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Achtung! Songs Of Experience: Better Than Achtung Baby

@U2, April 12, 2018
By: Sherry Lawrence


When Songs Of Experience was released, @U2 staff shared initial thoughts about the album. In that piece, I shared that Songs Of Experience was as good, if not better than Achtung Baby. Four months later, I can unequivocally state Songs Of Experience is indeed better. Bono has said that U2 likes to be in the middle of the contradiction, and contradictions are what writer William Blake is famous for. Blake’s work has inspired Bono for decades, including during the Achtung Baby sessions, which makes both Achtung Baby and Songs Of Experience fair comparisons because both albums deal in depth with innocence lost and experience gained.

I realize I might be in the minority with such a bold claim, especially as many view Achtung Baby as the best album U2 has produced. I would argue that while both albums share some commonality, the comfort level with the content of the material is what separates the two works. Older and wiser, the band has been able to incorporate a wider perspective on the foibles of the human spirit in a more comprehensive way in Songs Of Experience both lyrically and musically. I see Songs Of Experience as having a clearly defined storytelling arc with songs that showcase the strengths of each musician contributing to it. I will concede that the album might not resonate with everyone given the inspiration behind it: Not everyone has had a near-death experience or thought in depth about what happens when they pass on. However, the album challenges the listener to do some deep soul searching and self-reflection. Songs Of Experience doesn’t take the path of least resistance, rather it works through the struggles and emotion of this thing called life, offering some sage advice at the end.

By contrast, Achtung Baby, as good as it is with its relatable and universal themes, lacks a dynamic discussion between discouragement and hope. Even though it has a defined storytelling arc, it doesn’t challenge the listener to examine life beyond the darker emotions; rather, it focuses on an inability to process the raw emotion of it all. It offers no path out of the misery. The Edge said in U2 By U2, "the sound of Achtung Baby is really desperation and resignation and all sorts of worrying tones in between."

Youth Versus Maturity

In comparing Songs Of Experience and Achtung Baby, the band is riffing on similar material: the dichotomy between love and lust, faith and doubt, as well as trust and betrayal. However, there is a stark contradiction in the perspective of the singer: Uplift versus discouragement. The inspirational nature of Songs Of Experience alone doesn’t qualify it as being better than Achtung Baby. Songs Of Experience offers a more mature expression of the themes Achtung Baby began to explore. That nuanced approach and perspective taking is why I believe Songs Of Experience is a better album, and why I think of Achtung Baby as the original Songs Of Innocence.  

In Stephen Catanzarite’s U2: Achtung Baby — Meditations On Love In The Shadow Of The Fall, he explores the ideas of light and darkness, as well as life and death found within the last three songs on the album. In the chapter “There is a light that never goes out,” he was almost prophetic about the content in Songs Of Experience, further making me believe Achtung Baby is the original Songs Of Innocence. The Kindergarten version of "Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" begins "You’re innocence, I’m experience" after all.

Given this fascination with Blake’s works by Bono, it’s not surprising to hear Blake’s thematic influence in these two recordings. Bono shared a bit of insight into the two works in Rolling Stone, "One other piece on Blake, I don't know if I'm explaining too much here but the best songs for me are often arguments with yourself or arguments with some other version of yourself. Even singing our song 'One,' which was half fiction, I've had this ongoing fight. In 'Little Things,' innocence challenges experience: 'I saw you on the stairs, you didn't notice I was there, that's cause you were busy talking at me, not to me. You were high above the storm, a hurricane being born but this freedom just might cost you your liberty.'" The difference between these two songs is that “One” is a monologue and "The Little Things That Give You Away" is a dialogue.

Achtung Baby merely scratches the surface of the themes like the fall of man, the sinful nature of those who wish to remain in darkness, and the redemption of those who have seen the light – all of which Songs Of Experience explores in depth. Achtung Baby is a behemoth of an album, and the chutzpah of men just entering their 30s to produce an album that attempts to examine these profound philosophical quandaries should be commended. However, their youth also betrays them because they lack the life experience to make sense of it all. Achtung Baby is more about finger pointing and self-absorption when faced with profound challenges, which could be indicative of the age they were at the time.

It’s well documented that the members of U2 were in a difficult place when they began recording Achtung Baby. The Edge was dealing with a divorce; the band members weren’t seeing eye to eye; and Europe as they knew it was changing. That conflict, blended with processing personal betrayal, is in the album’s DNA. The album is also full of sexual innuendo and machismo, which makes it perhaps the most carnal of U2’s releases. (Pop is a close second.) As strong as Achtung Baby is, it is limited in scope and perspective. The album’s voice sounds like a jilted, broken man who sees no light at the end of the tunnel. The spiritual tone of the album is one of rejection and exclusion. Sonically, the album also betrays the musicians. As good and popular as the songs are, the tunes do not lend themselves to being stripped down. There is a sense that the technology in the studio provided a security blanket or life support system to rely on, instead of the band members relying on each other. The band has said that "One" was the song that saved them from themselves, and it’s one of the few songs on the album that can be performed without technological accompaniment. There are times when the guitar serves to enhance a lyric, like in "Love Is Blindness" or "Acrobat"; however, there is inconsistency in the lyric and the musical accompaniment. The same cannot be said for Songs Of Experience.

Songs Of Experience’s Inclusivity

Achtung Baby’s weaknesses are strengths on Songs Of Experience. With age comes wisdom, perspective — and experience. A wider worldview and maturity level are to be expected because the artists are now in their 50s. They have built a successful career; their friendship with one another has survived over four decades; and now they’re thinking beyond themselves. Some of the struggles they had decades before are no longer there, which provides them the creative freedom to make music and statements they feel compelled to make. This is why the "defiant joy" the band has been talking about comes through so clearly on Songs Of Experience, and why I feel this album has gripped listeners in ways no other U2 album has. Bono is writing from the heart, and the band is meeting Bono where he’s at musically. Larry holds the key to unlock Songs Of Experience because his drumming on the album is the most complementary of any of the band’s releases. He represents Bono’s heartbeat throughout the album — or lack thereof. Whether it’s the loving flutter in "Landlady," the angst and rage in "American Soul," the disorientation in "Lights Of Home" or the resuscitated Celtic heartbeat in "13 (There Is A Light)," Larry provides the sound that Bono cannot bring himself to speak of.

Not to be overlooked, Adam’s bassline in "Love Is All We Have Left" feels like a ticking clock where time is of the utmost importance, yet it’s in conflict with the etherealness of space. In "Get Out Of Your Own Way," the bass provides a steadiness of ups and downs, which can sometimes trip you up. Meanwhile, The Edge’s guitarwork lends a brightness and immediacy to most of the tracks.

Sonically, Songs Of Experience challenges the listener to explore the interconnectivity of the tracks, which Achtung Baby does not do. The rhythm and meter of the songs keeps the band grounded while the sonic nature of the tunes allows a spirit that’s free to flow. The album very much challenges space and time. One could argue that the songs are also informed by past tunes in U2’s own canon due to the use of both sonic and lyrical callbacks. It certainly is not an album that you can listen to casually. I appreciate Chris Endrinal’s insights on the @U2 "Theoretically Speaking" podcast about the change of timing in "Red Flag Day" and "The Little Things That Give You Away," and how the music informs the lyrics (and vice versa). 

Songs Of Experience is far more personal and direct than what we’re used to, and probably even more than what the band’s comfortable with. Tim Neufeld said in his article about the existential crises found within the album, "The flow of U2’s latest album is rhythmic chaos, like a liturgy exploring existence, moving through experiences of doubt, anger, confession and ultimately resolving in hope." It’s that resolution that is lacking in all others. For the first time, I believe we have a conclusion that isn’t asking a question of yourself, rather it’s asking a question to others. It’s also a bookend to "Shadows And Tall Trees" on Boy: "But I know." "13 (There Is A Light)" is that epiphany moment of knowing, and yet it’s something that he might have known all along but has finally accepted it. In Achtung Baby, he was running away from it.

If Bono really felt this was the last album he’d ever write, he gave a master class on how to craft a lyric without sacrificing his trademark style. The resiliency of the album is met with a resistance to name the very things that are causing the conflict. The wisdom of this album shows that it’s not about placing blame, but rather collaborating on solutions, which is something Achtung Baby struggles with. Songs Of Experience also does not shy away from touching on past U2 works. The art of the callback, as written about by Ian Ryan, is not something U2 has endeavored to do in the past. For this album, U2 allowed themselves the freedom to actually sound like U2. For me, the callback cleverly could represent those flashing life moments that happen during a near-death experience. It’s linking the past to the present using insights that could be akin to an epiphany along with perspective shifting. "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" is a great example. The advice the father writes for his children, "If the moonlight caught you crying on Killiney Bay, Oh sing your song, let your song be sung" feels like a callback to "Surrender": "Papa sing my sing my sing my song. Papa sing my sing my sing my song."


For me, Achtung Baby, as good as it is, falls short of Songs Of Experience. There is a collaborative nature felt on Songs Of Experience that is lacking on Achtung Baby. It’s not just a collaboration between the four musicians and their nine producers: It’s an interactive album that invites the listener to collaborate and engage with it. It can be argued that on both albums, no one song is the star of the album; instead, each serves a purpose to continue the journey and the track listing is critical to both albums because each is designed to be listened to from start to finish. However, Songs Of Experience invites the listener to choose the destination you wish to arrive at. Achtung Baby, on the other hand, is not very interactive in that way. It’s more like watching a film.

Songs Of Experience is a delicate balance between the artistic statement U2 wanted to make and the reality of the music business today. Some songs on the album are strong enough to be singles, but to know the album merely from the singles does the album a disservice. It’s the most complete interactive journey U2 has ever taken their listeners on. It’s a band at the height of their craft challenging the listener through their art that the little things really do give you away. Perhaps that is why many listeners, including me, are emotional after listening to the album. It convinces you to pay better attention to loved ones, be a better citizen, live up to your potential, be present, and not allow anyone to rob you of your joy. The album offers life lessons as expressed by someone who’s been there and has lived to tell the tale. By contrast, Achtung Baby has the feeling of someone patting you on the back saying, "Better luck next time – don’t let the bastards grind you down." Songs Of Experience lifts you out of the mire so you don’t get bogged down by temporary issues, but instead put your footsteps on a solid foundation for a more permanent solution. In comparing the two, it’s a philosophical question: Who do you trust guiding you - humankind or spirit? Songs Of Experience compels listeners to find their own answer. Achtung Baby leaves you in your own abyss.

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.

©@U2/Lawrence, 2018

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