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"[Bono] basically shot my chance of becoming the leader of the band."

-- Larry

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Songs Of Experience: A Liturgy For Existentialists

@U2, March 04, 2018
By: Tim Neufeld

 

It’s been a long time since a U2 album has had this kind of staying power in my soul. Songs Of Experience taps something primal in me. While I appreciate it as a great collection of singable, feel-good lyrics and tunes, it’s the depth of the album as a concept project, and the collective synergy of its songs about fear, doubt, insecurity, death, life and love, that entices me.

Existentialists ask the kind of big questions about our existence that are addressed on U2’s latest. Questions such as, “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is my place in the universe?” The architects of existentialism, including Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Nietzsche, were dissatisfied with rationalism and reacted against a “science will save us” attitude that dominated the Age of Enlightenment. Rationalists ask, “How does this work?” In contrast, existentialists ask, “Why do we exist?”

Bono has quoted Nietzsche numerous times over the years. On the Vertigo tour we heard a paraphrase of the philosopher’s famous aphorism, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” Nietzsche also said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering,” and “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who suffered in Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote his famous book, Man’s Search For Meaning, after he was rescued. He concluded that people are capable of finding meaning even in the most horrendous conditions of death, despair and darkness. He wrote, "What is to give light must endure burning." Existentialists argue that meaning can only be found by authentically experiencing life itself, especially in the darkest of hours.

Songs Of Experience could have easily been titled Songs Of Existence. The search for purpose is seen throughout. Undoubtedly, Bono’s “brush with mortality” colored his own experience. In the liner notes for SOE, he says it left him “clinging on to my own life like a raft.” He continues, “…it would feel dishonest not to admit the turbulence I was feeling at the time of writing.” This kind of here-and-now honesty about mortality is paramount for existentialists.

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. Here’s a look at SOE through the lens of existentialism.

A Prelude

With the very first word and the very first chord, we’re introduced to our topic. “Nothing.” If the word itself isn’t stark enough, then notice the chord: B minor, a moody, fateful meditation, used by Bach in his St John Passion, a musical account of the betrayal, condemnation and crucifixion of Christ. Beethoven spoke of the darkness of B minor as a “black key.” The simplicity of the opening moment is deep, brooding and complex. The void is immediately exposed. “Nothing.”

But Bono moves us on quickly. “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever.” The darkness of chaos resolves in hopeful joy. How does this happen? It’s Love. The embryonic universe cascades in a flash from infinitesimal nothingness to 7 billion stars all giving witness to a purpose for living. In it, we find Iris reminding her lost son of birth and life and death and immortality all in a single heartbeat. “Don’t close your eyes,” she whispers across the cosmos.

Part One: The Problem of Death and Meaninglessness

From the prelude of “Love Is All We Have Left,” we’re plunged in to Part One of our liturgy, which itself comes in two scenes. The first, “Lights Of Home,” launches the album proper with a bluesy acoustic guitar riff and dark exploration of existence. “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead.” Whoa. Albert Camus would approve – the opening line of his acclaimed book The Stranger is, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure.” Oddly, it’s Bono’s mother that answers him in his own existential crisis. She calls from the afterlife, “Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself.”

This is a perfect transition to the second scene in Part One of the album. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is a paradoxically cheery tune about another important woman in Bono’s life, his wife Ali. But intertwined with this romantic confession of unconditional love and commitment is a foreboding question that seems completely out of place. We’re stopped cold with a philosophical quandary, “Why am I walking away?”

“Why am I?”

“Why?”

This is definitely the stuff of existentialists.

Part Two: A Call to Action as a Remedy

While “Lights” and “Best Thing” make up Part One of this existential liturgy, the next four songs move us in to Part Two and call us to act on the problem of meaninglessness. “Love hurts.” Yes. Life and love bring suffering and pain, but U2 offer us a suggestion for finding our way through it all: “Get Out Of Your Own Way.” Do something. Do anything that gives you meaning. Act as if you have purpose and you will find your purpose. “It’s your fight.” The hurt fuels the fire that empowers you to act.

But this kind of action requires selflessness, the kind that the arrogant, the superstars, the filthy rich, the bullies and the liars will never understand. Cue “American Soul.” All dreams must eventually lead to selfless action (“in dreams begin responsibilities”), and the goal of the action, in this song, is unity and community, a welcoming place for the stranger. Jewish philosopher and existentialist Martin Buber spoke of the purpose of existence in terms of I-Thou relationships in which no person is ever an object, but even the outcast is to be treated as a fully knowable human. “You and I are rock ’n’ roll!” All of us, together, bring an empowered purpose to the lives we live. The goal is soul.

Another call to action is found in “Summer Of Love,” this time with focus on the Syrian refugee crisis. In “Summer,” Bono paints a frigid, gray picture of dashed hopes. The winter encroaches, the darkness consumes. “All is lost.” Ships, both literal and metaphoric, capsize and sink in the storm. And this is no ordinary squall. On this “Red Flag Day,” the cry of “I can’t believe the news today,” from “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” is juxtapositioned with the hopeless reminder that countless refugee deaths are “not even news today.” The “NO MORE!” of “SBS” is exchanged for futility: “One word that the sea can’t say is, ‘NO!’”

Where are we to find hope is such abject despair? That question calls us back to the beginning of Part Two in our liturgy. In the first of our four “action” songs, we heard “Get Out,” now we’re told “Get In.” Baby, let’s get in the water. It’s scary, but this is no time “to be afraid of what we fear.” Perfect love drives out all fear. Human existence requires risk and response.

Part Three: Confession and Self-Awareness

Our liturgy so far includes a Prelude (“Love Is All We Have Left”), Part One defining the problem of death and meaninglessness (“Lights Of Home” and “Best Thing”) and Part Two, which calls us to action and responsibility as a way of negotiating purposelessness (“Get Out,” “American Soul,” “Summer” and “Red Flag Day”). Part Three plummets us back into the darkness, perhaps darker than anything I’ve seen from U2. Here we have three scenes of confession and weighty introspection from Bono, as he traverses a thin line between this life and the next.

“The Showman” might be one of the most brilliant pieces of prose Bono has penned. It’s a playful autobiography that exposes deep private fears in a way that causes all of us to look thoroughly at our own insecurities. Carl Jung said, “To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light.” Bono is doing some pretty intimate work with his shadow in this and the next couple of tunes. (By the way, “Showman” sounds awfully similar to “Shadow Man.” Jung wouldn’t see that as a coincidence.) In a cross between “The Fly” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” “Showman” is the impish ramblings of an over-inflated, narcissistic egomaniac who is completely consumed with his own self. But the brilliant thing about this musical memoir is that the Showman knows he’s an arrogant ass. Ultimately, this is the character trait that will save our frontman from himself. Self-awareness is the game in existentialism. Meaning and purpose can only be found through self-reflection.

Part Three continues with what I believe is one of U2’s saddest songs ever. The end of the Showman’s self-absorption is utter hopelessness, despair and isolation. “The Little Things That Give You Away” sounds like a conversation between a person who wants to help (“Is it only me who sees there’s something wrong there?”) and someone who crashes down from the heights of egomania to a place of complete abandonment, loneliness and contrition (“The darkness is swarming and it covers me in fear”). It’s the old has-been Fly singing “Love Is Blindness” again, an inescapable fall from delusional self-sufficiency. Do you hear the anxiety and dread in the protagonist’s trembling voice? All options are gone. Darkness has won. The universe collapses back in to nothingness. It is finished, the end is here.

“Landlady” brings more confession. Having been exposed to his own fears and insecurities, the prodigal is not sure he can return home (has he thrown away the key before?). Will the woman of the house accept him?  Can she receive the broken soul that stands on the front stoop? The lights of home cast deep shadows on the path of this weary man. Thankfully, she remembers and embraces him. She commits to starting anew with this refugee, this baby on her doorstep. She – this (land)lady with the spinning head? – moves in mysterious ways, a gentle breath defying gravity, whirling every higher, turning nothing into something, creating light in the darkness.

Part Four: Moving Back to Love

Part Four of our liturgy for existentialists is a brief conclusion, a sending of sorts. In “The Blackout,” Bono-the-dinosaur wonders why he still walks the earth, once again questioning his existence, and particularly worried about relevance. He pleads, “Go easy on me, brother.” Tread lightly. Please be gentle. The kind of introspection exhibited on SOE is never quick, convenient or simple. It’s hard and vulnerable work. Playing the part of a good existentialist, Bono sings, it’s “in the darkness where you learn to see.”

And then we come full circle, returning to the theme of Love. It’s been a long journey through hell and back, but finally, and against all odds, we’re reminded that “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.” The loneliness, despair and suffering has led to new meaning. We start again. “When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.” It’s a perfect end to a massive, complex album.

Epilogue

But wait. There’s just one more thought that U2 needs to get out. It’s an epilogue, a postlude while people are walking out of the arena-sanctuary. Psalm 13 says, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? Give light to my eyes . . . .” The psalmist then turns from doubt and grief to hope: “But I trust in your unfailing love . . . I will sing . . . .” U2 remind us in “13” that “there is a light you can’t always see.” This song for someone is their song of innocence transformed into a song of experience. Bono often says that music is a sacrament, a visible sign of grace that saves and heals and gives meaning to all of our experiences, helping us make sense of a sometimes senseless world. Nietzsche would agree: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

(Image by Matt Mahurin from Liner Notes – A Film

© @U2/Neufeld, 2018

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