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Lyrical Replay: Callbacks in U2's Songs of Experience

@U2, March 13, 2018
By: Ian Ryan

 

In 1656, Spanish painter Diego Velázquez created “Las Meninas” (The Ladies-in-Waiting). The painting depicts part of the royal court of Spanish King Felipe IV, including his daughter, la Infanta (the princess) Margareta Teresa. The painting shows the point of view of the king and queen, and focuses on the princess. It also includes the courtiers, a royal hunting dog, handmaidens (who were often little people in the Spanish court at the time), and the princess’ parents in the background. In it, you can see the artist, his canvas, and a reflection of the king and queen in the mirror on the far wall. It is considered one of the classics of Western art, a milestone image conceptually and artistically. Later in his life, Picasso obsessed over “Las Meninas.” He deconstructed Velázquez’s work, using techniques he had been developing since his teens. He created a series of callback paintings: paintings that were original creations, but also clearly harkened back to an earlier piece to both reference the effect of the earlier piece and build something new from it. Picasso was making repeated callbacks to earlier work over many years, and what he was making was as valid an artistic creation as any of his original work.

The callback is a staple of popular music as well. It’s a verbal or melodic reference to an earlier work added to a current creation that functions as a complete and vital part of the current work. It purposefully ties back to a past creation to make a larger connection and expand the perception of both the past and current works. Looking at popular musicians who were U2’s peers in the 1980s, Madonna, Sting, Eurythmics, and even The Beatles all featured callbacks in their early works. The Beatles called back to “She Loves You” in "Love Is All You Need”; Sting called back to “Every Breath You Take” in “Love Is The Seventh Wave”; and Madonna called back to “Vogue” in “Deeper And Deeper.”

U2, and Bono specifically, have been doing callbacks for much of their careers. Bono has used many lyrical concepts more than once because they have been appropriate to what the band was working on. “Dream out loud” has shown up multiple times in U2’s work. “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me” has been with U2’s lyrics since the early ’80s, transformed more recently to “I can change the world, but I can’t change the world in me.” Bono has talked about the mysterious, epic “her” and “she”: “She is the dreamer, she’s imagination,” “She moves in mysterious ways,” and “Seven billion stars in her eyes.” This is not to say that any time he references a female presence in his music that he’s doing a callback, but a recurring celestial female presence has been a muse for him for decades, and she keeps showing up in his lyrics. Hearing about the presence in “Love Is All We Have Left” is made richer by the references in “Lemon” and “Mysterious Ways.” “Boomerang II” calls back to “Love Comes Tumbling.” “Miracle Drug” calls back to “Levitate.” And if you want to go for it, “God Part II” calls back to the John Lennon song “God.” 

The callbacks are thematically similar, but take very different musical tacks. Songs Of Experience directly calls back to its sibling album, Songs Of Innocence, as Blake’s “Songs Of Innocence And Experience” did with its titles. Some ideas are explicitly applicable to both albums, but in very different contexts. The repetition drives home how different experiences in life can make a person draw on the same resources, or how different experiences can end up teaching the same lesson. The way these ideas are framed is one of the best parts of the album.

She said free yourself to be yourself
If only you could see yourself
Free yourself to be yourself
If only you could see

Anton Corbijn’s book U2 & i features a picture of Bono in 1987 against a wall painted with the graffiti words “Free Yourself.” Bono takes an idea he saw on a wall decades ago and applies it to the lessons he took from his mother in the song “Iris (Hold Me Close)” on Songs Of Innocence. He uses the phrase to explain how a parent communicates to a child about opening up to the opportunities life has to offer.

In “The Lights Of Home,” he uses the same phrase, switched from a minor to major key, as motivation to open himself up after his well-documented near-death experience. The teachings of his mother are as prescient in his teenage years as they are toward the end of middle age. 

You are rock 'n' roll
You and I are rock 'n' roll
You are rock 'n' roll
Came here looking for American Soul

In “The Lights Of Home,” Bono also calls back to “Stand Up Comedy” from No Line On The Horizon. The demand of "Out from under your beds, stand up, ye people" to all the people Bono the optimist is demanding show themselves in the streets has led to “I’ve got to get out from under my bed to see the lights in front of me," which refers to his own health scare, “A Sort Of Homecoming” and “One Step Closer To Knowing."

In “Volcano” on Songs Of Innocence, Bono sings about how he and his unnamed partner are rock 'n' roll. This partnership could refer to his bandmates, his girlfriend, his artistic buddies of Lipton Village, or all of them together. The raw emotion of punk and the cold clarity of post-punk rock affected not just their artistic sensibilities, but also their world views. This was the music, the art, that gave them the motivation to get out of bed at the dawn of another dull day.

“American Soul” uses the same words to declare what rock 'n’ roll has meant to modern American popular culture. Rock is no longer the dominant American musical form; it gave that title to hip-hop 20 years ago. However, 20 years later U2 are still the last of the rock stars, and the name Bono still carries as much weight as the name Jay-Z, for whatever cultural reason. Rock 'n' roll is an indelible part of American history, and the last of the rock stars can still conjure up its might and musicality when they get on stage and perform. U2 want to talk about the sexual and creative energy rock 'n' roll gave them when they were kids in Dublin, and the motivational and cultural energy rock 'n' roll gave the U.S.A. when they were adults.

It’s not a place
This country is to be a sound of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look around

U2 talked about America being “a sound of drum and bass” on Kendrick Lamar’s track “XXX” (spoken as “X-Rated”) from his album DAMN. In “American Soul,” Bono repeats his line about America being a sound of drum and bass, but Lamar reframes it as a slow, chill, beats-driven melody set against a beach. “XXX” came out before Songs Of Experience, so “American Soul” functions as a callback itself. Lamar’s track is a mourning of black-on-black violence (and he has received criticism for it). Its message of warning and progress in the black community works as much as a contrast against the militarism of “American Soul” as it does the intimate, personal nature of “Volcano.”

If there is a light
You can't always see
And there is a world
We can't always be
If there is a dark
Within and without
And there is a light
Don't let it go out

“There is a light we can’t always see. If there is a world we can’t always be. If there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt, and there is a light: don’t let it go out.” It’s appropriate that Eli Hewson showed up in his dad’s concert video for “Song For Someone” during the Innocence + Experience tour. He was there to mirror a young Paul Hewson as he wooed Alison Stewart. It is a song about a young man directing his creative impulse to the most important person in his world at the time: his girlfriend. It is a somber, sincere love ballad on Songs Of Innocence. Like the other two callback songs referenced, it transforms itself on Songs Of Experience. In “13 (There Is A Light),” it becomes a sinister lullaby, a song about the fears a parent has seeing a child venture out into the world. The world can toughen even the most optimistic soul, and disabuse notions of positivity or honesty quite thoroughly. Bono takes the words about his young worship of his partner and turns them into his fear for his children. The guidance for the young lovers becomes guidance for the child who is loved, and it functions equally well in both instances. 

Only U2 can say if these lyrical structures were set up in advance, or if they became relevant as the band created Songs Of Experience. Regardless, the way U2 share the concepts through different songs means much more than a pair of similar titles could. In the Baby version of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” Bono sings, “You’re innocence, I’m experience. The windows of my room all look over you.” These callbacks are about how experience looks over innocence with the lessons of time. Experience gives innocence a lecture in “The Little Things That Give You Away,” which is a response to Bono’s bullhorn during the spoken part of “Bullet The Blue Sky” on the Innocence + Experience Tour. Innocence Bono yelling, “Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten where you came from?” vs. Experience Bono yelling, “The words you cannot say. Your big mouth in the way. This freedom, it might cost you your liberty.”

The callbacks offer a much greater perspective when viewed as events being looked down on from the windows of experience/age. Some fans had problems with the callbacks when Songs Of Experience came out, and maybe still do, because U2 re-appropriating concepts and words rubbed them the wrong way. I saw mention that the callbacks were an example of sloppy creative management, that U2 weren’t capable of saying to themselves, “Hey, you already used that line.” As the album presented itself, it was clear that these references were on purpose. The callbacks make both the artist and the observer appreciate how the same concept functions differently depending on what the situation requires. Velásquez created a masterpiece in “Las Meninas,” and the genius Pablo Picasso called back to it to explore its components and make it modern. Callbacks have existed throughout art history, and are an established concept as both artistic commentary and creation. Perhaps there is too much of a separation between the idea of a callback and the idea of an inspiration. Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience are sibling albums. As the masters Velazquez and Picasso created visual works and callbacks, so has the master Bono created lyrical works and callbacks. 

(c) @U2/Ryan, 2018

Graphic by Tim Neufeld

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