Somehow, when my grandpa laid a cliche on me, it still hit home. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” he’d say. Or, “To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail.” Grandpa had earned his wisdom by old-fashioned experience, and he spread it out in little installments over many decades. Though his sayings may have been familiar, the circumstances that he applied them to were always changing. We didn’t look to Grandpa for cutting-edge fashion advice or commentary on recent musical trends. He was above all that. He didn’t need to seek relevance; he was transcendent.
I’m not sure if the members of U2 are grandparents yet, but they are certainly old enough to be. With the release of Songs of Experience, the band members embrace their elder status as they offer up songs and sentiments they feel the world needs. We may roll our eyes from time to time, but just as with Grandpa, as soon as the story ends I want to hear it again.
This long-delayed set is presented as a companion to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. The two-album collection is clearly informed by and loosely patterned after William Blake’s two-volume set of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Experience. Bono has leaned on Blake as a Romanticist role model for many years. His Zoo TV character/persona The Fly, likely inspired by the poem of the same name in Blake’s work, evolved into the devilish MacPhisto character, who was also clearly informed by C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Back then Bono used characters and costumes to critique the culture and reveal the human condition. Now he simply looks us in the face and tells us how it is.
U2 blamed some of this album’s delay on the startling lurch toward fear-based and regressive political ideology on display in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It was a world moment, the band felt, that called for some of their particular type of commentary. Anyone expecting protest songs similar to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Bullet the Blue Sky,” though, will come away disappointed with Songs of Experience. U2 is interested in plumbing the emotional, psychological, sociological, and even theological depths of the human mind and heart for the seeds of brokenness, and then preaching faith and hope and love into those dark places. Bono is, as Paul instructs in Ephesians 4:15, speaking the truth in love. He seems to be trying to address the root instead of the fruit.
Songs of Experience preaches faith and hope and love into dark places.
On the opening track, “Love Is All That We Have Left,” Bono’s vocal is both intimate and artificial. Producer Andy Barlow runs his voice through a vocoder/synth processor, with which the famously imperfect lead vocalist then sings a sort of sad duet. It’s hard not to hear 1 Corinthians 13:13, making for a stark and powerful introduction to the rest of the album. If, at the end of things, all we have left is faith, hope, and love, then we had better figure out what those things mean. Love is our only hope. It’s a cliche, sure, but like my grandpa’s sayings, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
That opening fades into a classic Edge guitar riff for the start of “Lights of Home,” where Bono declares: “I shouldn’t be here 'cause I should be dead.” He uses the image of a near-death experience and seeing “lights in front of me” as an explanation for this era of the band’s output. His own sense of mortality has added an urgency to his work. The chanting bridge “Free yourself to be yourself”—lifted from “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a song for his late mother from Songs of Innocence—may sound like it could have come from a 1960s Coke jingle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
At the heart of this entire collection stands “American Soul.” The track opens with a Kendrick Lamar cameo that bridges the previous song, “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” with this one. Lamar twists the Beatitudes into a prophetic warning (“Blessed are the bullies / For one day the will have to stand up to themselves”), before the song proper uses the amalgamation that is rock-and-roll music to riff on the melting-pot potential of America. “American Soul” becomes an impassioned call to action that functions on a societal level (referencing refugees and racial injustice) and as a theological rebuke of any Christians who sit by as others suffer (or worse, stoke their suffering). The subtle inclusion of a bridge section that interpolates the lyrics of the nursery rhyme “Frere Jacques” (“Brother John,”) acts as a wake-up call for the church to be ringing the invitational bells of freedom instead of sleeping in. I don’t expect the masses to catch the reference to Matthew 25:40 in Bono’s climactic howl of “Refu-Jesus,” but Christians should. It’s cheesy, sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also true.
Songs of Experience wants to be a huge album for the masses. Critics will be frustrated by the simplicity of the message and the earnestness of the delivery, just as they have been since The Joshua Tree came out in 1987 or All That You Can’t Leave Behind hit us in 2000. The kind of critical acclaim the band earned in their sardonic outings will almost certainly not be found this time out. The beautiful thing about Grandpa, though, was that he didn’t care about being cool. On Experience's "13 (There is a Light)", a beautiful and gentle semi-reprise of Innocence’s “Song For Someone,” Bono offers encouragement to seek the Light and work hard not to let it go out. “Are you tough enough to be kind?” he asks in a decidedly pastoral way. The Light, here, is not only something we seek; it’s something we are called to be.
Songs of Experience may be full of big, grinning, sometimes dumb rock, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. In 1 Corinthians 1:27 Paul promises that God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the “wise,” and the weak things of the world to shame the strong. I love that Bono and the boys still believe, some 40 years on, that singing songs about what they see because of the Light can actually help push back the darkness. I hope I’m that "naive" when I get to be their age.