it just like their early stuff. It speaks of the turbulence and uncertainty of where we are going. Meeting where the waves are breaking, that place that feels at one moment calm and safe and the next it knocks you off your feet. But we’re doing it together, we aren’t alone, and we step into it doing our best to not let fear drive us, or our fear of fear hold us back. Inspiring and encouraging himself as much as he is the one to whom he is writing.
– “The Showman (Little More Better)” – What’s it like to get up in front of thousands upon thousands of people and bear your soul? A love letter to anyone who falls for a performer, Bono and U2 included. He admits that you probably shouldn’t listen to performers when they aren’t singing. After all, “I lie for a living, I love to let on but you make it true when you sing along.” It’s cheeky but it’s the audience that makes him look a little more better rather than just a pompous and egotistic artist.
– “The Little Things That Give You Away” – “It’s the little things that give you away, your big mouth in the way.” A confession of sorts, that sometimes I’m full of anger, grieving, far from believing and realizing that the end us not near, it’s here. But he never stays there, it’s only sometimes, it’s temporary, but it happens nonetheless.
– “Landlady” – A love letter to his wife, Ali, Bono writes of how he is better with her. In his effort to avoid too much sentimentality, his terminology may be lost. I’m not sure what wife would like to be called a landlady considering that most people’s experience with landladies (or lords) have probably not been the most favorable. I get what he’s saying though, she’s kept him stable and sheltered, especially in those moments of instability.
– “The Blackout” – As soon as the bass kicks in with the drums in the beginning of this song, it feels almost like you’ve stepped back in time. This one feels like it could have come straight from Pop or Zooropa. It’s a political statement about where we are. With lines like, “Democracy is flat on its back” and, “A big mouth says the people they don’t want to be free” Bono is calling his listeners to adjust their eyes to the darkness, to begin to see. In that adjustment, things become clearer. As Bono writes, “It’s in the dark is where we really see ourselves, where we find out who we are, when we’re left with nothing.”
– “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – It’s safe to say that love seems to be not only one of the biggest topics on this album but in U2’s entire catalogue. Again sharing his own experience with the next generation, assuring them that, “If I could I would come too, but the path is made by you.” These songs are letters to sons and daughters, as Bono admits, telling them to lean into love. Love will propel you, even acting as a bulldozer, strongly moving everything and anything that gets in its way. Idealistic? Yes. Hopeful? Even more so!
– “13 “There Is A Light)” – This is where the regular version of the album ends and it acts as a Benediction, closing the album in a very similar way that it was opened. It completes the liturgy with the admission that it is a song for someone like him. There is hope, you might not see it, but it is there. Things may not turn out the way that you thought they would, but you don’t let the light go out just because you encounter the darkness. Keep pressing on with love because love makes the difference.
The Deluxe Edition:
– “Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)” – This is from the film Mandela: Walk of Freedom. It was a film about a man who showed his ability to endure, to fight, to walk in the ordinary of the day. Mandela showed his ability to walk in this ordinary love, especially having been imprisoned for 27 years. Can you handle the day in and day out of love, the common ordinary occurrences that happen after the honeymoon? Bono asks the question of himself, of those he loves. Are we tough enough? As an extra track, this fits well.
– “Book of Your Heart” – The experience of marriage, moving beyond just the vows and the contract. “There is a cost to the pledges made in young love but in the end the cost is never high enough, is it?” Bono asks. In an age and era where commitment means little, where marriage seems to be as expendable as a commitment to brand loyalty, this offers hope that in the mundane of life, things can still be sustained even if it’s not easy.
– “Lights of Home (St. Peter’s String Version)” – The addition of strings.
– “You’re The Best Thing About Me (U2 VS KYGO)” – Nice remix.
Bono writes towards the end of the liner notes, “I wanted to take my skin off. Performing is always a striptease but in writing you uncover stuff you didn’t know you were wearing.” He continues, “At the far end of experience, through wisdom, we hope to recover innocence.” Here is a man who is self-aware. Listening to the interview with Howard Stern, Bono expresses his dissatisfaction with his singing in some of the best music U2 has had to offer. While some may be sick of the swag with which Bono carries himself, he never seems to come across as self-righteous, at least to me, and these songs reveal a man who has come to a midway point in his life. He is looking behind and looking ahead and sharing his humble gleanings.
After my countless listening of Songs of Experience, I feel more connected to these recordings than I did with my initial listening. Isn’t that the way of relationship, though? We dig intimately deeper into another human being, we expose ourselves, revealing the good with the bad, the beautiful with the raw, and we connect.
In a world where connection seems to be confused with something that we can do digitally, I’m glad that U2 has embraced the idea of pulling songs together with cohesion and intentionality rather than simply seeking out a hit. This is a record that invites multiple listening. As someone who doesn’t always impress or astound in my initial meetings and encounters with people, I’m grateful for the grace of those 2nd and 3rd meetings and encounters. That same grace should be extended to these songs. I don’t think you’ll regret it.