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"[A] lot of my best friends are atheists. It's lukewarm believers that drive me out of the church."

-- Bono

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Songs Of Experience: The Producers

@U2, December 27, 2017
By: Mason Merritt


Songs of Experience cover

Now that we’ve all had the chance to listen and re-listen to Songs Of Experience, it’s time to talk about some different characters in the story of the album's process: the small army of producers tasked with helping the band write the songs in their heads.

Andy Barlow

Hailing from the United Kingdom, Barlow has earned himself a name in the world of electronica as one-half of Lamb (of which Bono is a fan). The duo released their debut, self-titled album in 1996 to strong critical and commercial reception, earning positive reviews from Rolling Stone, All Music and Entertainment Weekly. In 2004, they decided to take a hiatus during which Barlow worked on a solo album, as a DJ, and taught a masterclass in music producing.

My biggest takeaway from listening to Barlow’s work is that fans of the Zooropa/Pop/Passengers trilogy have a few glimmers of that era in this album, especially bonus track “Book Of Your Heart.” I was floored when I first heard that song because of how well it would fit with tracks from those other albums, especially “Do You Feel Loved.” The songs feel like they could be twins or two parts of the same story. That said, I think Barlow’s most surprising contribution to the album was revealed in a recent Billboard article. Barlow said that he and fellow producer Jolyon Thomas were the ones to deliver “The Little Things That Give You Away,” a job that Jacknife Lee, Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and even Brian Eno weren’t able to complete to the band’s liking.

Credited Tracks: “Love Is All We Have Left,” “Red Flag Day,” The Little Things That Give You Away,” “Book Of Your Heart”

Paul Epworth

If you, like most of us, had a good cry when you first heard Adele’s 21, you have Paul Epworth to thank. The British hitmaster has been enlisted to produce music for artists like Sir Paul McCartney, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Florence and The Machine, Bruno Mars and John Legend. And that’s just in the last five years. In mid-2014, we heard rumblings that U2 recruited him to help them deliver a hit single for what ended up being an Apple-sponsored media blitz promoting Songs Of Innocence. Since then, we didn’t hear anything about his involvement in the follow-up other than the rumblings of “Innocence” leftovers making it onto “Experience.” As it turns out, he had his hand in a couple of tracks, most notably the final one.

As I mentioned before, Epworth is a big name in pop music producing, which makes it all the more odd that his only producing credit (for a new song at least) is on the subdued and inconspicuous “13 (There Is A Light).” Epworth has a lot of experience with ballads, mostly where the grandiose vocals and instrumentation is very much in your face and trying (often succeeding) to get an emotional reaction. The album’s final track isn’t that at all. The piano, drums and bass are deep in the background, and Bono’s singing is incredibly restrained. Not to worry, Epworth gets to go full Epworth on what feels like the 18th iteration of “Ordinary Love,” which I think lives up to its name as an extraordinary mix.

Credited Tracks: 13 (There Is a Light),” “Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)”

Brent Kutzle

Like Epworth, Brent Kutzle was a late surprise in the sense that not too many of us knew he existed, much less that he was producing the new album. The California native seems to be one of the more versatile musicians in modern rock music. He’s credited on bass, cello, piano, keyboards, guitar and vocals for pop-rock outfit OneRepublic since 2007. He’s not the only member of the group to have contributed to this album, but we’ll get to that later.

I don’t know much about OneRepublic or Kutzle’s solo work, but his credits on the album are for some excellent songs like “Lights Of Home” and “Get Out Of Your Own Way.” Perhaps more than any other producer, I’d love to hear him go more in depth about his contributions to the album and how he landed the gig.

Credited Tracks: Lights Of Home,” “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “Summer of Love,” “Red Flag Day,” “The Blackout”

Jacknife Lee

Songs of Experience is Jacknife Lee’s album. In both a literal and metaphorical sense. A former assistant to Steve Lillywhite, Lee has been quickly building up his reputation as a premier rock producer through his work with bands like The Killers and Snow Patrol, becoming a Steve Lillywhite figure to them. Thirteen years after his first producing credit with U2, he’s been handed the reins and given an album all to himself.

The end result is an album that I think blends U2’s different eras better than any album to come before it, even its predecessor. Songs like “The Blackout,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and “Lights Of Home” are some of my favorite U2 songs ever because they do what every new batch of songs should do: capture the spirit of their music in a modern context.

Credited Tracks: Lights Of Home,” “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “American Soul,” “The Showman (Little More Better),” “Landlady,” “The Blackout,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”

Steve Lillywhite

On top of being a great Twitter follow and a brilliant entrepreneur, he’s the band’s longest-tenured creative collaborator. Boy, October and War were all conceived under his guidance, and while his influence has waned over the years, he’s been the person the band turns to when they need to discipline their sound. Perhaps U2’s self-perceived overindulgence on Songs Of Innocence convinced them that they needed Lillywhite’s vision to strip away unnecessary elements to get to the heart of what the new songs meant, and also how they might be played in a live setting.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the songs Lillywhite is credited for sound the most translatable to a live setting. “Red Flag Day” is the best example of that. If you snuck crowd noises into the back of it, you could probably convince people the song was recorded live.

Credited Tracks: You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “Red Flag Day,” “The Showman (Little More Better)” 

Ryan Tedder

As the only significant holdover from the Songs Of Innocence recordings, Ryan Tedder seems to have made a significant impression on the band in the last few years. The OneRepublic frontman is credited as the lead producer on five of the 13 tracks and as the second lead producer on four others. And you can definitely tell, because the tracks have incredibly catchy choruses, big musical hooks and the toe-tapping quality that U2 sometimes struggles to achieve — and perhaps isn’t interested in achieving.

One of the album's most polarizing tracks, “The Showman (Little More Better),” feels like it had the beginnings of an inside joke between the U2 and OneRepublic frontmen aimed at their respective contemporaries, but turned inward and became a little more autobiographical than they’d like to admit.

From my perspective, it seems like Tedder is a polarizing figure among U2 fans. Some think he’s keeping them in the modern musical conversation while others believe he’s pulling the band too far from what they’re good at. Of course neither perspective is wrong, but I’d be willing to bet that even the most traditionalist fans will be singing along when the band gets back on the road.

Credited Tracks: Lights Of Home,” “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “Summer of Love,” “Red Flag Day,” “The Showman (Little More Better),” “Landlady,” “The Blackout,” “13 (There Is A Light)”

Jolyon Thomas

Even though both parties have been relatively mum on the subject (for now), I’d be willing to bet that Jolyon Thomas producing a U2 album has been long in the making. I say that because Thomas spent time working with Gavin Friday on his 2011 album catholic and a 2012 documentary about Anton Corbijn, both in a musical everyman-type capacity.

On the producing side of things, Thomas has shown an affinity for curating gritty rock and alternative music for bands like Daughter, Slaves and S.C.U.M. But even when the music is aggressive, he manages to texture the songs with electropop flourishes from his earlier work with bands like M83. Thomas is credited on several tracks from Songs Of Experience, but “The Little Things That Give You Away” is where he shines brightest. Earlier I said that the instrumentation isn’t exactly in co-producer Andy Barlow’s wheelhouse. That was because it is parked squarely in Thomas’. I think that Edge’s guitar on “Little Things” is the best on the album. Barlow’s penchant for creating atmosphere makes it feel like the song’s in the middle of a thunderstorm, which is where Thomas and The Edge come in to deliver the lightning. On a personal note, the guitar solo at the end of the song is my favorite since “Miracle Drug” and one of many points in this album that gives me goosebumps without fail.

Credited Tracks: Lights Of Home,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “American Soul,” “The Little Things That Give You Away”

(c) @U2/Merritt, 2017

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