Is U2's new album Songs of Experience the most human Bono has been in a while?
Review: song-by-song guide to band’s 14th album
Bono performing with U2 in Trafalgar Square ahead of the MTV Europe Music Awards on November 12th. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images
The creation of Songs of Experience, U2’s 14th album, began around the time of Bono’s “high-energy bicycle accident” in November, 2014. His injuries to his shoulder and upper arm were so serious he feared he would never play guitar again. He also suffered a facial fracture around his eye.
The writing for began directly after U2 completed Songs of Innocence, their 2014 album that made its way directly into the library of more than 500 million iTunes subscribers, leaving a PR disaster in its wake which Bono later apologised for.
While taking the time to recover and rehabilitate from his accident, Bono’s songwriting became more personal. Each song is treated like a letter to people and places that he loves, while reflecting on the fragility of the human condition as political infrastructures implode around us.
The result is 13 songs long in the making, with the band returning to the studio several times to try to capture the energy of a live show and to add lyrics that would reflect the current political climate.
Songs of Experience is nowhere near U2’s best work. Not by a long shot. In the intended rock’n’roll moments on SoE, the bravado is cringeworthy but in the stripped back and honest moments, Bono and co mildly reveal themselves as humans, lyrical blunders and all.
Songs of Experience: track-by-track review
1. Love Is All We Have Left
The opening quivering strings sound like Dean Martin’s That’s Amore, but instead of a choir introducing us to a love story in Napoli, we have Bono. “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever, nothing to keep us from where we should be. I wanted the world, but you knew better, and that all we have is immortality”, he sings vulnerably, and sometimes through a vocoder, setting the tone and the theme of Songs of Experience.
2. Lights of Home
With Bono’s intro out of the way, here comes The Edge with clanging guitar, Larry Mullen Jnr. rolling into action and Adam Clayton piecing it all together. The boys are back in town! This song is built for a live setting – something they worked especially hard on with this album, apparently – with a climatic chorus and plenty of heys and woah-ohs you can almost hear the soon-to-filled stadiums joining in.
3. You’re The Best Thing About Me
The album’s first single, released in September, peaked at 93 in the Irish charts. Probably not the impact that the band had wished for. Tricking us into thinking that this is a love song, it’s all about self-sabotage, coated with a soft-rock gloss.
4. Get Out Of Your Own Way
Songs of Experience was produced by long-time collaborator Jacknife Lee, who also worked on The Killers’ latest album, Wonderful Wonderful, which was released in September of this year. And Get Out of Your Own Way, with its low synths and uplifting plea to the underdog, sounds exactly like a Killers song. Or it sounds exactly like a U2 song that The Killers would eventually mature towards. Get Out Of Your Own Way contains some lovely phrasing, particularly this one with a lovely flow of “S “sounds that just tumble into each other: “Love has got to fight for its existence/ The enemy has armies of assistance/ The amorist, the glamorous, the kiss/ A fist, listen to this, oh”.
5. American Soul
American Soul had a brief airing on Kendrick Lamar’s Numb-sounding XXX, which featured on his album DAMN, and he opens the song. “Blessed are the filthy rich/For you can only truly own what you give away/Like your pain/ Blessed are the bullies/For one day they will have to stand up to themselves/Blessed are the liars/For the truth can be awkward,” punches Lamar, to introduce an even punchier rhythm on the album’s first political song. The slinky rhythm is a reason to forgive lines such as “Let it be unity, let it be community/ For refugees like you and me/ A country to receive us/ Will you be our sanctuary/ Refu-Jesus”.
6. Summer of Love
Well, this is a pretty little ditty that bounces along at a nice pace. With a steady but gentle beat, there’s a southern twang to this song about summers spent “the west coast, not the one that everyone knows”, which makes it might sound more Clifden than California, but I could be wrong. Maybe Bono owns a private west coast off an island none of us have ever heard of, a place where he can focus on his finances. Anyway. There’s a youthful and reflective air to the song, looking back on a time that was perhaps more carefree.
7. Red Flag Day
Continuing on with beach-y metaphors, Red Flag Day is about seizing a moment and jumping in blind. Or in lifeguard terms, jumping into water that has been labelled as very choppy and very dangerous and we must not dive in. Bono would make an awful lifeguard. A U2 fan website concludes that this song is inspired by the refugees fleeing Syria. “Baby, it’s a red flag day/ Baby, let’s get in the water/ Taken out by a wave where we’ve never been before,” strains Bono, with handclaps supporting the chorus, and a chant-back in cheerleader fashion.
8. The Showman (Little More Better)
Addressing the ego of singers, The Showman is a light-hearted and cynical take on performers and how we shouldn’t take what they say too seriously. Noted, Bono. Noted. “The showman gives you front row to his heart/The showman prays that his heartache will chart/Making a spectacle of falling apart/Is just the start of the show,” he sings, tongue-in-cheek. The chorus is catchy as hell and it’s filled with punchlines, aimed at everyone else in the music industry.
9. The Little Things That Give You Away
This is one of the slower-paced songs that captures when you love someone, even at their very worst and, perhaps, how easily they can be lost through the anxiety and chaos of life. The final verse crashes into a frantic stream of consciousness, marking it as one of the more complex and personal songs on the album.
It’s safe to say that Landlady is about Ali, again, the Landlady of his Killiney mansion, the gatekeeper to his heart. “Every wave that broke me/ Every song that wrote/ Every dawn that woke me/ Was to get me home to you,” he sings, over a tinny guitar, detailing how she always knows it’s him ringing the doorbell when he returns home after a long tour, the tours that can strain their relationship.
11. The Blackout
The Blackout was the teaser song that proved that this long-awaited album was actually on its way. Although it isn’t an official single from SoE, U2 released it in August, making it their first new song in three years and it’s a direct attack on the state of… the world, in general. “Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack,” Bono purrs over a sinister beat, harking back to the cringe-worthy lyrics from the 2001 single Elevation (“A mole, living in a hole, digging up my soul…”) but thankfully, the lyrical blunders are scarce here
12. Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way
Clunky titles are all the rage. This is the longest U2 song title, according to one U” fan site , which might be the most interesting thing about it. It’s full of cliches that normally accompany that poster with a cat hanging on to a branch for dear life.
13 (There Is A Light)
Bono is reaching out to someone in the doldrums, asking them to not give up hope. “I know the world is done, but you don’t have to be,” he reassures them, before closing the song softly with “this is a song for someone, someone like me”. Although it has a clunky start, the emotional crux of this song paints a clearer picture of what Bono has gone through since his accident. His close brush with mortality has awoken an openness with Larry’s drumming providing a heart beat, it’s the most human Bono has been in a while.
- Songs of Experience is released on Dec 1st