It’s been three years since Songs of Innocence and a lot has happened on the political and personal landscape to cause several rewrites and nine producers to help U2 craft Songs of Experience. Whereas Innocence was about the past and growing up this is an album that shows a looking back or reflection of experience on life, death, hope, love and of course some social commentary. Maybe U2 needed to go back to their roots on Songs of Innocence and do a tour of Joshua Tree before heading into the future with this release.
This is definitely the band’s most emotionally felt and deeply personal album of their career. As Bono describes (in great detail) in the liner notes these songs are actually love letters. In facing his own mortality and being held up in a hospital bed he had to “turn down the volume of my crowded mind to hear that still, soft voice that promises the peace that passes all understanding”
Songs of Experience starts with a prayerful Bono on Love is All We Have Left. It’s a duet with his auto-tuned self and the first lyric is full of hopeful optimism “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever / Nothing to stop us from where we should be” This could be seen as a statement from the band itself about their confidence in this album and where they are as a musical unit.
It’s the Edge’s bluesy folk guitar that gets things going on Lights of Home.You can literally follow Bono’s recovery in the hospital with “I got to get out from under my bed / to see again the lights in front of me / Hey, I’ve been waiting to get home a long time” The blues turns into a gospel choral ending of “Free yourself to be yourself / If only you could see yourself” that came from a voice in Bono’s childhood, wondering if it was the voice of God, his mother Iris, a friendship or who knows? he does explain there was clear inspiration from his Bible reading in the book of Psalms verse 100. One thing he does know is returning home isn’t to a place, it’s a face or a few but overall it’s his wife Ali whose heart is his home.
If Ali is his home he makes it even clearer in the basic words of the basic pop /rock first single “You’re the Best Thing About Me / the best thing to ever happen a boy / You’re the best thing about me / I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy” I originally thought this was an average song, but it’s growing on me more. It is certainly a better song than the lacklustre ballad for Ali called Landlady where we are reassured Ali’s heart is his home “Every wave that broke me / Every song that wrote me / Every dawn that woke me / was to get me home to you”
More lacklustre comes in Summer of Love which on some listens I almost like and sometimes I flat out don’t. Another weak song is The Showman (Little More Better) that is actually only a little bit better and never really gets going as much as it tries with it’s acoustic guitar strums and being about a performer that makes it look so good or more deeply “The showman gives you front row to his heart / The showman prays his heartache will chart / Making a spectacle of falling apart / Is just the start of he show”
There are plenty of guests amongst these 13 tracks (17 if you get the deluxe version) more than any of their previous albums. Mostly background vocals from Haim, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic (who’s also producing several tracks), Julian Lennon, and Lady Gaga. Another first for any U2 album is a guest rap that is delivered by Kendrick Lamar. It’s unique because his outro of Beatitudes from the vocal heaviness of Get Out Of Your Own Way, turns into the intro Beatitudes of one of the best songs of experience, the straight up buzz stomping rock n roll of American Soul.
According to the liner notes ‘American Soul is a love letter to America. A country that is inventing and reinventing itself… I’ve been trying to explain it’s not just a country it’s an idea. But as we recorded these songs we felt the idea of America was being challenged maybe even twisted… the betrayal of the words of Emma Lazarus at the bottom of the statue of Liberty, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ This explains the lyrics of “Let it be unity / Let it be community / For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us / Will you be my sanctuary / Will you be my refujesus” It extracts a human and spiritual need for sanctuary, which is deepened in the shouting chorus of “You and I are rock n roll / We came here looking for American Soul”.
The real stand out and longest track at just under five minutes is The Little Things That Give You Away. Bono states this song is about himself. It’s a dialogue between his innocence and experience. “Sometimes I can’t believe my existence / I see myself from a distance / I can’t get back inside / Sometimes the air is so anxious / All my thoughts are so reckless / And all of my innocence has died / Sometimes I wake at four in the morning / Where all the darkness is swarming / And it covers me in fear / Sometimes I’m so full off anger and grieving / So far away from believing / That any sun will reappear / Sometimes the end is not coming / It’s not coming / It’s here” It could be the darkness of this song came from advice Bono got from poet Brendan Kennelley to write as if he were dead. However the Edge’s emotive rain dropping guitar notes lead into to a crashing buildup of thundering drums from Larry Mullen Jr. It’s one of those songs that is right up there with Bad or All I Want Is You.
80’s reminiscing is even more prevalent on Red Flag Day with it’s background vocal layout and Edge’s guitar work sounding like something that could have been written and recorded between War and The Unforgettable Fire albums with “Let’s go a bit further / Paradise is a place / You can’t see when it’s yours /… We can’t afford to be afraid of what we fear” Powerful stuff.
After the Edge’s Achtung Baby style guitar opening Adam Clayton’s bass takes over and is the driving thump of the great funky rock of The Blackout. Larry Mullen Jr’s drumming carries this song full tilt as “The lights go out / You throw yourself about in the darkness / Where you learn to see / When the lights go out / Don’t you ever doubt / The light that we can really be” Amongst all this funking rock is a social commentary “Democracy is flat on it’s back, Jack / We had it all and what we had is not coming back, Zack / A big mouth says the people don’t want to be free for free / The Blackout / Is this an extinction event we want to to see” I’d reverse a question asked by Funkadelic, Who Says a Rock n Roll Band Can’t Play Funk?
There is a beauty and brilliance throughout this album, but it’s hard to beat Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way. Just the title alone is a grandiose statement. The sediment is furthered along in the words “If you listen you can hear the silence say / When you think you’re done you’ve just begun” There’s a catchy sing-along of “Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh” As good a song as this is, it also ends up sounding like U2 doing Coldplay.
13 (There is a Light) is a perfect ending that ties us back to the Songs of Innocence album by reusing the chorus from a Song For Someone. The words are so emotionally personal about struggle and finding hope it causes one to wonder how many times we ourselves feel the way Bono does “When the wind screams and shouts / And the sea is a dragon’s tail / And the ship that stole your heart away sets sail / When all you’ve left is leaving / And all you’ve got is grieving / And all you know is needing / … Cause this is a song / A song for someone / Someone like me” Quite emotional, but there is some hope with “I know the world is done / But you don’t have to be” or “And there is a light don’t let it go out”. In the end maybe this is a song for everyone.
With these Songs Of albums done and another tour for 2018 it looks like U2 has no intentions of letting their light go out anytime soon.