U2 Album Review: Songs of Experience
U2 Is Not Guided By The Obvious, And There Is Innocence And Experience On The Journey
Rogério D. F. dos Passos
I understand that pop music has a language different from poetry and other vernacular literatures. In addition, for those who are non-literate in the English language, and who practice a language so complex and marginal in the world, who are additionally often a little divorced from the reality of the population, as are the Portuguese in Brazil, songs in English present themselves and sound in a different logic that is not always easy to understand. It should be added that in the case of U2, Bono was never carried away by the obvious and, in the many possible readings of his strongly intellectualized verses, my perception is frequent that, in spite of his Catholic formation, the singer of the Irish band has accessed the literature of Spiritism for composing and creating some of his subjects, reinforcing the gigantic creative moment that U2 lives. I was able to see the shows of the Joshua Tree 2017 tour at the Morumbi Stadium in São Paulo, and I was amazed by how U2 was happy, having fun at the shows and not caring about the haters, being the north that leads it towards the correct one. U2 has been in my routine for at least thirty-five years. I always listen to the band and I think about it all the time. These reflections, therefore, are emotional and numerous. The spiritual link is very strong. And, behold, the experience with this album could not fail to be intense.
Having made these initial observations and leaving the question of my feelings of interpretation and relationship of U2 with Spiritism aside, I see, feel and hear an album that is paradoxical to the moment of happiness that the band demonstrates to live in, and predominantly emanates sadness. In addition, the ethereal atmosphere contained in the opening song – “Love Is All We Have Left” – evokes one of the great artistic missions of the group, embodied in love as the foundation of individual and global construction.
In a big way U2 demonstrates being able to maintain itself as a success factory, bringing “Lights of Home” as a song of potential repercussion, in line with The Edge’s great guitar riff, even assuming a bias to the British in sound, so important in the influences that built the band. The same goes for “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” also showing great performances by Larry Mullen on drums, Adam Clayton on bass and The Edge himself, who very beautifully contributes vocals in the final stanzas.
“Get Out of Your Own Way” seems to take some of the proposals from the previous album “Songs of Innocence” (2014), merging the ideals that forged America with the lives of all fans, suggesting the need for self-esteem, love of neighbor and tolerance as elements necessary to survive in the present day. Kendrick Lamar’s vocal participation in the song contributes to this message.
This climate, however, ends in “American Soul,” a practical continuation of the previous musical line because of the speech of Lamar, where one does not see so much “harmony” due to the possible references to the American political moment, where the images are rescued (or metaphors?) of “John” and “Lincoln” (exposed in the previous song). In this message, the heavy sound of The Edge, demonstrating U2’s resumption of musical themes of yesteryear, such as what we saw in the song “The Flowering Rose of Glastonbury,” played throughout the 360º Tour (2009-2011), and in “Volcano,” of the setlist of “Songs of Innocence.”
“Summer of Love” has an unprecedented atmosphere for U2, showing the band’s courage and ability to reinvent itself in every album. The sound environment created could even suggest a love song set in the waters of southern France – where The Edge and Bono frequent – but does not hide the political vein by bringing to the surface the tragedy of the Syrian civil war and the city of Aleppo, one of the most beautiful that the country now destroyed has already possessed. The political memory of U2 has never left geopolitical issues aside, and this song demonstrates the band’s uneasiness at the scenes of death, disrespect for human rights and destruction seen in that region of Western Asia.
“Red Flag Day” is another song in which the sonority and lyrics developed by U2 surprise. Now a pledge of peace is conceived, now a request for a truce between lovers who wish to return to the freshness of youth at the height of the bitterness of present experience. The use of metaphors related to nature contributes to the visualization of this image. Likewise the guitar of The Edge does not sound toward the obvious, revealing great artistic maturity of the “brain of U2.”
In “The Showman (Little More Better)” there is again a British bias in the sound of U2, supposedly portraying some concerns of the past related to the conquest of love and self-esteem. The band seems to have a lot of fun in the song, and here, suggesting happiness to the fans, dissociates from the rest of the album.
“The Little Things That Give You Away” is the song of greatest impact, especially for bringing the passionate character so present in the themes developed by U2. Now it seems to enunciate the end of something, now the beginning of a new era, based on anguish and suffering, in which uncertainty seems to be the guiding light, as well as emphasized in the classic “Zooropa.” Well accompanied by the band, the guitar of The Edge sounds visceral, in a evolution so beautiful that I was suggested by other listeners of “Songs of Experience” that the brain of U2 has unlikely four features of delay.
In “Landlady,” there seems to be exaltation of spirituality or proclamation of love to someone. Larry Mullen Jr. plays very well in the song, demonstrating why he is one of the world’s best on drums. The production is great, and coupled with Bono’s insight and nostalgia, could well be on the setlist of “Songs of Innocence.”
“The Blackout” suggests new political references, bringing the message that darkness can become a productive moment for the reestablishment of light. Bono plays with words and rhymes, verbi gratia “Ned”, “Jack” and “Zack.” The sound is great, at times remembering the album “Achtung Baby” and, in particular, the song “Zoo Station.” Adam Clayton marks the rhythm well and competently unites the different melodic constructions that materialize the song.
Love and hate are portrayed in “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” bringing flashes of present and past, of innocence and of experience as feelings of what U2 members are now made of. The memory of Killiney Bay seems to be special to Bono, reinforcing the idea of remembrance of a period of innocence. In addition, for a band like U2, in fact, love is the biggest message that could be emanated from their music and their (musical) journey, in which the present song becomes a full realization of that.
The song “13 (There is a Light)” is purposely allocated as the thirteenth of “Songs of Experience” and continuing a predominantly sad musical atmosphere, retakes the theme of “Song for Someone,” as if by the new instrumentation, there was a rereading of innocence toward the present moment of experience, in a trajectory marked by the paradox of luminosity and darkness, elements often approached by Bono in several poetic arguments developed by U2.
For those who have the “deluxe” version of “Songs of Experience”, the fourteenth track is “Ordinary Love,” a song that honors Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), in an instrumentation curiously titled “Extraordinary Mix,” whose production seems to be more danceable and “light” than the version contained in the single of the same name released on November 29, 2013.
Continuing in the “deluxe” version, the fourteenth song is “Book of your Heart,” bringing that “desperation” characteristic of several U2 songs, listening to the voice of Bono recorded in different octaves in an aesthetically beautiful and very present as an audio resource in the “Achtung Baby” recordings. Grief, memories and future perspectives guide possible interpretations of this track. The Edge, in turn, brings another emotionally devastating, “cutting” solo, which might even have embellished the sound with the use of delays; however, perhaps by understanding better the complex proposal of the theme contained in the lyrics, has made a counterpoint by means of a simpler sonority in his instrument. Larry Mullen, full knowledge of the role of a drummer in a rock band, marks the footsteps of U2, being effectively aided in the song by Adam Clayton’s bass punctuation.
In continuity to the album and the rest of the “deluxe” format, we have “Lights of Home (St. Peter’s String Version)” in which a string orchestra gives a visceral, morose, funereal and beautiful reading of the song. The Edge appears with the slide guitar, calling back the song for himself and reaffirming who the brain is in U2. The final result of this version is overwhelming, in what this recording could very well be the definitive version composing “Songs of Experience.”
Closing the bonus tracks of the “deluxe” version, we have the fifteenth song, in which “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is brought by the Norwegian DJ Kygo, in a partnership that – for example of others where U2 songs were worked by different DJs – suggests new and surprising soundings of the Irish band. By the way, Bono’s voice is handled very nicely on the track and, again counter to the album’s heavy mood, the dancing atmosphere seems to be perfect for celebrating a “Beautiful Day.”
In conclusion, it is necessary to take into account that U2 does not get carried away by the obvious, producing avant-garde works that are often only better understood in the future, when, then, they acquire the level of classics and masterpieces. For this reason, the “Songs of Experience” readings should not be taken as definitive, but rather as suggestive, to better allocate our perception of U2 in an understanding that perhaps can only be better attained later and in the unfolding of experience.
“Songs of Experience” is challenging to the point of bumping into the unsuspecting who see no line on the horizon and do not glimpse “vision over visibility,” allocating diverse readings and not allowing themselves to be in the common place of artists accommodated in the volatile pop scene. The album also may reveal in the future much about ourselves, the admirers of U2.