When music critics focus on confirming or denying the band’s place in music history, they miss the real story of Songs of Experience.
Congratulations, David Fricke. Your Rolling Stone review of U2’s fourteenth studio album contains brilliant alliterative rhythms. When you write about guitarist Edge’s “skidding-blues licks,” drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s “rock-grip twist on hip-hop stride,” and Adam Clayton’s notes that capture the “contradiction of boogie nights and apocalypse now” on Songs of Experience, I covet your killer skills. The same goes for you, Jon Pareles. Who else in The New York Times would elegantly describe a U2 song as “a celestial benediction over tremulous strings”? And to every other critic — from The Guardian to USA Today to Cleveland.com —thank you for your plentiful prose over the past 48 hours and for letting your readers know U2 has “stopped being lame,” even if you think Songs of Experience is “a little clumsy” in spite of its “fantastic return to form.” I can’t remember the last time I woke up to two dozen U2 Google notifications and all of them were actual album reviews instead of blogposts about the iTunes debacle. I wrote about 2014’s misunderstood Songs of Innocence for HuffPost and The Economist, but I can’t write anything too confining about Songs of Experience, because it can’t not be personal for me.
U2 is the most confounding, amazing, irritating, vital, and bloodletting band on the planet. These guys are the last rock stars —the only OG unit dedicated to reincarnating a medium that exited in the 1990s —and they do it with panache, pomade, and perspicuity. The band has complicated taxes, shills tunes on the streets of New York City (with talk show hosts in tow), and occasionally finds itself in need of a group haircut and shave. Yet, we respect U2 because its journey is the only complete pilgrimage in rock and roll. One path, one band, still together. We are bound to the members of U2 in the same way we are linked with our graduating class from high school; U2 albums are our yearbooks. But what nobody else will tell you about Songs of Experience is how much of yourself you might find within the music. In each new song, U2 keeps trying to tell the story of us. This album is not only the autobiographical recording we expected from the band, but it also says a lot about you and me.
The double vinyl arrived from UPS on Friday (great job, U2.com), but my 15-year-old daughter and I had already cranked the deluxe edition of Songs of Experience (aka “SOE”) on Spotify during the commute to school that morning. She called the democracy-breakdown devil-disco rave-up “The Blackout” “a bop,” and labeled the hooky pop number “You’re The Best Thing About Me” as “the song I’m already tired of because you’ve been playing it forever,” but conceded the pulsating “Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” has “a special quality;” “I like that one,” she said. Something in the lyrics (maybe “I know the rage in you is strong / Write a world where we can belong to each other and sing it like no other”) reminded her to check her phone, and she started reading texts to me from a group chat, wherein a dozen teens were “prexting” —offering up prayers for each other. One swapped prayers with another student recovering from a cold and a third requested prayers for a favorable outcome on a Chemistry quiz. As my girl got out of the car and swept bagel crumbs from her uniform skirt, I waved goodbye. We send our kids out across the planet in an era of Goliaths and believe, with fingers crossed and candles lit, that love is the best armor we can provide. This new U2 music confirms that notion. The synths of the psalm-y “13 (There Is A Light)” beamed through the speakers like a church organ as I drove out of the carpool line.
Maybe U2 writes too many slow songs, but these ruminations —desperate prayers in minor keys set to bass thrumming and gauzy backing vocals which evoke choruses of ghosts and broken angels —aren’t destined to be typical hit ballads. If tight leather pants can bend far enough to push a singer to lie prostrate at the feet of God, maybe that is what Songs of Experience is asking us to do, too. Are rock and roll fans willing to rip their jeans and skin their knees? Not only have we lost our innocence to fake news, sexual harassers, racists, and lying politicians, but we’ve also lost the “love-first” world order we mistakenly thought we had. On the doorstep of 2018, what else is there to do but learn how to dance and kneel again?
“I know the world is done / But you don’t have to be,” Bono utters in “13.” I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves / Are you tough enough to be kind? / Do you know your heart has its own mind? / Darkness gathers around the light / Hold on.”
Don’t act surprised by such Christian talk. U2 has always been this sinner’s favorite Jesus band. 2017’s 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree and 2015’s Innocence +Experience (“I+E”) Tour contained blatantly obvious yet palatable displays of the band’s faith, including pages of the Bible as confetti, stage lights that formed crosses, and frequent use of the word “blessings.” Now that we know the trilogy’s first two Songs albums (Ascent may be next) share themes and verses (the new “Lights of Home” borrows lines from 2014’s “Iris,” about the death of Bono’s mother; “13” contains the chorus from Innocence’s “Song for Someone”), it’s possible U2 is creating a 21st century alternative to the kind of praise music which has become a mainstay in evangelical circles —repetitive exaltations without hymnals. Even a salesman like Bono isn’t a fan of the pulpiters with headset microphones who fill coffers with convenient rhymes, but there’s promise in the “Ho-Hey” currency of Top-40 acts like The Lumineers, One Republic (whose hitmaker frontman Ryan Tedder was involved with the production of SOE), Mumford & Sons, plus Hanson, Johnnyswim, Shovels and Rope, and others who have been making music about God without labeling it as such.
“Oh Jesus if I’m still your friend,” Bono sings in “Lights of Home.” “What the hell / What the hell you got for me / I gotta get out from under my bed / I can see again the lights in front of me / Hey I’ve been waiting to get home a long time / Hey now, do you know my name / Hey now, where I’m going / If I can’t get an answer / In your eyes I see it / The lights of home The lights of home.”
Would some of us be happy for U2 to surrender control to our favorite atheist Brian Eno at a makeshift recording studio inside Slane Castle instead of becoming more forthright about its religious views with younger producers scattered around the globe? Sure, maybe. But Songs of Experience is part and parcel of a greater experiment, a different crusade. We’re thigh-high in U2’s work-in-progress, staring at the central painting of an unfinished triptych. In the climate of hypocrisy that is plaguing so much of American Christian culture and its institutions, would U2 even be allowed through the doors while carrying the scars of The Troubles in Ireland, the gifts of musical revolution handed down from The Beatles, and the nonviolent marching orders of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Some Christian radio stations may never be able to handle U2, but the band’s music is being made for the benefit of the wayward in ways more obvious than many other songs on the current contemporary Christian playlist. Being outsiders is way more rock and roll, anyway.
It’s easy to forget Songs of Experience is music made by one-percenters who grew up as 99-percenters. Larry, Bono, Edge, and Adam, as we, are but a tiny handful of the seven billion stars on earth; the majority of us are guilty of overconsumption with even the modest wealth we hoard and misuse. Can the songs on the album represent the throngs of humanity U2 assumes to know and care about —including a middle-class mom like me, an uneducated girl in a developing country thousands of miles away, and the band’s associates in the upper echelons of class and influence? U2's sound is increasingly filled with the cries of four men calling out from the belly of the behemoth machine they’ve built. They are living and dying to stay human, and Songs of Experience forces us to call back to U2. In 2015, when the band disappeared into the world’s largest video screen, the audience, like the sailors in the Old Testament book of Jonah, was left to ask, “What have you done? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” (Watch “Invisible” from the band’s Paris show, which was rescheduled after the Bataclan terrorist attacks.) Like Jonah or Houdini, U2 emerged from the whale apparatus unscathed and to thunderous applause, and now here we are in 2017.
The boys from the North Side of Dublin can be spotted in Malibu and Manhattan and Dadaab and Davos, but their music continues to meet us at the intersection of personal expression and collective comprehension where an old-school street-style showdown for the power of the people and the soul of us is taking place in one of the most tumultuously tribal and divided years in modern history. Love them or hate them, U2 never lets up or gives in. And by this I mean it all comes down to perseverance. Can a record —or a band (what is a band these days, anyway?) —be great if it offers a point of view broader than the silos to which we have assigned it (and ourselves), long before it even makes its way into our earbuds? Songs of Experience is an affirmation of every globalist’s wishes and a laundry list of frustrations in the age of Trump; it’s also an invitation to a seat at the table where red and blue and brown and black and white and left and right and center can break bread together as long as we can agree on one thing: Love is the answer. (By the way, now that we’re all at the table together, can U2 become a leader in the fight against charging $300 for a seat at the concert? Nobody loves that.)
On the song, “Love is All We Have Left,” Bono isn’t the Shadow Man who can’t reconcile his anger or even the insatiable MacPhisto who gobbles the limelight and sucks the air from the arena. Instead, we have a screen shot from Pareles’s celestial scenario: There is a singer in a dark room with a vocoder, making music that sounds like Daft Punk or Kanye West; he is acting out a scene from a futuristic Tony Kushner Broadway book that’s yet to be written. This character is a winged, space-age Icarus flitting about in St. Tropez sandals while seeking solutions for perplexing spiritual conundrums, traversing continents and diseases and cures and investment funds while living among celebrities and CEOs and world leaders and philanthropists and supermodels and refugees, making financial decisions about advocacy organizations in jet after jet after jet, and juggling handshakes, heartburn, cycling spills, surgeries, and selfies. Don’t underestimate the toll of U2’s life of travel: Behind the shades, there are faces drawn by love across the miles; every tiny crinkle on Bono’s forehead represents a life changed by PEPFAR, a dollar raised by (RED) products for the Global Fund, or a phone call made by ONE to the congressional switchboard. If not for this extra curricular charity stuff, would George W. Bush or the late Jesse Helms and others have so quickly and readily opened their eyes to the borderless-ness of caritas? Would U2’s name be synonymous with ideas so big that these men now belong to no country, but instead to the world?
There’s a crescendo in “Red Flag Day” which replicates the same spine-tingling feeling we got in the early 1980s when we first noticed that U2 meant something to us and to the world. The shiver of “I will Follow” and “Gloria” and “Two Hearts Beat As One” felt like love on fire. The Edge’s rhythm guitar and backing vocals on “Red Flag Day” remind me of that adolescent awakening, a time when our teenaged selves began attending to those gnawing thoughts about what it means to belong to the world and care for our neighbors, whether they be refugees who risk their lives in rafts or a family that scrapes to afford the shabby apartments just two red lights away. Our neighbor is at the bus stop, in the mansion on the hill overlooking the city, in the church pew, in the line at supermarket, on the interstate exit ramp with the cardboard sign. Are we tough enough for this kind of ordinary love? Songs of Experience isn’t the work of jerks or twerps or snobs or lazy musicians. Maybe it comes off as pompous or bland or unimaginative if you’re not willing to accept that the wheel doesn’t need reinvention. The wheel is one of humankind’s greatest tools—it has taken us far. Why abandon that or Edge’s signature strums? Hate into hope. Love to infinity. Around and around again. That’s U2.
If rock musicians can be too scared to inhabit the darkest places in their lyrics, then conversely the grittiest hip hop artists can be afraid of taking their battles into the sunshine. Kendrick Lamar appears in the dimly lit distortion gap between U2’s “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul“ with less of a rap than a commentary on the magical weirdness of millionaires making socially relevant music for the masses. Lamar’s correct, it is counterintuitive for us to digest sonic directives from four guys who have as much money as the current POTUS whom they (and I) can’t abide. But U2’s mission statement was clear long before MTV aired in 1981 and well before all that bank started showing up in the mailbox. “Blessed are the filthy rich, because you can only truly own what you give away,” Lamar says. Then Bono revives the “you and I are rock and roll” chorus from 2014’s “Volcano” as a dungeon groove digs in. If you saw U2 on Saturday Night Live last night or read Noisey’s takedown this morning, there’s a lot to dissect and absorb from “American Soul” and “Get Out of Your Own Way.” I, for one, am grateful for U2’s obsession with America. It feels good to be needed, especially when our country has become a punchline around the globe. U2 wants to save the USA, and you can’t be mad at them for trying.
During SNL, a few minutes before the clock struck 1 A.M., Edge swayed back and forth in the middle of “Get Out” as Bono did a little celebratory double-handclap TV dance move that made me laugh. (My imaginary kinship with Bono in do-gooderism and dorkdom is epic.) Something kooky also happened while I was writing this piece. As I sat down at my computer to listen to SOE with headphones for the first time yesterday, I also made an online dinner reservation for a rare date with my husband at a local seafood spot and didn’t realize I left that browser tab open. So the restaurant website’s ocean sound effects played in tandem with the new U2 album as it streamed. It took me about 20 minutes to figure out that the band had not buried the whoosh of breaking waves into every track. But I didn’t turn off the ocean sounds until I had heard every song of Experience. It was a wonderful, fortuitous accident.
I‘ve been wearing a heart monitor for the past month and undergoing all sorts of medical tests (the latest in a decade-long health rollercoaster I don’t normally discuss publicly). I can feel the electrodes and the itchy adhesive as I return to “The Little Things That Give You Away” for another listen, this time clicking on the song and muting the seafood site’s interference. Larry’s snare is the heartbeat, and I close my eyes to feel Edge’s fluttering fretwork and Adam’s moody undertones. The song takes me back to U2’s concert in Gillette Stadium in June, when I was grateful and sweaty in the late-night breeze after abandoning standing-room-only for a higher perch. I gaze out on the football field at the tiny band onstage and the flickering glow of phones, then look over at my companions —one friend I met when I was eight, another I met when I was 40, and three others I met today —and I’m thinking about how music cemented the bonds of so many relationships in our lives. This summer, when I saw U2 in Boston, Bonnaroo, D.C. and Dublin (that’s a lot, I know), I couldn’t fathom the news headlines of December or what the rest of Songs of Experience might sound like. The Joshua Tree tour was a swirl of dehydration, blurry lights, and hands outstretched to the sky. I couldn’t see well enough to walk up and down the concrete stairs without a flashlight and an escort, but I could hear “The Little Things,” which I hear now in a whole new way:
“Sometimes I wake at four in the morning,” Bono sings in “The Little Things That Give You Away.” “When all the darkness is swarming / And it covers me in fear / Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes / Full of anger and grieving / So far away from believing / That any song will reappear / Sometimes / The end is not coming / It’s not coming/ The end is here / Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes / When the painted glass shatters / And you’re the only thing that matters / But I can’t see you through the fears / Sometimes/ The end isn’t coming/ It’s not coming / The end is here / Sometimes.”
We can’t hold music. It exists to escape us, but wakes us up in the middle of the night with refrains we can’t get out of our heads. It is constantly disappearing and reappearing. When it arrives, fresh and new or old and familiar, we run after it, attempting to clasp it as it flows through our fingers like steam or smoke. We shouldn’t forget that our generation’s altruism is closely tied to music and musicians. 2017 is a wilderness that sometimes feels like chasing butterflies at the end of the world. We’ve suffered a gut-punch to idealism and a setback in our plans to continue cultivating the just, equal, loving communities we want for our children. Sometimes, the words lead and the melodies follow —a big jumble of nagging memories and breathless visions for the future, and we’re overwhelmed by so many questions posed by the voices we let inside. At the end of the song, when Bono can’t figure out whether the end is near or is already here, we understand. Even when everyone tells you your vocation is dead, the world has tuned you out, the algorithms have stripped you of real connection, and you’re strapped to a machine that beeps at you when your heart makes an imperfectly human thump, keep trying. Blessed are those who try, because trying is always the first step in creating change; Blessed are those who love, because “Love is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” and in fact love is bigger than anything we can imagine. Welcome to Experience.
“As you’re walking / Start singing and stop talking / Oh sing your song / Let your song be sung / If you listen / You can hear the silence say / When you think you’re done / You’ve just begun.”