“‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’” Studies U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism

A new academic essay on U2 titled “‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism,” by Lisa Plummer Crafton, Professor of English, University of West Georgia, appears this month in the new anthology Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018), edited by James Rovira, chair and associate professor in the English department at Mississippi College.

Rovira’s website for the book is a sort of launching point for “scholarship with a soundtrack,” with links to chapter summaries and an iTunes playlist for each of the eleven studies in the anthology.

He summarizes Crafton’s essay this way:

“‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism,” triangulates Blake’s, Cohen’s, and U2’s songwriting to illustrate how each artist represents, responds to, and addresses different life stages as they engage themes such as ‘social and cultural protest, the conflation of erotic/spiritual love, and the representation of the rupture of that symbiosis, especially in the poetic treatment of Judas, Yahweh, and Jesus.’ Life stage writing, therefore, is demonstrated in Crafton’s chapter to be a vehicle for sociopolitical critique. Critique is simultaneously and alternatively inwardly and outwardly directed: politics are the outward manifestation of inwardly present ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ and the external force forging those manacles from the start. Blake’s answer to this quandary, a Romantic response repeated by Leornard Cohen and then by U2 through both Blake and Cohen, is to address the mind first through imaginative vision.

The songs Rovira and Crafton suggest listening to are:

  • Leonard Cohen, “I’m Your Man,” “Nevermind,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Story of Isaac,” “Suzanne,” “Who by Fire”
  • Van Morrison, “Let the Slave“
  • U2, “Beautiful Ghost,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Grace,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “MOFO,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Until the End of the World,” “Wake Up, Dead Man,” “With or Without You”

Crafton’s essay is the only chapter in the anthology about U2, but fans and scholars of popular music and Romanticism will surely find the entire book stimulating reading.

Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, appears in Lexington Books’ On The Record series, edited by Scott D. Calhoun, Cedarville University, and Christopher Endrinal, Florida Gulf Coast University. It is available starting February 15, 2018, from the publisher and Amazon.

Andy Rowen & Steve Stockman @ The U2 Conference 2018

We are honored to have Andy Rowen and Steve Stockman appear at the U2 Conference 2018 for a special In Conversation session titled “If You Twist and Turn Away: The Power of Songs to Change a Life.”

The Rowen family has a long history of friendship with the Paul “Bono” Hewson family, as many U2 fans know. Bono wrote “Bad” for The Unforgettable Fire (1984) in tribute to Andy and later explained in U2 By U2 (2006):

‘Bad’ is just a huge promise of a song. A friend of mine, about as close as you can get, squandered his intelligence and his gifts to heroin. Dublin in the late Seventies and early Eighties was a capital for smack. The Shah of Iran had been deposed, and people smuggled their money out of that country in white gold and pearls, by which I mean heroin. It was cheaper than weed, it was cheaper than smoking spliff, and a lot of sweet teenage kids, who just liked to smoke a little bit of ganja, were offered this cheap high, something beyond their imagination … I tried to describe that with the song, ‘Bad,’ what it was to feel that rush, to feel that elation, and then go on to the nod, awful sleep that comes with that drug …

Andy was on Bono’s mind again for a second song later in life as he wrote “Raised By Wolves” for Songs Of Innocence (2014). In the album’s liner notes, Bono said:

Ireland in the ‘70s was a tough place. On any other Friday at 5.30 pm in 1974 I would have been on Talbot Street in a record shop. On May 17th I rode my bike to school that day and dodged one of the bloodiest moments in a history that divided an island. 3 car bombs coordinated to detonate at the same time destroyed Dublin’s city centre. My old friend Andy Rowen (Guck Pants Delaney we used to call him) was locked in his father’s van as his dad ran to help save the victims scattered like refuse across the streets. The scene never left him, he turned to one of the world’s great pain killers to deal with it, we wrote about him in our song, ‘Bad.’ Andy says, ‘Heroin is a great pain killer until it kills you.’ He survived. A hero to me.

Rev. Steve Stockman, also good friends with the Rowen family, has long been involved in peace and reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland. He is minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, a co-founder of the 4 Corners Festival and a regular contributor to BBC radio. He is a blogger, poet, and peace activist, and wrote Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2.

Andy and Steve will present a conversation between friends on the role music has played – and can continue to play – in helping all of us in very personal and very communal conflicts “let it go,
and so to find a way.”

December To Play @ The U2 Conference 2018

We’re very excited to announce the band December will play The John Hewitt Friday night June 15 at 9:30 pm to close out the U2 Conference 2018. Performing selections from their new album of originals, Sisters and Brothers (out March 2018) and from 33, their 2017 celebration of U2, December is also working up some specials just for the U2 Conference guests.

The concert is free and open to the public, so arrive early, settle in and enjoy the night. December is putting their heads and hearts into making this happen, and to tell them thanks as well as help the band cover travel costs and some equipment hires, please visit their GoFundMe page for the event and make a contribution. Thanks!

While you are at the historic John Hewitt, take a moment to see the Pipes of Peace, a work of art using pipes that belonged to three key players in the Northern Ireland peace process: Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, ex-PUP leader David Ervine and former UVF leader Gusty Spence.

The John Hewitt is at 51 Donegall St., Belfast, UK.

Follow December on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

33 – CD           Sister and Brothers – CD pre-order

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!


U2 fans are the hearts and minds of a great U2 Conference. We can’t do it without you and we wouldn’t want to try.  You can be on the programme in a variety of ways:

  • giving a presentation
  • speaking on a panel you’ve organised with friends
  • leading an open-call round-table discussion on a topic of your choice
  • presenting a poster display
  • sharing your own creative expression of your U2 fandom

There are many ways to contribute and we are open to your suggestions. Leave us a reply below if you want to talk through your ideas, but we need a proposal submission from you to make it official. Submitting your proposal is easy. Check out our full Call for Presentations for more information about the POPVision conference theme, but we also invite general U2-related topics, particularly related to U2’s latest album Songs of Experience. The deadline for proposals is December 31, 2017.

Here are some suggestions (and that’s all they are: suggestions!) to get your thoughts started:

  • If you became a U2 fan during the POP era, how did it define you? How does it separate you from U2 fans born of other eras?
  • Did you attend the PopMart Tour? How does it stand up next to the other tours?’
  • How should Pop be regarded in the U2 catalog? As one of their best albums? A mistake or failed experiment? Was it a necessary step for U2?
  • What connections do you see between Pop and Songs of Innocence and Experience? How are both U2 eras related and what progression do you see from Pop to Songs of Experience?
  • In what ways is Pop underrated or critically successful compared to other records of the time?
  • Seen as the great “unfinished’”album, what has been the real impact of Pop in U2’s catalog and career?
  • Have the single mixes or The Best of 1990–2000 remixes changed your view of Pop?
  • Is the Pop album itself paradoxically the least important part of U2’s POP era?
  • Do you prefer the irony, parody and hyperbole of the POP era to U2’s more straight-ahead approach to messaging in the Songs of Innocence and Experience era? Which U2 is more effective?
  • Do you want more music from U2 like what’s on the Songs of Innocence  and Experience albums, or do you miss the experimentation, weirdness and genre-bending of the band in the 90s?
  • U2 have not released an anniversary remastered version of Pop. Should they do so and if so what should a deluxe edition include?
  • Do you feel so strongly in favor or against the Pop album that you would be willing to participate in a panel discussion with other fans?
  • Are you a musician and do you perform Pop songs as part of a band? Has it changed your appreciation of U2’s achievements on the album? Would you be willing to talk about playing the songs?
  • How much of the “pop” aesthetic of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and related artists did U2 absorb and employ? How did U2’s use of this imagery relate to the initial emergence of the Pop Art movement?
  • Did U2’s Pop Art homages stand in contrast to the album’s content? Did Pop Art’s spiritual overtones and pathos find commonality with U2’s long running themes?
Individual presenters should submit all in one Word document: a paper title; a 300-word abstract; presenter information including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities. Individual paper presentations should be about 15 minutes long.

Panel proposals should specify either three or four presenters and should be designed to finish in about 60 minutes. Panel proposals should submit all in one Word document: a title for the panel; the name of the panel chair; a 200-word abstract describing the panel’s purpose and theme; a 200-word abstract for each presentation on the panel; presenter information for each panel member, including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities for each presenter. 

Poster display presentations should submit all in one Word document: a title for the poster; a 150-word statement explaining the thesis for the presentation and the method(s) of demonstration on the poster; the anticipated size of the poster; presenter information including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities. An image may be placed in the Word document to help demonstrate elements of the poster.

Performances or other creative presentations should submit all in one Word document: a title for the presentation; a 150-word statement explaining the thesis for the presentation and the method(s) of demonstration; the anticipated duration for the performance, size of space needs, technical support needs, etc., presenter(s) information including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities.

We welcome proposals not fitting into the above categories. Please ask for submission advice. 

Delegates who also wish to chair a session not their own should also submit a separate Word document including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities.

The deadline for all proposal materials is December 31, 2017. Submit all proposals to U2Con2018proposals@gmail.com. Every effort will be made to notify all who submit a proposal of its status by January 15, 2018. Registration for the conference will open February 1, 2018 and all presenters are expected to pay the registration fee.


Catherine Owens: U2Con 2018 Keynote Speaker


Credit: Johnny Savage


“Vision Into Visibility: How PopMart’s LED Technology Changed the Story”

Catherine Owens is an Irish artist living and working in New York City. Her work is largely installation based, originating from ideas that evolve through drawings, painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, sound and virtual reality.

Owens has exhibited works at Feldman Gallery, New York, Morris Healy Gallery, New York, Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan, the Kerlin Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin Ireland.

As well as her own solo art practice Owens is known for her collaborative work with U2. As creative director of screen imagery for animation, film and video, she created visual content for five U2 world tours from 1992 – 2010, from ZooTV to U2360°.

She directed and was a producer on the first digital 3D film (U23D) made for Imax theatrical release in 2008. Shot in South America, its creation spearheaded a series of major technological breakthroughs in 3D filmmaking. The New York Times hailed it as “The first IMAX movie that deserves to be called a work of art.”

Using the technical and production knowledge gained while collaborating on large scale global projects over the last 20 years, Owens has incorporated this information into her current work, creating a series of LED based light works that seamlessly bring technology and mark making together.

In November 2017 she will exhibit a series of new LED light based Triptych painting and a 360° soundscape at Kustera Projects in Red Hook Brooklyn.

Other collaborative projects include directing visual content and animation for the San Francisco based group Kronos Quartet and for the Chinese Pipa player Wu Man, whose Carnegie Hall debut featured an intricate 20-minute animation composed of watercolor paintings.

Owens has attended four Lincoln Center Director’s Labs in New York as a guest artist and was a keynote speaker at SIGGRAPH in 2008, where she spoke about working in 3D under the title; Giving Technology Emotion: From the Artist’s Mind to U23D.

In April 2010 she traveled to India to make a 3D documentary about Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual gathering in the world that takes place once every 12 years.

And in 2012 she shot her third 3D film project, a documentary on the Irish Dancer Colin Dunne – It was broadcast on the BSkyB 3D and the Sky Arts network in November 2012. The Theatrical version was launched at the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in February 2013.

In 2014 she launched “Field Prints” a set of prints representing impressions of the vistas found close to her studio in the Blackwater Valley, Co. Waterford, Ireland.

Owens has spoken widely about the interaction of Art and Technology, recently delivering speeches at the ‘VR On The Lot’ conference at Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles, ‘The Art Of VR” Sotheby’s, New York and INSPIREFEST, Dublin Ireland.

The U2 Conference logo and site design by Beth Nabi.