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Rogério D. F. dos Passos Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

Songs of Experience coverU2 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.

Laureen Cermelj Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

Songs of Experience coverU2 Album Review: Songs of Experience

LOVE EXPERIENCE ! – PHEW (Secretly Afraid That I Might Not)
Laureen Cermelj

I had to walk past it while waiting for my copy to arrive by mail.  When I explained this to my elderly mother, she bought me the CD from the mall as my Christmas present.  That way I can have one copy for the car and one for the house.  She said she knows how important U2’s music is to me.  She is so sweet !!!

Try this.  Track 17: “You’re the Best Thing About Me U2 vs. KYGO.” Crank the volume then close your eyes.  It’s like Bono is calling out the song to you in a dream that’s slightly fading in and out.

I was pleased to see “Ordinary Love” on the song list as I missed seeing it on Songs of Innocence.  I love how some of the song-threads weave back into songs from Innocence, linking the two albums together.

The image of the band member’s offspring on the cover does nothing for me.  It looks creepy like an image from a horror movie.  Then again, I didn’t “get” the photo for the cover of Innocence either.  Larry hugging a man’s lower abdomen (later to discover it was his son – which did nothing to raise my opinion of it).

I’ve never written a comment on U2.com but feel more comfortable on this site.  This site isn’t just about U2’s music but also about the men behind the music.

Kevin Ott Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

Songs of Experience coverU2 Album Review: Songs of Experience

5 Reasons Why Songs of Experience is One of U2’s Best Albums
Kevin Ott

[Note: This review will take a tour through the new U2 album from a music theory, orchestration, and songwriting perspective, in a language that anyone can understand whether you studied music or not. (I got my B.A. in Music Composition, which is why I’m interested in this stuff.) I did this with my review of Songs of Innocence in 2014–and with my book about U2, Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing–and it seemed to work well.]

“Songs of Experience” is phenomenal.

It has a shimmering, playful summer sea-longing in the middle tracks and a deeply haunting, deep-in-the-night Northern Lights glow on the edges–filled to the brim with experience, but also with a longing for something that lies farther than anything experience can give us in this world.

It’s beyond phenomenal, honestly. (Definitely belongs in “best all-time” conversation.) Besides being stacked with beautifully written, rocking, soulful grooves (and extremely catchy, accessible melodies) its opening track, “Love Is All We Have Left,” might be one of my favorite U2 songs of all-time. (More on why in a moment.)

The album is easily one of U2’s best albums in their storied career. I won’t distract you with trying to assert “BEST EVER” or even argue for any specific ranking. I’ve tried it before. But their career (which started mid-1970s) has so many albums and songs, so many “periods” and phases of style, that to claim any album is the best must always rely on some measure of subjective emotion. Their music covers so many emotional landscapes and styles that “the best U2 album ever” could change for you three times in a month depending on the moods and seasons of life that you experience.

So I won’t get into rankings.

I just want to explain why, using some objective music theory, U2 continues to make better music with every album they release. This is their 14th full-length studio album since 1980, and to see them not settle for “good enough,” to see them improve and refine their craft after all these decades is astonishing. It’s extremely rare to see a legendary band stick together for that long yet remain so close in their friendships and creative collaboration that they keep improving with every album.

Bottom-line: The fact that U2 is still around making phenomenal music is something that music fans should not take for granted. We need to relish every new note while we can. It was a glorious feeling to hit “play” on a brand new, fresh-out-of-the-oven U2 album.

Of course, when you’re talking about U2, any rigid scientific musical analysis is the antithesis of the feel-it-don’t-overthink-it instinctive spirit of rock and roll. U2 lives in the molten core of that intuitive approach. When the band writes their songs, they have been known to jam and improvise in the studio for hours, getting every little riff or melodic idea on tape, and then sift through it for any inspired moments, then build on those intuitive bursts of brilliance. (That’s not the only way they write and record, I’m sure, but it’s one that has been written about extensively.)

So with all that in mind, this review will try hard to respect the spirit of rock and roll while also shedding some light on the inner-workings of what makes U2’s new album shine so beautifully.

Let’s dive in:

1. Full-length Drumless Opening Track and the Roominess of Uncluttered Slowness (i.e. The Utter Genius and Emotional Power of “Love Is All We Have Left”)

Track 1, “Love Is All We Have Left,” is a quiet punch in the gut–a completely unexpected beginning to a U2 album. Granted, in the ’90s, an intro like this would not have been shocking, but ever since U2 reincarnated themselves on a chilly October morning in 2000 with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and glided brilliantly into their careful hybrid of their ’90s experimental electronica + stripped down “we’re a four-piece rock band who can still rock a small show and hold their own without any frills” throughout the 2000s and 2010s all the way through “Songs of Innocence,” they have begun their albums with no nonsense rockers: “Beautiful Day,” “Vertigo,” “No Line On The Horizon,” and “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).”

Not so with “Songs of Experience.” This chilling opening track (chilling in the way that an unexpected cool breeze sends chills up your arm on a summer night or chilling like the frost of the Northern Lights) just appears without warning with an urgent cloud of synth. It’s not even a slow-burn synth opener like “Where The Streets Have No Name” from “Joshua Tree.” It’s just a pensive, urgent pad of intriguing synth layers that have the anxious upright spine of someone deep in the night waiting on the edge of a hospital bed to hear the final prognosis from the ER doctor.

And then the ghost of Bono past comes in. It’s the low-register, low-singing Bono we learned to love so well from “The First Time” in ZooTV’s early ’90s haunts. It’s the tired-faced crooner from the opening seconds of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “If God Will Send His Angels.”

He’s back.

But he’s changed.

In the prior decades of U2, we would expect this drumless, synth-soaked, low-singing intro to gradually (or explosively) be reborn into the galloping sprint of U2-in-motion-and-rocking. But the half-dreaming, half-grieving, anxious synth flutters and utterly vulnerable low-register Bono of “Love Is All We Have Left” has no bravado or epic declarations of the high-register tenor Bono (who seems like a different person/character in contrast), and this continues unabated throughout the entire song. This achingly dark flotation of severe northern lights is the song. And it’s the opening song.

It would be as if U2 chose to open the album “Zooropa” with “The First Time” or open “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” with “One Step Closer,” or open “No Line On The Horizon” with “Cedars of Lebanon.”

And it’s wonderful.

For one thing, it establishes a roominess and space in the ear and in the mind that somehow cleanses the palate to take in the rest of the album. The truth is that drums take up a lot of real estate on the soundboard. They’re intrusive. Don’t get me wrong. U2 can’t be U2 without Larry’s flawless tempo and inconsolable rhythms. But with music in general, drums can fill up the sonic space like a sprawling outdoor mall in an urban neighborhood. From a composition perspective, when you remove the drums or the percussion section (in the case of an orchestra) it quietly forces the listener to pay close attention to the harmony, melody and various timbres and textures floating between the instruments.

Drumless soundscapes make you lean in to listen closer. You want to hear what the singer has to say with expectation. Like little fireflies the nuances come out to play in the foreground of the mix.

I can’t get enough of “Love Is All We Have Left,” and it’s marvelous that it begins the album.

2. Lyrical and Melodic Links to Their Previous Album “Songs of Innocence”

This is not especially music theory-related, but it speaks to the artfulness of the album: the quotations of “Songs of Innocence,” the prior album. Of course, these two albums are twins, and they’re partly inspired by Blake’s poems of the same names, so it’s not shocking to find references to the previous album, but U2 takes it a step further and builds entire songs around their references to “Songs of Innocence.” Composers of classical music often incorporated quotations from older symphonies in new works, so U2 is continuing a hallowed tradition. Here are the ones I’ve noted so far:

  • In “Lights of Home,” Bono uses the closing lyrics from “Iris” in “Songs of Innocence” (“Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself”) and builds an entirely new section out of it for “Lights of Home” near the end of the song. What’s especially emotional about this is what he is quoting. If you have read the liner notes for “Songs of Innocence,” you will know that the closing collection of phrases in “Iris” are things that Bono remembered his mother saying to him in the few years they had together before she passed away. Hearing them re-remembered in “Lights of Home” just adds another layer of weight and unexpected emotional energy to the song just as you think the song is winding down.
  • U2 takes the bridge from “Volcano” on “Songs of Innocence” and builds a new song around it, making the melody and lyrics of that bridge the primary chorus and hook for the new track “American Soul” on “Songs of Experience.”
  • And in what is probably my favorite quotation, U2 takes the melody and lyrics of “Song For Someone” from “Songs of Innocence”–the chorus–and recasts it in a different production and musical environment (with the same basic melody and chords) in the heartrending closing track “13 (There Is A Light).”

Taking old ideas and building new songs around them is a mark of maturity in composition and when done well (which is certainly the case here) it is a haunting and beautiful touch, especially when it is referencing previous songs that already dealt with emotional subjects in effective ways. It’s just more evidence that U2 continues to grow with every new album. It’s a joy to witness it.

3. Vocal Texturing

This is just a fun one that I couldn’t resist. It’s not necessarily some grand technical achievement in the art of composition, but the creative vocal processing on “Songs of Experience” is well placed, artful and tasteful.

In “Love Is All We Have Left,” for example, we hear Bono’s vocals (and perhaps The Edge’s too) routed through a voice transformer effect, which is something that originated in EDM and hip hop but has found creative use elsewhere. As we float through synth layers and textures of the opening ballad, flashes of transformed Bonos (or The Edges) appear panned in the side-stage of the mix with pitches altered and the timbre 8-bit crunched and digitized to make the backup vocal flourishes spark. These little digitized flashes become beacons like the lonely blinking lights of a skyscraper’s needle in the night. But then at the perfect moment, the main vocal track (Bono) also becomes fully transformed and digitized just as he’s singing about looking from the other end of the telescope, and the sudden texture change evokes the sense of someone speaking from the Other Side, from an infinite space, from Heaven’s remote Halls with someone peaking into the finite universe and whispering a melody in response to Bono’s earlier verses.

We hear vocal processing on other songs too. “The Blackout” comes to mind, with Bono’s shimmering but slightly nervous/shaky chorus effect that captures the underlying panic of the song’s theme. Other songs have interesting vocal textures as well. (The big, epic effect-transformed “Oh, Oh, Oh..” notes of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” for example.)

There’s enough of these creative, refreshing vocal textures to draw comparisons to the sublime soundscape of the “Achtung Baby” and “Zooropa” years. I’ve always loved it when U2 plays with wild sound textures using the latest technology, and “Songs of Experience” does not disappoint in this way.

4. Plenty of Goosebump Moments (Which Are Hard to Produce in Composing and Songwriting)

I once took a course in college devoted completely to picking apart the “goosebump” moments in classical music–those elusive but memorable few seconds of a piece where certain elements come together in precisely the right way to suddenly shoot chills up your spine and make the hair on your arms stand on end.

They’re hard to come by. And the more you try to force them to happen, the harder it is to create them.

This is subjective, of course; different parts of different songs will have the goosebump effect for different people, so I can only tell my own tale. For me, “Songs of Experience” has enough of these moments in its track-list that it becomes easy to use the big compliments of “great” or “one of the best U2 albums ever” when describing it. As I’ve already mentioned, the opening track “Love Is All You Have Left,” is the biggest one for me, but there are others (though this is not comprehensive, just a sampling):

  • The primary chorus/hook sections in “Lights of Home” pluck at the heart strings somehow, probably because of the way the song leads in to them each time. We get the pentatonic dirty rock guitar from The Edge for the verses, then the chorus breaks through with a burst of gorgeous, melodic sparkle–an aching, anthemic melody that tears at the heart with longing as he hits those “the…lights of…home…the…” notes. And then another goosebump moment hits in the bridge, when the band changes the tonal center and Bono starts quoting the words he remembered his late mother saying in the song “Iris” from “Songs of Innocence.”
  • In “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” I love the vocal glissando. In the main melody of the chorus, when Bono sings “Get out of your own way, ay-eh-ay-eh-eehhhh,” that last “ehhhh” is this wonderfully expressive melodic sigh where Bono slides down the note. It just sounds as if the singer is releasing the melody like a long, sad, exasperated sigh, which punctuates the theme of the song so well and tugs at the emotions. It’s a very small moment, but those little things can add up to a lot over the course of an album, especially when it becomes an album you listen to on repeat.
  • The hypnotic “I’ve been thinking of the West Coast” line in “Summer of Love” and the entire chorus/hook of “Red Flag Day” (one of U2’s catchiest hooks ever), and the yearning of “You know you’re chasing the sunlight” of the irresistible, playful “The Showman (Little More Better)”–all of these moments provoke a bright sea-longing, a summer road trip lust for water and light and simple happiness and togetherness. These are different kinds of goosebumps, but goosebumps none the less.
  • On “The Little Things That Give You Away,” well, the whole song can induce goosebumps if it catches you in the right mood, but the way the rhythm and chordal plodding protracts and builds over the course of the song and culminates in one of Bono’s most haunting lyrics ever “The end isn’t coming, the end is here,” and creates one of the most stirring moments on the album.
  • The little melodic inflections (i.e. major seventh interval and others) as Bono jumps up in his melody on the chorus of “Landlady,” sort of an unexpected intervalic leap that emphasizes the love and need he has for this woman. It’s a powerful melody.
  • On “13 (There Is A Light),” as I mentioned before, the way U2 repackages the main chorus hook from “Song For Someone” in a completely new music environment with different textures and different verses and bridges surrounding it just yanks on the heart strings and caps off the album with the perfect closing track. Honestly, “Songs of Experience” has the perfect beginning and ending tracks–possibly one of the best bookends in U2’s 40+ years.
  • And one of the latter verses of “13 (There Is A Light)” gives me a heart wound every time I hear it: when Bono jumps up in his singing register with the lines “When all you’ve left, is leaving, and all you’ve got is grieving, and all you know is needing,” and as the lyric develops Bono eventually trails off into a scatting hum, as if he’s standing leaning against a wall in a dark corner of a room singing to himself, thinking about all these things. It’s such a brilliant moment that ranks (in my mind) among U2’s best musical moments whether it’s the ’80s anthems or the golden moments in “Achtung Baby” or the best moments in the 2000s and early 2010s. There are many such moments on “Songs of Experience,” which is why it has been so addicting. It gets better with each listen.

5. More Bold Key Change, Tonality Moments

Just one more quick observation. In my review for “Songs of Innocence,” I noted how The Edge played with some interesting tonality shifts, changing from major to minor keys in a single arpeggio during the song “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” This, in my opinion, reflected U2’s maturity as songwriters and musicians. “Songs of Experience” continues that refreshing willingness to create shifts in the song’s tonal center. I’m not talking about cliche key changes. Anybody can bump the chords and melody of a song up a half-step and repeat everything verbatim in a different key. That kind of thing is actually a little cheesy. I’m talking about creating new tonal centers for a song, where the whole gravity of the song’s harmonic center shifts somewhere else. “Lights of Home” on this new album really nails that kind of shift, near the end when Bono quotes the lyrics from “Iris” from the previous album (“Songs of Innocence”). It’s a powerful ending to “Lights of Home,” and, as mentioned earlier, it creates a new melodic and harmonic life to the song’s character just when you think it’s about to wind down and end.

It’s just more proof that U2 continues to mature and improve with every album they release (which is really the entire premise of this review and my review for “Songs of Innocence.”)

Two Stories of Grief, Two Albums to Process the Pain: A Personal Gratitude for ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’

A few years after my dearly loved mom died unexpectedly, U2 released “Songs of Innocence.” It was the catalyst for both healing and writing about the meaning of joy in grief, and that season of writing produced the book Shadowlands and Songs of Light, which compares the spiritual truths found in 18 C. S. Lewis books with the musical metaphors that U2 has created over 13 studio albums.

But then grief came again.

The day after New Year’s Day this year (2017), my dear dad passed away unexpectedly. Suddenly, without warning, I was parentless–plunged into a strange world of grief that was different than any grief I had known before. It was more like fear and panic, like a kid lost in the big department store, unable to find his parents, yelling for them but unable to find any familiar face or voice. And then “Songs of Experience” comes out, and in this album I find a large basketful of songs, like finding a basket of hidden medicine, that speak so perfectly to the last 11 months of grieving over my dad.

Music doesn’t cure that kind of pain. But it helps you live with it. It soothes it sometimes. It helps you work through it. These twin albums have become especially significant because each one, the “Innocence” and the “Experience,” came out during the two grieving seasons over my parents.

So yes, the timing surprises me, but the themes do not. Both “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” are, in part, albums about grieving. (Some of the songs Bono confirmed were about his late mother who passed away when he was 14, for example.) They’re about the (temporary) loss of innocence, the (temporary) loss of youth and immortality (i.e. that youthful feeling that “the end” is far enough away that we can comfortably ignore it) the (temporary) loss of parents, the (temporary) loss of hope, the (temporary) loss of loved ones, and the (temporary) loss of peace. But these albums are also about an immortal kind of faith, hope, joy and love that transcends all the loss, works through all the grief, and opens up a window above our heads to a place “on the other end of the telescope” that’s bigger than the universe and bigger than our lives.

Why the word “temporary” in front of all the losses? The clue can be found on songs like “California (There Is No End To Love)” from “Songs of Innocence” and “Love Is All We Have Left” in “Songs of Experience.” As the former says: there is no end to grief, but there’s no end to love either, and that’s all I need to know. Or as the latter says: “I wanted the world, but you knew better. All we have is immortality. Love, and love, is all we have left.”

And as noted here, when Bono and The Edge recently gave a performance on the subway in Berlin on the U2 train line, after the performance Bono said this: “At the far end of experience we hope, we pray, with wisdom and a bit of humility, we might recover innocence.”

This music helps in that journey back to innocence (and to hope, love, faith, and joy). Even if we only recover a little drop of those things, it makes the journey worth it.

Songs of experience indeed.

Thank you, U2 (for the fourteenth time).

Greg Clarke Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

Songs of Experience coverU2 Album Review: Songs of Experience

Love, Rock and the Problem with the New U2
Greg Clarke

On first listen, I thought it was Duran Duran. Then Hillsong. And just a smidge of Taylor Swift. The slick production, the musical phrasing, the mawkishness, and the high emotion. I was repelled before I was attracted.

But I’ve sat with the new U2 album since it was released, just to see if I’d keep coming back to it. And I have. I played it during a particularly intense work strategy session when I needed to see above the clouds. I wallowed in the opening track in a despairing moment in the car. I found myself shouting a few of the choruses for no apparent reason. It’s seeping in.

And that’s what U2 is for me—musical worldview therapy. Bono looks at the world, looks at himself, looks up into the heavens, and then sings at you. He’s like an aggressive counsellor, challenging you to stop pretending, and to remember your first loves. No one does that like U2, at least for this Christian middle-aged white bloke.

Ironically, the turning point was when I read the liner notes in the CD. Yes, I bought the CD. I heard it first on Spotify, but being of a certain age I didn’t feel like I ‘possessed’ it until l had the CD in my hands and was reading the lyrics (vinyl is now too hipster to feel real, I regret to say).

In the liner notes Bono does something unusual—he ‘explains’ his songs. Usually, the music speaks for itself, but this is a memoir-style work. It’s personal, introspective and self-referential to the point of using samples of U2’s previous lyrics and music. But the liner notes reminded me of what is going on with a U2 album. It’s always a prayer; it’s always a hymn; and it’s always a lament. It is religion for the non-kneelers, God from street view, Jesus as a boxing coach.

If anyone is still wondering whether you can find the Christian message in a U2 song, stop trying. You obviously don’t get it. For nearly 40 years they have been unravelling the gospel in public, twisting and turning themselves around it, begging Jesus to be who he claims to be in Scripture. From the early youth-group style anthems and psalms (think ‘Gloria’ and ’40’) through to this album, the sea in which they swim is the Christian faith. They just do so in a way that gives everyone a chance to ride the waves, drown a bit, then resurface and try to keep afloat. I love it.

To the songs:

‘Love is All We Have Left’ is the Hillsong moment. This beautiful melody opens the album, but it feels like a natural closer. U2 deliberately placed it first as Bono pointed out in his liner notes: “You start at the end”. Love remains. Love will be there at the end. Choose love.

‘The Blackout’ is the Duran Duran moment. It’s pop apocalypse, a jaunty list of extinction events suggesting that “When the lights go out, throw yourself about/ In the darkness where we learn to see”.

‘American Soul’ revisits a popular theme of Bono’s, that the idea of America has been lost. It’s about ‘Refu-Jesus’, which may or may not be a nod to the song with that name by hip-hop group, ARTificial Christian. It must be amazing in an American stadium, as Bono urges the throng to ‘be’ rock and roll. They’re going to have to work out how.

‘Get Out of Your Own Way’ is the Taylor Swift moment (sorry, but there’s something in the chorus that brings it to mind: “I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight”). It’s a catchy track trying to ‘pop’ a bit of activism into the listener as she dances.

‘Summer of Love’ reflects in a strangely mild manner on the horrors of Syria (the ‘West Coast’). ‘In the rubble of Aleppo/Flowers blooming in the shadows/For a summer of love’ is a softer croon than ‘See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out’ from ‘Beautiful Day’. Both are calls for hope in recovery, but ‘Summer of Love’ seems less compelling.

There’s plenty to enjoy in the baker’s dozen of tracks on the CD (there are extras all over the web and in the various formats). I’m still coming back to songs I’ve ignored or disliked on first listen. Did I mention I’m a fan?

But I do feel the album isn’t angry enough. American Soul has some grunt, but it’s not Sunday Bloody Sunday or Bullet the Blue Sky. The themes of protest are there, but love really is winning in U2’s hearts. And the love seems to be somewhat resolved, settled, requited. And that’s hard to rock.

Much of the earlier album, Songs of Innocence, was in fact about experience: of Irish terrorism, of the untimely death of Bono’s mother, of miraculous conversion. This follow-up album feels more like a Songs of Second Innocence, such is its sense of resolve and satisfaction.

It is telling that the most brutal, challenging section of lyrics on this album are sung by a guest. Kendrick Lamar sings guest vocals at the close of one song and the beginning of another. These make a startling riff on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel and are worth quoting:

Blessed are the arrogant, for theirs is the kingdom of their own company.

Blessed are the superstars, for the magnificence in their light we understand better our own insignificance.

Blessed are the filthy rich, for you can only truly own what you give away like your pain.

Blessed are the bullies, for one day they will have to stand up to themselves.

Blessed are the liars, for the truth can be awkward…

Blessed are the bullies

For one day they will have to stand up to themselves

Blessed are the liars

For the truth can be awkward

Perhaps this new ‘sermon’ is an extension of Bono’s lyric on ‘City of Blinding Lights’, with its wonderful final line, “Blessings not just to the ones who kneel, luckily”. This general grace is a hallmark of U2’s theological expressions.

I find myself pondering Lamar’s incredible twist on the biblical teaching more than any other lyric on the album. Have U2 reached a point where they need to outsource the innovation and insight? Have they relaxed into grace? It wouldn’t surprise me, since the Christian view of life does tend to generate both contentment and the urgent quest for justice and mercy, each at the same time.

Approaching their 60s, have these rockers found themselves leaning into contentment? After all, they are songs of experience. In the liner notes, Bono quotes poet Brendan Kenelly telling him, “If you really want to get to where the writing lives, write as if you are dead”. It’s great advice; but death for Christians means trusting in God, confident in resurrection, longings fulfilled, spiritual peace. That’s not very rock and roll.

But I’m a fan, so my stance is always to go with U2. With this album, I feel they have chosen love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest of the Spirit’s fruit. It’s a protest without sounding much like one. It’s simple reminiscence and reminders (even repeats of their own music and lyrics!). It’s a bit like being in youth group with your older brothers.

This is an album about love, Jesus and changing the world. It’s about America, injustice, hope and hanging on to yourself. It’s not much new for U2; in fact, it’s deliberately nostalgic. I hope it’s not the end of the story for them, but I feel it might well round off one era and introduce the next. I’m happy to swim out past that headland with my brothers.

Greg Clarke originally posted his review here and has kindly shared it with the U2 Conference.

Angela Pancella Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

U2 Album Review: Songs of Experience
Angela Pancella

Songs of Experience coverThe Bono who’s imagining himself already dead is cheerfully unconcerned with whether or not you think his rhymes are dumb.

And you know what? I do think a lot of the rhymes on SOE are dumb, but I’m going to side with Bono here against my own aesthetic. My aesthetic is entirely beside the point.

Bono once said that the best way to appreciate Michael Jackson was to pretend he was singing in a language you couldn’t understand. That’s not quite the way to best appreciate SOE, but it’s a hint. I think Bono is singing in a language he doesn’t fully understand. We’ve been here before…all the time, in fact. U2’s willingness to let their reach extend waaay past their grasp seems to give them access to places (or maybe A Place) where language collapses, yet, bless him, Bono can’t shut up about it.

Bless him, because at least he’s not trying to hoard the experience. What he’s found, he wants to give away. Luckily Bono’s in a band, because what language struggles to say comes out in a melody just fine. And so a sentiment like “Love is all we have left,” which would sound stupid if spoken, rings out and resonates in the core of my being when I hear it sung.

This is a great album because it has that mysterious quality U2 had in their songs before they could play instruments. Now they can play their instruments, and Bono has developed unmatched command of his vocal phrasing. The miraculous thing is that they’re not relying on these honed skills. They get out of their own way.

A few words about Leonard Cohen and David Bowie before I go–two heroes of Bono’s who did in fact release songs that serve as their farewell letters. As much as SOE is ringing changes on musical/lyrical ideas from throughout U2’s catalog (most directly from Songs of Innocence, but homages to older songs are sprinkled in too), it’s also reaching out beyond self-reference, and invocations of Cohen and Bowie are especially loving and playful.

“I saw you on the stairs,” Bono sings on “The Little Things That Give You Away,” “You didn’t notice I was there.” It’s a sly tip of the hat to Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” of which Bowie had once said, “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for.”

And then there’s “Love Is All We Have Left” (which, with its strings and crooning, may be putting Bono in dialogue with Bowie’s “Nature Boy”–remember the message the title character imparts). When Bono sings “Hey, this is no time not to be alive,” it’s quite the snappy comeback to Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Only Bono could get away with chastising Cohen for exiting the planet!

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