Album Review of "Songs of Experience" by U2

 

Bono, Blake and the Conflicted Human Soul

In this episode, Bobby Waller explores the philosophical underpinnings of U2's Songs of Experience. This album brings the theological themes of 18th century romantic poet William Blake into full focus within the context of recent political events and lead singer Bono's brushes with death.

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Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Songs of Experience by U2

Learn more about U2, listen to Songs of Experience, and read additional reviews.

Listen to Songs of Experience


Album Review: Songs of Experience by U2
Bono, Blake and the Conflicted Human Soul

This is a transcript of Ep. 15 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here

Hi, everybody! Welcome to What’s This Album About?, the podcast that dives deep into the lyrics of today’s best songwriters. We usually cover small,or smallish, independent artists on this show, but in this episode, we’re going about as far in the other direction as you could possibly go. In this episode, we’ll take look at the new album of one of the biggest rock acts of all time. 

           ♪  You’re the best thing about me
                 The best thing that ever happened a boy

This is U2. The song is called “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” and it’s the lead single from their brand new album, Songs of Experience—a companion piece to their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

Cool album titles, right? But did U2 come up with these titles on their own? 

          Tyger, tyger, burning bright
          In the forests of the night

Meet English romantic poet, William Blake, English, who, in 1794, published a volume of poetry called Songs of Experience, just a few years after having published its companion piece, Songs of Innocence. Are you catching the correlation here? I’m Bobby Waller, and In this episode of What’s This Album About?, we’re looking at the philosophical debt U2 owes to William Blake.

This is the lead single from U2’s 2014 album, Songs of Innocence. It’s called “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” and it’s about the moment that lead singer/songwriter Bono first heard the Ramones, whose sound he describes as…

          ♪  The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.

Like the other songs on U2’s Songs of Innocence, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a reminiscence of the band’s youth—a time before they were the world-wise, jet-setting superstars they’ve been for the past thirty-plus years. U2’s Songs of Innocence is explicitly inspired by William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, which is a collection of poems about the more innocent, unjaded side of human nature. Take for example, this poem:

          Little lamb, who made thee?
          Does thou know who made thee?

This is Blake’s poem “The Lamb.” In it,  the narrator asks a little lamb if it knows who…

          Gave thee clothing of delight
          Softest clothing, wooly, bright
          Gave thee such a tender voice
          Making all the vales rejoice?

Notice that the lamb lacks awareness of its creator, it knows nothing about cause and effect, it lives in fully in the present, naïve, unsuspecting, and fully immersed in the sensual world—like Bono hearing the Ramones for the first time.

           ♪  The most beautiful sound I'd ever heard

That’s what innocence is like, according to Blake. 

By contrast, Blake’s Songs of Experience is about the other side of human nature—the sometimes jaded side whose enjoyment of the sensual world can be hampered by the self-consciousness that follows years of social conditioning; the side that has been impacted by the darker aspects of human existence, like heartbreak, cruelty, suffering and, above all, death.

Consider what is probably Blake's most famous poem—the one about the tiger.

          Tyger, tyger, burning bright

Yeah, that one. It’s called “The Tyger,” and it asks its reader to revel in the “deadly terrors” of the tiger--a ferocious flesh-eater that Blake characterizes as a denizen of darkness. In the realm of experience, death is a formidable menace that lurks in every shadow.

And it is this awareness of death that gives U2’s Songs of Experience the topical breadth that, by many accounts, the band has been lacking for decades. Bono wrote Songs of Experience largely as a reaction to two brushes with death that he experienced in the past few years. The more recent brush was so private that the band still hasn’t divulged its details to the public, and the other was a much-publicized 2014 bike accident that Bono refers to on Track 2, “The Lights of Home.” It begins like this…

          ♪ I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead

But the real grappling with mortality comes in the second verse.

          ♪ I was born from a screaming sound
               I can see the lights in front of me

Here Bono evokes the trauma of birth—the screaming and the startling lights of the delivery room.

          ♪ I thought my head was harder than ground
               I can see the lights in front of me

This is the confession of a man who never really took the time to fathom his own fragility. And now the lights in front of him evoke the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that so famously is associated with near-death experiences.

          ♪One more push and I’ll be born again
              One more road you can’t travel with a friend.” 

“One more push and I’ll be born again”—as in I’m just a breath away from death. “One more road you can’t travel with a friend”—because we all face mortality alone. There’s a darkness here that’s pretty atypical for U2 and that a lot of commentators, myself included, are finding refreshingly honest. 

Another parallel between Blake’s work and U2’s work is a recurring concern for social justice. Take, for example, Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper,” which is a biting indictment of child labor.

          And so he was quiet; and that very night
          As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight
          That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack
          Were all of them locked up in coffins of black

Or “The Little Black Boy” which admonishes racism and asserts that black children and white children are equally beloved by God.

          When I from black and he from white cloud free
          And round the tent of God like lambs we joy

On U2’s Songs of Experience, we hear the band’s hallmark orientation toward social justice on songs like “Summer of Love”…

           ♪ Summer of love

and “Red Flag Day,”…

           ♪ Baby, It's a red flag day

…both of which reference the hardships of refugees who have risked their lives to relocate to Europe in recent years. 

          ♪ 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

There are also songs like “American Soul”…

           ♪  Came here looking for American soul

…and “Get Out Of Your Own Way,”…

            ♪  Get out of your own way

…which express concern about how recent changes in American politics threaten to compromise human liberty. Take this verse from “Get Out of Your Own Way”:

          ♪ Fight back
               Don't take it lyin' down, you got to bite back
               The face of liberty's starting to crack
               She had a plan up until she got smacked in the mouth
               And it all went south

I think that’s a pretty well-crafted image—the statue of liberty cracking from a smack in the mouth. And I also like the way the verse ends: 

          ♪  The promised land is there for those who need it most
                 And Lincoln’s ghost says, “Get out of your own way."

The Great Emancipator, Lincoln himself, tells us (presumably us in the U.S.) to get out of our own way. We’ve got a good thing going here. We’re humanity’s best shot for true liberty, and the only thing that stands in the way, is our own undercurrents of hatred, bigotry, and greed.

            ♪  Get out of your own way

One last parallel between Blake and Bono that is worth mentioning here is the way both writers conceive of the clash between innocence and experience in the human soul. Blake parted significantly from Christian orthodoxy of his day, which was largely dualistic. In dualism, the universe is divided into two distinct forces—good and evil, God and Satan—which are constantly in conflict and constantly competing for control of the human soul. But Blake was more of a monist than a dualist. He believed that the universe boils down to one force (God), not two forces. Note that his poem “The Tyger” asks… 

          Did he who made the lamb make thee?

The answer for Blake is yes. The lamb (a symbol of innocence) and the tiger (a symbol of experience) were both created by God. Innocence and experience ultimately spring from the same source. They aren’t, as the dualists would have it, purity (which is to be preserved) and sin (which is to be eradicated). According to Blake, that kind of thinking leaves us in a hopelessly irreconcilable state of neurosis. Instead, Blake sees innocence and experience as two sides of the same coin. Kind of like the Force in Star Wars, which has a dark side and a light side, but they both come from the same place Because there is no place where the Force is not, and it's literally impossible for something to be not comprised of the Force. 

For Blake, this common origin of innocence and experience means that we need them both and that each must be informed by the other. 

In the liner notes for U2’s Songs of Experience, Bono writes that Track 9, “The Little Things That Give You Away,”…

            ♪  It's the little things that give you away

…is a dialogue between his innocent self (the starry-eyed kid who fell in love with the pure, primal energy of the Ramones) and his experienced self (the man of the world who sometimes believes he’s in control of it all). His innocent self sings to his experienced self… 

          ♪ I saw you on the stairs
               You didn’t notice I was there
               That’s 'cause you were talking at me and not to me

Sometimes the experienced self—too assured in its own worldview—doesn’t even see innocent self. But it needs the innocent self to keep itself from becoming too dogmatic or too jaded. Songs of Experience is, after all a U2 album, and U2 never leaves us in the darkness for too long. The album ends with two songs of hope—Track 12, the anthemic “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”…

            ♪  Love is bigger than anything in its way

…and Track 13, titled “13 (There Is a Light).”

          ♪ And if the terrors of the night come creeping into your days
               And the world comes stealing children from your room
               Guard your innocence from hallucination
               And know that darkness always gathers around the light.”

Darkness will gather because that's the nature of things. Tyrants will rise, death will taunt us, and the terrors of the night will come creeping into our days. We need experience because experience is the awareness that this will happen. It allows us to see the darkness coming and guard against its inevitable encroachment. And the thing that must be guarded is innocence itself. Because without innocence, experience is merely cynicism. In the final uplifting moments of U2's Songs of Experience, inspired by William Blake's own Song of Experience, Bono reminds us that innocence is what gives us the audacity to believe that tomorrow will be better day and the energy to make it so. 

            ♪  This is a song for someone, for someone
                  Someone like me
                  Someone like me                 
                  Someone like me

Special thanks to webmaster, Linda Easton, and to Hank Demolition for his riveting performance as William Blake. If you like what we do here at What’s This Album About?, tell a friend about us. It’ll help us a lot. And be on the lookout later this month, look for our very first retrospective episode as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Until then I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to stay innocent. And keep your ears open because the more you listen, 

the more you love.

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