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Don't spend too much on the box and the wrapping paper. No matter how big the occasion, your loved ones just want what's inside.-- Bono, on what's he learned from being in U2, 2002

13 Thoughts on 13 Songs of Experience

@U2

 SOE album cover

We’ve now had 365 days to ruminate over Songs Of Experience. Members of the ATU2 staff, one year after the album’s release, thought we'd share our thoughts on SOE’s 13 songs (not counting the bonus tracks). The Innocence + Experience Tour, life and world events, or just more time to ponder the lyrics, affected how we heard these songs. Or maybe just reinforced how we felt the first time we listened on Dec. 1, 2017.

1. “Love Is All We Have Left,” by Ian Ryan

Unlike every other U2 album this millennium, Songs Of Experience starts with worry. "Love Is All We Have Left" is nervous, tense and minor key strings are the pacing back and forth in a hospital waiting room, like a loved one anxious for the doctor's report. The baby is being born, but something is wrong. It's going to be abandoned or hurt, but with the hope that some love out there will keep it safe and preserve its innocence. Then the song does a 180-degree switch to a person who has passed, looking down from the heavens at the 7 billion stars that are humanity. This soul sings with an alien, distorted voice and we realize that it was the whisper in the first chorus, telling the baby not to close its eyes. The alien voice is experienced, tired, confident ... but also a bit jealous. This is no time not to be alive, and the soul that has passed knows it. It wishes it could trade its experience for innocence, and the baby could probably use some experience to protect itself.

My biggest single fear of a modern U2 album is that the band are going to lead with a "yeah yeah yeah"/"yeah hey hey"/"oh oh oh" track, either as the first song on the album or as the lead single. I thoroughly love most of the songs they've released over the past 18 years that include those types of starts or chants, but it was also really old hat for them. In the first few seconds of "Love Is All We Have Left", I knew that Songs Of Experience was a different beast. I remember sitting on the living room couch of my parents' home at night and hearing those notes for the first time. I was genuinely excited, in a way I hadn’t been in over a decade, for the album that was going to follow, and I was not disappointed at all. U2 told me they still had it in them.

2. “Lights Of Home,” by Chris Enns

“If only you could see yourself”

Opening with a dirty guitar riff, "Lights Of Home" is an indicator of where we’re headed on this album if “Love Is All We Have Left” had you worried that Songs Of Experience was going to be stuck in the space between the earth and heaven.

“I shouldn’t be here 'cause I should be dead”

Knowing now what we didn’t know when the album was first released about Bono’s health incident, it’s impossible to not hear “Lights Of Home” as a reminder from Paul Hewson to Bono not to waste this chance to take this song, this album, this band, on the road to as many hearts as possible before the lights call him home.

“Wait a minute. You’re not a rock star. You’re little Paul from No 10 Cedarwood, and you go, What are you talking about? Paul is dead. I have a new address. I live here. I’m f*cking Bono.”

3. “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” by Liseth Meijer

“The best thing about Bono is Ali.”

Leave it to Bono to turn a sneer into a lighthearted but heartfelt love song for his wife.

For me, the best thing about “The Best Thing” is the metaphors used to describe different aspects of true love: “I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy” — loving each other, warts and all. “You’re still free enough to wake up on a bed or a beach” — even after years, we’re still having fun together, we still know how to be playful. 

During the 2018 E+I shows I loved Bono’s little ‘one on one’ with Ali, sitting in front of the mirror, taking off his makeup. He seemed vulnerable opening himself up like that, literally and metaphorically taking off a mask. The song lifts me up every time I hear it. There’s one thing about it that used to bother me though: Why that question at the end, “Why am I walking away?” At first it felt like an unsatisfactory end to the tune.

But then suddenly an answer occurred to me: “Just so we both feel the pang of missing each other, and I can come back running into your arms.”

4. “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” by Scott Calhoun

I’ve lost track of how many times in the last few years I have heard a poet or writer or coach or preacher say something to the effect of the biggest obstacle we face to writing, creating, doing or being that “good thing“ we so deeply desire is ourselves. It must be a season of life thing for me that I’m noticing this exhortation so much, and now here is “Get Out Of Your Own Way” to join the chorus. Its staying power won’t be as a pop-protest for this current State of America, but rather as U2’s punch of joy to the gut of each one who is in their fight to surrender themselves to be themselves. 

In my mind, a silver cord runs from this Lincoln-haunted song back through U.S. Representative Tip O’Neill’s (Massachusetts) saying that “all politics is local,” to another citizen of Massachusetts: Ralph Waldo Emerson. When Lincoln still walked the earth in 1851, Emerson the abolitionist urged that more than being local, politics is personal. In his pop-protest “Address to the Citizens of Concord on the Fugitive Slave Law,” he said if the nation is to be good, it will flow out of the good of the local, personal, individual: “We must make a small State great, by making every man in it true.” With Emerson, Lincoln, O’Neill and U2 in my head, I’m working on getting out of the way of my own small state.

5. “American Soul,” by Brian Betteridge

The best U2 songs take on an added dimension when played in front of a packed crowd. On Songs Of Experience, “American Soul” plays as a straightforward rock song in the vein of “Elevation” or “Vertigo,” though it does so perhaps a little too obviously. But on the Experience + Innocence Tour, it exploded into a rowdy, loud stomper of a song. In such tumultuous times in America, the song’s message, along with the gigantic American flag hanging from the rafters, became a much-needed call for decency and togetherness. It’s a view of the American dream from the outside, unbiased by politics. It’s a reminder of what America is, or at least, what it should be. But most of all, it’s a heavy-footed ode to the great American melting pot.

The best U2 songs can also adapt their meaning to fit the times we live in. Seeing U2 perform it live in front of such a giant flag, in the context our current political climate, is a reminder that we should not stop thinking about what we want America to be. It’s also a warning of what we stand to lose if we stray too far from our ideals. That message has probably always been there, but maybe we just needed it stuck loudly in our collective faces to get the point. Put all of this together, and "American Soul" is U2 firing on all cylinders. I can only hope it makes an appearance on the next tour, whenever that may be.

6. “Summer Of Love,” by Marilynn Maione

The ocean is so flat, so wide, our eyes can’t tell if it’s one mile or a thousand. Many have made it and started a new life elsewhere on this shrinking planet. They have survived bombings, draughts, famines, hurricanes. Mudslides, fires, gang wars, drug wars, tribal wars. How bad could it be? 

The water is inviting, calm. The waves are calling, lapping around your toes as you look down, trying to remember what keeps you here. Is it the familiarity of solid ground? What choice do you have? Maybe the grocery stores, schools and hospitals are gone. No jobs, no extended family members. Home? Home is your language, the customs, food, music and the memories that you hold for your children.

What if you took a step, or two, or 10,000? On the other side, new ground waits. The ahead waits. This little wave, and this one, and that one and the next all started somewhere, and ended here, at your feet. Is your love enough to overcome the risk? How bad could it be?

This simple song takes only what it can carry—a thin guitar line, a single snare, some apprehension in the heaviness of the bass. The lyrics never mention the worst-case scenario, but what all humans wish; safety, family, the possibility of life blooming in the most dangerous or desolate places. Like all living things, we are built to survive, to run to the ahead, to run towards life. Out of destruction comes beauty, if you live.

7. “Red Flag Day,” by Mason Merritt

Starting with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 have put themselves under a lot of pressure to make sure an up-tempo, radio-friendly pop song has been how they reintroduce themselves to the world.

For all the time they spent this last album cycle prepping “You’re The Best Thing About Me” as their lead single, or “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” before that, this middle-of-the-album rocker about the refugee crisis has become the pop song they’ve been trying to write since "Vertigo." 

Magic comes to U2 in two places: the studio and the stage. Whatever mysterious alchemy gives them the ability to pull songs out of thin air is the same that presents itself when they get on stage and play a song for the tribe. I was lucky enough to have been among said tribe at the Apollo Theater this past summer to hear “Red Flag Day” live, and it was truly amazing to feel the energy of the room change when Edge strummed those first few notes. I love “The Miracle,” “Best Thing” and “Get on Your Boots” (sue me!), but “Red Flag Day” stands out as the up-tempo, crowd-pleasing lead single they never realized they wrote. 

8. “The Showman (Little More Better),” by Karen Lindell

Oh, Bono. Thank you for reminding us that you are birthday cake.

Walked through the room like a birthday cake

When I’m all lit up I can't make a mistake

Because birthday cake is just never wrong. Even when it's too sweet, or lopsided, or a tad burnt, or the icing is smudged, or the candles singe our fingers, birthday cake celebrates someone’s life

Every time you show us your Showman self (is that all the time?), we know you are praying your “heartache will chart" but at the same time you are giving us a “front row to your heart.” And that makes your Showman-ship not only OK, but welcome. Because you open us up to our own hearts. You look so good, and make us feel so good. You light up our lives and inner selves, fiercer than any candles on a cake.

Note: Some haters of this song won't let go of the “little more better” apparent grammatical travesty. OK, let’s all sing, “I can't get any satisfaction” then, or “What's love have to do with it?” Bad-grammar-in-songs argument squelched.

9. “The Little Things That Give You Away,” by Becky Myers

When U2 debuted “The Little Things That Give You Away” in Vancouver at the first show of the Joshua Tree anniversary tour in 2017, I couldn’t make out all of the words Bono was singing. I could sort of see the band (I was on the floor and I’m short) facing each other while performing this intimate song, which turned out to be the final song of the evening. So I DID get a feeling about the new album, a feeling that it would be intensely introspective and personal. It was the first hint we’d had of what was to come. The next time I heard the song was about a month later and I heard it more clearly. I understood Bono to be speaking to himself, about his fears. I related to the song on a strictly emotional level. 

It punched me in the gut when Bono sang, “Sometimes, I wake at 4 in the morning, where all the darkness is swarming, and it covers me in fear.” I knew then we were in for a new kind of special album, and I couldn’t wait to hear this song in sequence, as U2 albums are meant to be heard and experienced. For me, the album did not disappoint, and “The Little Things” was put into perspective among the narrative. It remains one of my favorites on the album.

10. “Landlady,” by Geoff Wilson

When I’m not helping out on the ATU2 site, my day job is in real estate — and as part of that job, I manage the properties I own. I’m a landlord. So while the elegiac ending of “Landlady” speaks to me on a human level, the theme of the song speaks to me on a business level too. Bono is writing a love letter to Ali, but he’s also making a statement: He knows that the life he lives now isn’t really his, because he doesn’t own it. Ali does. Maybe she always has. There might even be a larger religious allusion at work too, as Christian believers think the lives they live are no longer theirs either. Like the best of Bono’s songs, listeners can take it in a lot of different directions. The 200th listening can bring an insight the previous 199 somehow missed. Isn’t that the essence of why we love this band?

11. “The Blackout,” by Christopher Endrinal

I like to pick a “hero” for each song, a band member who is particularly on his game in that specific song. Bono’s vocals on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” for example, outshine everything else in that song for me. For “The Blackout,” Adam’s bass playing stood out for me, initially. The punchy sound gives off so much attitude that it HAS to occupy the foreground of the instrumental texture. But as I listened to the song more, Edge’s guitars began to capture my attention. His work on this song only reinforced the notion that he truly is an architect of sound. The soundscapes he creates with his instruments and rig are intricately detailed, picturesque even. The variety of effects in “The Blackout,” combined with Adam’s buzzy bass, impart a sense of dirtiness, a grunginess reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic wasteland suggested in the lyrics.

And then there’s Larry.

I have listened to Songs Of Experience A LOT over the past year, but it was only recently that the percussion caught my ear, especially in the verses. This is some of Larry’s best work ever: It’s complex, propulsive and precise.

So, who’s my “hero” on “The Blackout”? Ask me again in another year.

12. “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” by Collin Souter

So, let’s pretend for a minute that this really was their final album and tour. There is something about this being the penultimate song that reminds me of how The Beatles intended to call it a day with Abbey Road, as Paul sang toward the very end, “And in the end / the love you take / is equal to the love you make.” It’s as though U2’s own Paul took a page from the Fab Four’s playbook (wouldn’t be the first time) and penned a song along those same lines. 

As far as the live version goes, I will always remember a visual from that part of the show. It’s a small, subtle thing, but it got me every time. Again, thinking of this as their last waltz, as the song comes to a close after the bridge, looking at the screen, with all four band members in a wide shot, the camera started pulling away slowly as the song reached the crescendo and Bono had the crowd waving their hands in unison with him. If you’re a director making this concert film and you see this as their big farewell, that’s what you’d do with the camera, pull away slowly to show the band, with their fans, as they’d like to be remembered, as one. 

13. “13 (There Is A Light),” by Karen Lindell

How very lucky we are to have “13 (There Is A Light).” Never have parentheses been more misplaced. Because the belief, the fact, the truth, the hope that “there is a light” is the key to this album-ending song.

The lightbulb in the miniature house, Bono grabbing it as he sang this song at the end of the E+I shows, brought us from Innocence to Experience. Some might say from light to dark. No. Wherever you are in life, there is a light you can’t always see. You have to face blackouts and darkness sometimes, but don’t forget the light hiding in the basement. Let it in. Hold it. Let it go. But don’t let it go out.

© @U2, 2018