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Being brilliant is to take risks. I don't mean taking risks in the shallow water of the avant-garde but in the deep water. -- Bono

Theoretically Speaking ... Meter as Perspective on 'Songs Of Experience'


Theoretically Speaking

I’ve been listening to Songs Of Experience almost exclusively since its December release. It’s a deep, complex album that, even after several months, is still revealing itself to me. As I’ve written previously, it usually takes me a while to really get to know a new U2 album. My listening process is convoluted and involves several stages. First, I listen a few times through to get an idea of the overall aesthetic of the album and what each song generally sounds like. Then I go back and listen to the songs that initially caught my attention on the first run-throughs. “Red Flag Day” and “The Little Things that Give You Away” appealed to me immediately. “Lights Of Home” took longer to grow on me, but has since become one of my favorite tracks on the record (particularly the St. Peter’s String Version). After dozens of listenings, these three songs began to stand out more than any other on the record.

My analytical instincts then kicked in, prompting me to try to discover a musical (read: technical)reason these three songs in particular have captured my attention. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all three songs manipulate the sense of meter (the repeated pattern of strong and weak beats) in some way, a technique that is relatively rare in U2’s catalog. This essay analyzes the band’s treatment of meter and its symbolic significance in relation to each song individually and to an overarching theme on Songs Of Experience.

“Lights Of Home”

My first impression of “Lights Of Home” was, quite literally, “Whoa, what was that? That didn’t sound right.” Something about the song’s introductory guitar riff raised my hackles; it somehow sounded “off” or “displaced.” As it turns out, that is exactly what happens. The riff obfuscates the standard 4/4 meter as quickly as it is established, causing the jarring sensation I experienced not even five seconds into the track. In the song’s very first measure, syncopation on the last beat evades the second measure’s downbeat (see Figure 1). Its relatively long duration gives the impression of a downbeat arriving a sixteenth note early. The descending G-F-D figure on the third and fourth beats of the second measure “readjusts” the meter back to 4/4 before the riff begins anew in measure three. An “early” downbeat provides rhythmic variety and metric interest while also helping to propel the song forward and creating a sense of urgency.

Figure 1  Introductory guitar riff of “Lights Of Home.”

As Bono sings “Hey, I’ve been waiting to get home a long time” in the pre-chorus (0:39-0:46), Larry‘s drum part is stripped to just the kick drum on quarter notes. Then, as a kind of prelude to the upcoming chorus, he re-introduces syncopation to the musical texture by playing cymbals on the second half of beats three and four rather than on the beats themselves. These off-beat accents foreshadow the rhythm of the vocals in the forthcoming chorus (more on that below).

In the final chorus, which begins after a guitar interlude (2:18-2:44), the vocals enter “early” relative to the rest of the texture. The lyrics “Hey now” act like an introduction to the final chorus instead of the beginning of the chorus proper, as in the previous two choruses (0:46-1:12, 1:52-2:18). Rhythmically, the vocals are identical to the previous two choruses; the rhythm of the drums, however, is not. The eighth-note pulse remains constant, but the accents in the drums are markedly different from a “standard” 4/4 measure. Reminiscent of the tied sixteenth note in the introductory guitar riff, the cymbal crash Larry plays on the last half beat of the pre-chorus imparts metrical strength. It sounds and feels more like a strong downbeat than a division of the weak fourth beat. The transcriptions below illustrate this moment in two ways.

Figure 2a  Transition to last chorus of "Lights Of Home."

Figure 2b  Transition to last chorus of "Lights Of Home," with metric shift.

Figure 2a shows the 4/4 meter remaining constant through the beginning of the chorus, with the word “now” landing on the second half of the last beat of the pre-chorus and carried over into the chorus. A renotation of these measures, differentiated from the original by a brief meter change, is presented in Figure 2b. The crash cymbal and lyric “now” occur simultaneously, imparting metrical strength to this attack and transforming that eighth note from an anacrusis to a downbeat. This transformation affects the metrical organization here. Therefore, I interpret the meter of this transition as a measure of 7/8 followed by a measure of [5/8+2/4] in order to emphasize the downbeat arrival of the word “now” and also to acknowledge the unchanging nature of the eighth-note pulse layer. The 4/4 meter resumes in the next measure, featuring more of Larry’s signature syncopation.

Technical analysis and artistic interpretation are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, one enhances the other. The 7/8+[5/8+2/4] organization distinguishes the last chorus from the previous two. It acts like a distraction on Bono’s journey home, but rather than derail him, the metrical “blip” ultimately serves as the wake-up call Bono claims to have needed. The coda, which features major-mode music and callback lyrics to “Iris,” represents Bono’s new outlook on life. This time around, though, it’s Ali’s voice he hears instead of his mother’s.

“Red Flag Day”

U2’s treatment of meter in “Red Flag Day” is perhaps less intricate than in “Lights Of Home,” but no less significant from an interpretative perspective. The harmonic rhythm (the rate at which the chords change) of the introductory guitar riff -- not to mention the rhythm of the notes themselves -- sets a tempo of approximately 150 bpm. Larry’s placement of the kick drum in the first verse (indicated by the intensity peaks in “Verse 1” section of Figure 3) combines with the harmonic rhythm to confirm this tempo, which is maintained through the subsequent transition and chorus sections.

Figure 3 Waveform of introduction and first verse of “Red Flag Day.”

An archetypal 4/4 rock drum pattern positions the snare on beats two and four, providing metrical strength to these “weak” beats and inherently syncopating the line. Throughout most of the chorus, Larry’s drum line is a variation of this model. In the last two measures of the chorus, however, he changes the pattern to a snare on every beat, which further reinforces the original tempo. Bono’s vocals, on the other hand, achieve the opposite effect. The durations on the words “see” and yours” are the longest notes of the section, noticeably slowing the pace of the vocal line (see Figure 4). Both the change in the drum pattern and the increasing rhythmic durations in the vocal line signal the end of the chorus as well as subtly foreshadow an upcoming meter shift.

The two post-chorus sections and the chorus’ (read: “chorus prime”;1:04-1:17, 2:08-2:21, 2:46-2:59, respectively) are characterized by a shift in tempo to half time. The placement of the snare is the primary indicator of this change: Increased time between snare attacks in these sections slows the quarter note pulse to half that of the original tempo. In other words, Larry changes the backbeat, thereby altering the song’s tempo (or at the very least, the listener’s perception of tempo). The drums’ increased rhythmic complexity confirms the tempo reduction. In Figure 5, I represent half-time by the ♪=♩ symbol in the upper right corner, indicating eighth notes in this example are to be counted like quarter notes were counted in previous sections.

Figure 4 Transcription of vocals, bass and drums in second half of chorus of “Red Flag Day.”

Another interesting rhythmic feature of the last chorus is the rhythmic augmentation of the vocal line. For each two-measure pair, the durations of the vocal rhythms steadily lengthen. Bono first sings sixteenth notes, followed by eighth notes, then a quarter note. The rhythm of the background vocals follows in similar fashion, contributing both a half note and a half note tied to a sixteenth note to the rhythmic progression. This augmentation echoes the overall rhythmic progression of Bono’s lead vocals at the end of the chorus, decelerating the melody and foreshadowing a meter change.

The down-tempo sections of “Red Flag Day” are analogous to a slow-motion moment in movies. Regardless of the pace of the story in preceding scenes, the climax itself may seem to move excruciatingly or ecstatically slowly, depending on the vantage point. By transitioning in and out of half-time sections, U2’s metric manipulation serves to remind listeners to step outside themselves to try to see the world from a different perspective.

Figure 5 Transcription of vocals, bass and drums in chorus' of “Red Flag Day.”

Of course, it is possible to hear and feel the entire song in just one tempo, but multiple tempos help make the song that much more interesting to me. It is both an ingenious musical “illusion” as well as a clever musical interpretation of the lyrics. A red flag is a literal warning to beachgoers of high surf and/or strong currents. While no one is expressly forbidden from going into the water, only strong swimmers are advised to enter the surf during these conditions. The fluctuating tempo of “Red Flag Day” mimics the ebb and flow of the tide on the beach while the lyrics reference refugees faced with a catch-22: Risk death by remaining in their war-torn homelands, or risk death by fleeing.

“The Little Things That Give You Away”

“The Little Things That Give You Away” is not only my favorite track on Songs of Experience, but it has also ascended into my personal Top 10 All-Time Favorite U2 Songs. As corny as sounds, the message that older Bono is trying to convey to younger Bono resonates with me so clearly that I still have trouble making it through the song without tears in my eyes. Musically and sonically, I think the last two and half minutes are some of U2’s finest work, in large part because of the tempo change that occurs about halfway through the section as well as the clues U2 leave along the way that subtly prepare the listener for this shift.

For me, the most interesting element of this unusually long coda (2:24-4:55; the concluding section of a song, occurring after the final chorus) is the length and depth of its dynamic build. A gradual layering of instruments and effects over the course of eight total lyrical stanzas and a guitar solo creates a slow but steady growth in textural density, which subsequently creates an increase in dynamic intensity. The steady build to the song’s dramatic climax is clearly illustrated by the waveform in Figure 6. Note the wedge-shaped representation of the coda’s crescendo.

Figure 6  Waveform of “The Little Things That Give You Away."

Accompanying an Edge signature (yet-somehow-still-different-youdthinkIdbetiredofitbutreallyIcantgetenough) guitar solo (3:49) is a shift in meter to double time. While the tempo change itself is an interesting musical device (more on that shortly), what captivates me most about the meter shift is how subtly it is achieved, an effect directly related to the layering during the crescendo and specifically to Larry’s drums, which are as picturesque as they are purposeful.

The coda begins with a sparse texture featuring primarily vocals and piano accompaniment (“Existence” section, 2:27-2:41), the harmonic rhythm of which maintains the initial tempo of approximately 69 bpm established in the first half of the song. Bass and drums enter in the “Anxious” section (2:41-2:55). Larry plays at such a soft dynamic level initially that the eighth note kick drum pattern, which is the first part to foreshadow the metrical shift, is barely audible. Adam’s bass line confirms the tempo established by the piano. Soft background “oohs” and Edge’s “helicopter” guitar are the new elements in the “Wake” section (2:55-3:08). While the drum pattern here remains unchanged from the previous stanza, a dynamic boost helps bring the part closer to the foreground. The seemingly innocuous guitar line actually serves a dual rhythmic purpose: The rate at which the notes themselves changes (once every two beats) corroborates the current tempo while the rhythm created by the echo effect (sixteenth notes) foretell the shift to double time.

Initially, the cymbal at the start of the first “Sometimes” section (3:08-3:22) may seem like a run-of-the-mill crash signaling the start of a new stanza. While it does serve this function, that it is the only cymbal strike in the entire stanza and the first of the entire coda lends this particular crash even more significance. Similarly important is the snare drum roll at the end of this section (3:21), the first of its kind in the entire song and first time in the coda that Larry uses the snare drum.

While the kick drum’s constant eighth notes directly (if not explicitly) portend the change to double time, the cymbal crashes and snare drum rolls in the “Anger” section (3:22-3:36) foreshadow the upcoming metrical shift more subtly. Halfway through the stanza (at approximately 3:28-3:29) Larry inserts a drumroll on the second half of the last beat of the second measure, followed by a crash cymbal on the downbeat of the next measure. He does this again two measures later. The frequency of the drumroll and cymbal crashes increases yet again in the next stanza. Every measure of the first “The End” section (3:36-3:49) begins with a cymbal crash and ends with a drumroll.

Although the kick drum made its first appearance in the “Anxious” stanza, it is not until the guitar solo (3:49-4:03) that it gains aural salience and therefore textural prominence. Another increase in dynamics moves the kick drum from background detail to foreground propellant, which serves as the final and most convincing element of the metric modulation. The kick’s steady eighth-note pattern transforms into a “four-on-the-floor” quarter-note pulse that finalizes the shift to double time alluded to in the previous stanzas. Larry’s geometrically increasing use of the drumroll and crash cymbal -- once in “Sometimes,” twice in “Anger” and four times in “The End” -- cleverly (if not covertly) prepares the listener for this meter change.

The cleverness of the meter change in “Little Things” lies in the subtlety with which it is effected. As the texture gradually fills in, each new layer provides another clue to the upcoming change. But because the metrical shift being alluded to is a simple augmentation to double time, these clues may not necessarily reveal themselves until after the meter changes. These hints serve as musical representations of the “little things” about which Bono sings. The meter shift itself symbolizes a life-changing experience that drastically affects Bono’s outlook on life. Only afterwards was he able to look back on his life and trace the trail of decisions and experiences that led up to that fateful moment.

From Innocence to Experience to Action

Meter/Tempo changes to half time or double time certainly aren’t new techniques in rock music, and while the instances of metrical manipulation on Songs Of Experience are not the only examples in U2’s catalog, it is relatively rare for the band to explore meter so overtly. Notable examples from earlier in their career include “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “Breathe.” Consequently, the rarity of meter shifts in U2’s music imparts extra importance to these appearances.

Songs Of Experience is an album about perspective. The Innocence and Experience pair of albums tells the bookends of U2’s story (so far). SOE functions as the “after” to SOI’s “before” and therefore deals with how worldviews are affected by time and experience. The changes in listening perspectives caused by these meter shifts symbolize the changes to our own worldviews the band challenges us to make. Adopting more inclusive perspectives changes our perception of the world, thereby changing how we relate to it and our place in it. It is the typical U2 call to action (not to fantasy). From Bono’s advocacy with the ONE Campaign and (RED) project all the way down to the rhythm of Larry’s drums, U2 is encouraging us to act less for ourselves and to act more for others.

(c) @U2/Endrinal, 2018