BACK FROM THE BRINK
Inspired by a brush with the grim reaper, the new U2 album is an extraordinary work of art.
U2: SONGS OF EXPERIENCE
9/10 | Key Track: ‘Landlady’
The first time anyone heard mention of Songs Of Experience was on the September 9, 2014. That was the day U2 controversially released their 13th studio album, Songs Of Innocence, as a free download to half-a-billion unsuspecting iTunes subscribers. It was a typically grand gesture, the biggest album giveaway in music history, but sadly one that somewhat backfired on the four Dubliners when it turned out that not everybody was overjoyed to have a free U2 album land uninvited in their inbox.
Initially at least, the songs – which largely focused on the band’s formative years in the Dublin of the ‘70s – were lost amid all the outraged online noise. Fact is that Songs Of Innocence was actually a really strong album, the work of a dedicated rock ‘n’ roll outfit fiercely resistant to the notion of ever becoming a heritage act. Even then they announced that they’d already started work on its follow-up, a companion album to be called Songs Of Experience (both titles taken from William Blake’s 1789 illustrated poetry collection Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience). The plan was to record it on the road as they toured the first record, in much the same way as they’d made 1993’s Zooropa during the ZOO TV tour.
In the world of U2, though, things seldom go according to plan – and the band simply can’t be trusted when they tell you when a new album is expected. Bono’s cycling accident in New York certainly didn’t help things, but that wasn’t the only delay. They were reported to be working with various producers in different locations in Europe and North America including a lengthy stint at Rick Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu, but no official release date was announced. When the album didn’t appear towards the end of 2015, they promised it would be out by the following autumn. When that didn’t happen, they then claimed that the Brexit vote and the surprise election of Donald Trump had caused them to pause and rethink the songs in the light of the changed political climate.
This is possibly true, but it certainly wasn’t the whole truth. In actual fact, Bono was seriously sick last year, struck down with a potentially fatal illness that he has chosen not to name. As the singer reveals in the liner notes here: “Last winter I was on the receiving end of a shock to the system myself, a shock that left me clinging to my own life like a raft.”
Anyway, that was the genesis and here – finally – is their fourteenth studio album.
The cover of SOI featured an intimate Anton Corbjin shot of Larry embracing his son, Elvis. Staying with that family theme, SOE’s cover shows Bono’s teenage son, Eli, holding hands with Edge’s teenage daughter, Sian.
Both the shocks to the global political system and to the singer’s own body are reflected in the 13 songs featured on Songs Of Experience (the deluxe version also includes a new mix of ‘Ordinary Love’ and a song called ‘Book Of Your Heart’). Following the sage advice of Irish poet Brendan Kennelly – who told Bono to write “as if you’re dead” – most of them were conceived as final letters to his wife, children, friends and fans. However, he hasn’t given up the ghost just yet. On the joyfully defiant, Haim-assisted, ‘The Lights Of Home’, he directly admits, “I shouldn’t be here cos I should be dead/ I believe my best days are ahead.”
What’s surprising, given the long gestation and the number of personnel involved, is that the record sounds so cohesive. SOE was produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder – both of whom worked on Songs Of Innocence – with the assistance of longtime stalwart Steve Lillywhite (who produced their 1980 debut Boy), Andy Barlow (Lamb), Jolyon Thomas (Royal Blood), Brent Kutzle, Paul Epworth, Danger Mouse and Declan ‘Deckchair’ Gaffney. It was recorded in no less than 11 different studios, including New York’s Electric Lady, Shangri La and Dublin’s Hanover Quay and Windmill Lane. Many cooks and many kitchens, but somehow the broth wasn’t spoiled.
The album’s central message is spelled out in the eerie opening track ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ (“Nothing to stop this being the best day ever/Nothing to keep us from where we should be”) and beautifully bookended by the closing song ’13 (There Is A Light’), which spookily revisits and reinterprets SOI’s ‘Song For Someone’. Both songs will send chills down your spine.
Fans will already be familiar with the four tracks they’ve released to date: the ballad ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’, which featured most nights in their set on this year’s The Joshua Tree Tour; classic sounding
"BOTH THE SHOCKS TO THE GLOBAL POLITICAL SYSTEM AND TO THE SINGER’S OWN BODY ARE REFLECTED IN THE 13 SONGS."
politically-charged rocker ‘The Blackout’; the Eamon Dunphy-inspired ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’; and latest single. ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’. While critical reaction to these has been mixed, they’re perfectly placed in the track-listing here. U2 are master craftsmen when it comes to creating growers, songs that seem quite ordinary at first but then slowly seep their way into your subconscious and to the top of your playlist.
‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ is addressed to Bono’s daughters: “Love hurts/Now you’re the girl who’s left with no words/ Your heart’s a balloon but then it bursts/It doesn’t take cannon, just a pin/ Your skin’s no covering.” Kendrick Lamar dons what Bono calls a “cracked preacher” hat, to deliver an impassioned but tongue in cheek segue into the anthemic rocker ‘American Soul’: “Blessed are the arrogant/For theirs is the kingdom of their own company/Blessed are the superstars/ For in the magnificence of 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.”
The Syrian refugee crisis is addressed on two songs, the rocking ‘Red Flag Day’ and the beautifully melodic ‘Summer Of Love’: “I’ve been thinking ‘bout the west coast/Not the one that everyone knows/In the rubble of Aleppo/ Flowers blooming in the shadows/For a summer of love.”
As with ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’, standout song ‘Landlady’ is another hymn of
"U2 ARE MASTER
CRAFTSMEN WHEN IT COMES TO CREATING GROWERS."
gratitude from Bono to his wife, Ali: “And I’ll never know/Never know what starving poets meant/Cause when I was broke/It was you that always paid the rent.”
The uplifting ‘Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way’ might well be the singer singing to himself after having an epiphany on the beach in front of his Dublin home: “If the moonlight caught you crying on Killiney Bay?/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.”
On moving album closer, ’13 (Song For Someone)’ – which nods back to SOI – he’s obviously talking to his sons: “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?”
U2 are now at a stage in their career where they’re judged – and often misjudged – on a whole lot more than just the quality of their work. It’s easy to lazily dismiss them, and there’s probably just enough seeming bombast here (‘The Blackout’, ‘The Showman’) to give the haters the ammunition they crave. But if you can listen without prejudice, you’ll find that it’s as artful and well-crafted a collection of songs as Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry have ever produced. Which after 40 years experience in the business of making music is exactly as it should be.
OUT DECEMBER 1 // OLAF TYARANSEN