[Note: This review will take a tour through the new U2 album from a music theory, orchestration, and songwriting perspective, in a language that anyone can understand whether you studied music or not. (I got my B.A. in Music Composition, which is why I’m interested in this stuff.) I did this with my review of Songs of Innocence in 2014–and with my book about U2, Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing–and it seemed to work well.]
“Songs of Experience” is phenomenal.
It has a shimmering, playful summer sea-longing in the middle tracks and a deeply haunting, deep-in-the-night Northern Lights glow on the edges–filled to the brim with experience, but also with a longing for something that lies farther than anything experience can give us in this world.
It’s beyond phenomenal, honestly. (Definitely belongs in “best all-time” conversation.) Besides being stacked with beautifully written, rocking, soulful grooves (and extremely catchy, accessible melodies) its opening track, “Love Is All We Have Left,” might be one of my favorite U2 songs of all-time. (More on why in a moment.)
The album is easily one of U2’s best albums in their storied career. I won’t distract you with trying to assert “BEST EVER” or even argue for any specific ranking. I’ve tried it before. But their career (which started mid-1970s) has so many albums and songs, so many “periods” and phases of style, that to claim any album is the best must always rely on some measure of subjective emotion. Their music covers so many emotional landscapes and styles that “the best U2 album ever” could change for you three times in a month depending on the moods and seasons of life that you experience.
So I won’t get into rankings.
I just want to explain why, using some objective music theory, U2 continues to make better music with every album they release. This is their 14th full-length studio album since 1980, and to see them not settle for “good enough,” to see them improve and refine their craft after all these decades is astonishing. It’s extremely rare to see a legendary band stick together for that long yet remain so close in their friendships and creative collaboration that they keep improving with every album.
Bottom-line: The fact that U2 is still around making phenomenal music is something that music fans should not take for granted. We need to relish every new note while we can. It was a glorious feeling to hit “play” on a brand new, fresh-out-of-the-oven U2 album.
Of course, when you’re talking about U2, any rigid scientific musical analysis is the antithesis of the feel-it-don’t-overthink-it instinctive spirit of rock and roll. U2 lives in the molten core of that intuitive approach. When the band writes their songs, they have been known to jam and improvise in the studio for hours, getting every little riff or melodic idea on tape, and then sift through it for any inspired moments, then build on those intuitive bursts of brilliance. (That’s not the only way they write and record, I’m sure, but it’s one that has been written about extensively.)
So with all that in mind, this review will try hard to respect the spirit of rock and roll while also shedding some light on the inner-workings of what makes U2’s new album shine so beautifully.
Let’s dive in:
1. Full-length Drumless Opening Track and the Roominess of Uncluttered Slowness (i.e. The Utter Genius and Emotional Power of “Love Is All We Have Left”)
Track 1, “Love Is All We Have Left,” is a quiet punch in the gut–a completely unexpected beginning to a U2 album. Granted, in the ’90s, an intro like this would not have been shocking, but ever since U2 reincarnated themselves on a chilly October morning in 2000 with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and glided brilliantly into their careful hybrid of their ’90s experimental electronica + stripped down “we’re a four-piece rock band who can still rock a small show and hold their own without any frills” throughout the 2000s and 2010s all the way through “Songs of Innocence,” they have begun their albums with no nonsense rockers: “Beautiful Day,” “Vertigo,” “No Line On The Horizon,” and “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).”
Not so with “Songs of Experience.” This chilling opening track (chilling in the way that an unexpected cool breeze sends chills up your arm on a summer night or chilling like the frost of the Northern Lights) just appears without warning with an urgent cloud of synth. It’s not even a slow-burn synth opener like “Where The Streets Have No Name” from “Joshua Tree.” It’s just a pensive, urgent pad of intriguing synth layers that have the anxious upright spine of someone deep in the night waiting on the edge of a hospital bed to hear the final prognosis from the ER doctor.
And then the ghost of Bono past comes in. It’s the low-register, low-singing Bono we learned to love so well from “The First Time” in ZooTV’s early ’90s haunts. It’s the tired-faced crooner from the opening seconds of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “If God Will Send His Angels.”
But he’s changed.
In the prior decades of U2, we would expect this drumless, synth-soaked, low-singing intro to gradually (or explosively) be reborn into the galloping sprint of U2-in-motion-and-rocking. But the half-dreaming, half-grieving, anxious synth flutters and utterly vulnerable low-register Bono of “Love Is All We Have Left” has no bravado or epic declarations of the high-register tenor Bono (who seems like a different person/character in contrast), and this continues unabated throughout the entire song. This achingly dark flotation of severe northern lights is the song. And it’s the opening song.
It would be as if U2 chose to open the album “Zooropa” with “The First Time” or open “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” with “One Step Closer,” or open “No Line On The Horizon” with “Cedars of Lebanon.”
And it’s wonderful.
For one thing, it establishes a roominess and space in the ear and in the mind that somehow cleanses the palate to take in the rest of the album. The truth is that drums take up a lot of real estate on the soundboard. They’re intrusive. Don’t get me wrong. U2 can’t be U2 without Larry’s flawless tempo and inconsolable rhythms. But with music in general, drums can fill up the sonic space like a sprawling outdoor mall in an urban neighborhood. From a composition perspective, when you remove the drums or the percussion section (in the case of an orchestra) it quietly forces the listener to pay close attention to the harmony, melody and various timbres and textures floating between the instruments.
Drumless soundscapes make you lean in to listen closer. You want to hear what the singer has to say with expectation. Like little fireflies the nuances come out to play in the foreground of the mix.
I can’t get enough of “Love Is All We Have Left,” and it’s marvelous that it begins the album.
2. Lyrical and Melodic Links to Their Previous Album “Songs of Innocence”
This is not especially music theory-related, but it speaks to the artfulness of the album: the quotations of “Songs of Innocence,” the prior album. Of course, these two albums are twins, and they’re partly inspired by Blake’s poems of the same names, so it’s not shocking to find references to the previous album, but U2 takes it a step further and builds entire songs around their references to “Songs of Innocence.” Composers of classical music often incorporated quotations from older symphonies in new works, so U2 is continuing a hallowed tradition. Here are the ones I’ve noted so far:
- In “Lights of Home,” Bono uses the closing lyrics from “Iris” in “Songs of Innocence” (“Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself”) and builds an entirely new section out of it for “Lights of Home” near the end of the song. What’s especially emotional about this is what he is quoting. If you have read the liner notes for “Songs of Innocence,” you will know that the closing collection of phrases in “Iris” are things that Bono remembered his mother saying to him in the few years they had together before she passed away. Hearing them re-remembered in “Lights of Home” just adds another layer of weight and unexpected emotional energy to the song just as you think the song is winding down.
- U2 takes the bridge from “Volcano” on “Songs of Innocence” and builds a new song around it, making the melody and lyrics of that bridge the primary chorus and hook for the new track “American Soul” on “Songs of Experience.”
- And in what is probably my favorite quotation, U2 takes the melody and lyrics of “Song For Someone” from “Songs of Innocence”–the chorus–and recasts it in a different production and musical environment (with the same basic melody and chords) in the heartrending closing track “13 (There Is A Light).”
Taking old ideas and building new songs around them is a mark of maturity in composition and when done well (which is certainly the case here) it is a haunting and beautiful touch, especially when it is referencing previous songs that already dealt with emotional subjects in effective ways. It’s just more evidence that U2 continues to grow with every new album. It’s a joy to witness it.
3. Vocal Texturing
This is just a fun one that I couldn’t resist. It’s not necessarily some grand technical achievement in the art of composition, but the creative vocal processing on “Songs of Experience” is well placed, artful and tasteful.
In “Love Is All We Have Left,” for example, we hear Bono’s vocals (and perhaps The Edge’s too) routed through a voice transformer effect, which is something that originated in EDM and hip hop but has found creative use elsewhere. As we float through synth layers and textures of the opening ballad, flashes of transformed Bonos (or The Edges) appear panned in the side-stage of the mix with pitches altered and the timbre 8-bit crunched and digitized to make the backup vocal flourishes spark. These little digitized flashes become beacons like the lonely blinking lights of a skyscraper’s needle in the night. But then at the perfect moment, the main vocal track (Bono) also becomes fully transformed and digitized just as he’s singing about looking from the other end of the telescope, and the sudden texture change evokes the sense of someone speaking from the Other Side, from an infinite space, from Heaven’s remote Halls with someone peaking into the finite universe and whispering a melody in response to Bono’s earlier verses.
We hear vocal processing on other songs too. “The Blackout” comes to mind, with Bono’s shimmering but slightly nervous/shaky chorus effect that captures the underlying panic of the song’s theme. Other songs have interesting vocal textures as well. (The big, epic effect-transformed “Oh, Oh, Oh..” notes of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” for example.)
There’s enough of these creative, refreshing vocal textures to draw comparisons to the sublime soundscape of the “Achtung Baby” and “Zooropa” years. I’ve always loved it when U2 plays with wild sound textures using the latest technology, and “Songs of Experience” does not disappoint in this way.
4. Plenty of Goosebump Moments (Which Are Hard to Produce in Composing and Songwriting)
I once took a course in college devoted completely to picking apart the “goosebump” moments in classical music–those elusive but memorable few seconds of a piece where certain elements come together in precisely the right way to suddenly shoot chills up your spine and make the hair on your arms stand on end.
They’re hard to come by. And the more you try to force them to happen, the harder it is to create them.
This is subjective, of course; different parts of different songs will have the goosebump effect for different people, so I can only tell my own tale. For me, “Songs of Experience” has enough of these moments in its track-list that it becomes easy to use the big compliments of “great” or “one of the best U2 albums ever” when describing it. As I’ve already mentioned, the opening track “Love Is All You Have Left,” is the biggest one for me, but there are others (though this is not comprehensive, just a sampling):
- The primary chorus/hook sections in “Lights of Home” pluck at the heart strings somehow, probably because of the way the song leads in to them each time. We get the pentatonic dirty rock guitar from The Edge for the verses, then the chorus breaks through with a burst of gorgeous, melodic sparkle–an aching, anthemic melody that tears at the heart with longing as he hits those “the…lights of…home…the…” notes. And then another goosebump moment hits in the bridge, when the band changes the tonal center and Bono starts quoting the words he remembered his late mother saying in the song “Iris” from “Songs of Innocence.”
- In “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” I love the vocal glissando. In the main melody of the chorus, when Bono sings “Get out of your own way, ay-eh-ay-eh-eehhhh,” that last “ehhhh” is this wonderfully expressive melodic sigh where Bono slides down the note. It just sounds as if the singer is releasing the melody like a long, sad, exasperated sigh, which punctuates the theme of the song so well and tugs at the emotions. It’s a very small moment, but those little things can add up to a lot over the course of an album, especially when it becomes an album you listen to on repeat.
- The hypnotic “I’ve been thinking of the West Coast” line in “Summer of Love” and the entire chorus/hook of “Red Flag Day” (one of U2’s catchiest hooks ever), and the yearning of “You know you’re chasing the sunlight” of the irresistible, playful “The Showman (Little More Better)”–all of these moments provoke a bright sea-longing, a summer road trip lust for water and light and simple happiness and togetherness. These are different kinds of goosebumps, but goosebumps none the less.
- On “The Little Things That Give You Away,” well, the whole song can induce goosebumps if it catches you in the right mood, but the way the rhythm and chordal plodding protracts and builds over the course of the song and culminates in one of Bono’s most haunting lyrics ever “The end isn’t coming, the end is here,” and creates one of the most stirring moments on the album.
- The little melodic inflections (i.e. major seventh interval and others) as Bono jumps up in his melody on the chorus of “Landlady,” sort of an unexpected intervalic leap that emphasizes the love and need he has for this woman. It’s a powerful melody.
- On “13 (There Is A Light),” as I mentioned before, the way U2 repackages the main chorus hook from “Song For Someone” in a completely new music environment with different textures and different verses and bridges surrounding it just yanks on the heart strings and caps off the album with the perfect closing track. Honestly, “Songs of Experience” has the perfect beginning and ending tracks–possibly one of the best bookends in U2’s 40+ years.
- And one of the latter verses of “13 (There Is A Light)” gives me a heart wound every time I hear it: when Bono jumps up in his singing register with the lines “When all you’ve left, is leaving, and all you’ve got is grieving, and all you know is needing,” and as the lyric develops Bono eventually trails off into a scatting hum, as if he’s standing leaning against a wall in a dark corner of a room singing to himself, thinking about all these things. It’s such a brilliant moment that ranks (in my mind) among U2’s best musical moments whether it’s the ’80s anthems or the golden moments in “Achtung Baby” or the best moments in the 2000s and early 2010s. There are many such moments on “Songs of Experience,” which is why it has been so addicting. It gets better with each listen.
5. More Bold Key Change, Tonality Moments
Just one more quick observation. In my review for “Songs of Innocence,” I noted how The Edge played with some interesting tonality shifts, changing from major to minor keys in a single arpeggio during the song “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” This, in my opinion, reflected U2’s maturity as songwriters and musicians. “Songs of Experience” continues that refreshing willingness to create shifts in the song’s tonal center. I’m not talking about cliche key changes. Anybody can bump the chords and melody of a song up a half-step and repeat everything verbatim in a different key. That kind of thing is actually a little cheesy. I’m talking about creating new tonal centers for a song, where the whole gravity of the song’s harmonic center shifts somewhere else. “Lights of Home” on this new album really nails that kind of shift, near the end when Bono quotes the lyrics from “Iris” from the previous album (“Songs of Innocence”). It’s a powerful ending to “Lights of Home,” and, as mentioned earlier, it creates a new melodic and harmonic life to the song’s character just when you think it’s about to wind down and end.
It’s just more proof that U2 continues to mature and improve with every album they release (which is really the entire premise of this review and my review for “Songs of Innocence.”)
Two Stories of Grief, Two Albums to Process the Pain: A Personal Gratitude for ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’
A few years after my dearly loved mom died unexpectedly, U2 released “Songs of Innocence.” It was the catalyst for both healing and writing about the meaning of joy in grief, and that season of writing produced the book Shadowlands and Songs of Light, which compares the spiritual truths found in 18 C. S. Lewis books with the musical metaphors that U2 has created over 13 studio albums.
But then grief came again.
The day after New Year’s Day this year (2017), my dear dad passed away unexpectedly. Suddenly, without warning, I was parentless–plunged into a strange world of grief that was different than any grief I had known before. It was more like fear and panic, like a kid lost in the big department store, unable to find his parents, yelling for them but unable to find any familiar face or voice. And then “Songs of Experience” comes out, and in this album I find a large basketful of songs, like finding a basket of hidden medicine, that speak so perfectly to the last 11 months of grieving over my dad.
Music doesn’t cure that kind of pain. But it helps you live with it. It soothes it sometimes. It helps you work through it. These twin albums have become especially significant because each one, the “Innocence” and the “Experience,” came out during the two grieving seasons over my parents.
So yes, the timing surprises me, but the themes do not. Both “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” are, in part, albums about grieving. (Some of the songs Bono confirmed were about his late mother who passed away when he was 14, for example.) They’re about the (temporary) loss of innocence, the (temporary) loss of youth and immortality (i.e. that youthful feeling that “the end” is far enough away that we can comfortably ignore it) the (temporary) loss of parents, the (temporary) loss of hope, the (temporary) loss of loved ones, and the (temporary) loss of peace. But these albums are also about an immortal kind of faith, hope, joy and love that transcends all the loss, works through all the grief, and opens up a window above our heads to a place “on the other end of the telescope” that’s bigger than the universe and bigger than our lives.
Why the word “temporary” in front of all the losses? The clue can be found on songs like “California (There Is No End To Love)” from “Songs of Innocence” and “Love Is All We Have Left” in “Songs of Experience.” As the former says: there is no end to grief, but there’s no end to love either, and that’s all I need to know. Or as the latter says: “I wanted the world, but you knew better. All we have is immortality. Love, and love, is all we have left.”
And as noted here, when Bono and The Edge recently gave a performance on the subway in Berlin on the U2 train line, after the performance Bono said this: “At the far end of experience we hope, we pray, with wisdom and a bit of humility, we might recover innocence.”
This music helps in that journey back to innocence (and to hope, love, faith, and joy). Even if we only recover a little drop of those things, it makes the journey worth it.
Songs of experience indeed.
Thank you, U2 (for the fourteenth time).