Six years ago, U2 released Songs of Experience, a sequel to 2014's Songs of Innocence (yes, the free iTunes album). While bold, Songs of Experience is a masterpiece.
Nothing will likely reach the heights of Achtung Baby or The Joshua Tree, but Songs of Experience comes close.
Songs of Innocence was about Bono's childhood. It's a very personal album that has a sense of teenage adolescence and, well, innocence. He sings about losing his mom as a teen, growing up during The Troubles, and discovering the Ramones for the first time.
As a man who's now in his sixties, it may sound odd to write such an introspective album. Even if “I Will Follow” sounds like a suicide note of sorts when put into context, U2 and Bono masked their adolescence in their early music. That's also why Songs of Surrender works so well, but that's a tangent for another day.
After what Bono describe as a “brush with mortality,” which was later revealed to be open-heart surgery in his memoir, the singer was compelled to leave letters for his family in friends in case he couldn't make it.
He pulled through, luckily, but now with decades of life and experience he was afforded the chance to leave behind words and wisdom to his loved ones the only way he could: through music.
“Love Is All We Have Left”
Songs of Experience opens with a lullaby and ends with one. “Love Is All We Have Left” is one of the band's tenderest songs. “Nothing can stop this being the best day ever,” Bono sings.
This song segues into “Lights of Home,” which if the metaphor isn't clear enough is about Bono meeting his maker, so to speak. During live performances, Bono would kneel on a slanted platform. Stars surrounded him as he looked up into the light.
“Shouldn't be here cause I should be dead/I can see the lights in front of me,” the song begins. The album version features an aggressive guitar opening a la “Cedarwood Road” from The Edge and an epic slide solo.
There are plenty of Songs of Innocence references littered throughout Songs of Experience. None more obvious than the “Free yourself to be yourself/If only you could see yourself,” which originated from “Iris (Hold Me Close).”
The closing song, “13 (There Is a Light),” steals its chorus from “Song for Someone.”
While recycling lyrics can be seen as lazy, they have a purpose. It proves that there is some continuity across the albums. After all, the two are supposed to bridge the gap between innocence and experience. Bono is attempting to impart his wisdom on his kids.
The lat notable reference is in “American Soul.” Its chorus goes, “You are rock and roll/You and I are rock and roll,” which came from “Volcano.”
A different climate
U2 has always been a political band. No song is as charged up as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Pride (In the Name of Love),” but “American Soul” attempts to convey the changing landscape of America in 2017. Their performance of “Get Out of Your Own Way” in front of the Statue of Liberty was also extremely powerful.
Times were changing, and Bono wanted to acknowledge these changes. The bridge sees Bono sing, “It's a call to action not to fantasy/The end of the dream/The start of what's real/Let it be unity/Let it be community/For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us.”
“Red Flag Day” talks about Syrian refugees through a song akin to U2's War era. The Edge's bright chords and the groovy bass line also make U2 sound like the Police.
“You and I are rock and roll”
“American Soul” is the most obvious foot-stomping rock anthem on Songs of Experience. “The Blackout” is a whole different beast.
In a way, listening to “The Blackout” transports you back to U2's early days playing clubs. The music video does take place in a club, but Adam Clayton's bass is at a whole different level.
Beneath all of the thumping bass melodies and whaling guitar is a song about extinction. Bono's always been insecure about U2's place in the world. They're far removed from their days as “Rock's Hottest Ticket,” so is there a place for them?
Of course there is, but rock and roll is in more of a delicate place than ever. Very few bands make the kinds of music that U2 listened to growing up. There are exceptions like Greta Van Fleet, though I don't know if I'd put all of my eggs in that basket, and U2 is aware of that.
Music lives on forever, that's the beauty of it. But bands like the Rolling Stones slowed down their output in recent years (Hackney Diamonds was their first album of new material in nearly two decades). U2's mission statement is to make music worth listening to.
Bono also takes time to look at himself between the melodrama and rock ‘n' roll. “The Showman (Little More Better)” is one of U2's underrated gems. In the song, Bono croons about being a showman and how he “prays his heartache will chart.” It's a clever show of Bono's self-awareness — something that his skeptics would never believe he was capable of.
“The Little Things That Give You Away” seems to be one of the popular songs amongst U2 fans from Songs of Experience. It has a slow build that leads to a crashing crescendo as Bono the end looming yet not being here quite yet. Yes, the song is going back to the common theme of death, but for those that want classic U2 in their new music, this is it.
Ali, Bono's wife, gets two love songs on Songs of Experience. First up is U2's radio-friendly song, “You're the Best Thing About Me.” As far as a lead single goes, it's better than “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and No Line on the Horizon's “Get On Your Boots.”
The thing about “You're the Best Thing About Me” is that it goes deeper than its radio-friendly sound suggests. Like Bono did on “With or Without You” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” he acknowledges the hardships of love. “The best things are easy to destroy,” he sings during the chorus. And it's true — love can be so easy to make, but destroying it is equally as easy.
The more personal, and better song, is “Landlady.” It's almost as if Coldplay wrote the music and Bob Dylan is singing the song (Bono also channels his inner Dylan on “The Showman”) with its airy texture. Like “The Little Things,” “Landlady” builds to a crescendo.
This time, it's not a crashing, but one that leads to the conclusion that the only prize Bono wants is Ali. Despite every breaking wave and every false emotion, Bono is led back to his landlady, who took care him after his mom died.
“Cause when I was broke/It was you that always paid the rent.”
One last lullaby
Songs of Experience ends with “13 (There is a Light).” Bono's children are all grown up, starring in films and leading their own bands, but I can imagine him singing “13” to his young children.
And even if they're a bit older than the moldable minds this lullaby is intended for, lessons can be learned. The moral of the story here is to guard your innocence, don't lose that inner child, but also remember to always be “tough enough to be kind.”
The pre-chorus and chorus refrain taken from “Song for Someone” rings true. But Bono adds a twist: “A song for someone/Someone like me.”
“Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is a song with the scope of “One,” yet has a personal flavor to it. Of course, love is love, and Bono is trying to convey the inclusivity of it. But he also sings about “Killiney Bay,” an area in Dublin, along with someone being “so young to be the words of your own song.”
Where does U2 go from here?
U2's “Songs of” era seems to be on the back burner. The past decade has been Bono-centric and the band seems ready to move on. Bono continues to tease a rock album of “unreasonable” guitar, and “Atomic City” has that.
The band did spend time paying homage to their inspirations. Maybe it's time for U2 to forget the past, and look at the future. At least for now until they release Songs of Ascent.