U2 Album Review: Songs of Experience
The 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!