Review: U2, Songs of Experience

As the biggest band in the world (or, at least according to Rolling Stone, one of the top 100 and the only one to make it through more than three decades without changing their lineup), U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience has been attracting a great deal of attention. So far, so unsurprising. What is more surprising is that the latest addition to their corpus should be named after a William Blake collection – a trick they’ve pulled off not once, but twice, with Songs of Experience the follow-up to their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

The reviews are, frankly somewhat mixed: perhaps the most damning has been Kitty Empire’s two-star summation of SoE as “an insipid try-hard” (ouch), while Amanda Petrusich argues that the band has “run out of things to say” and, in one of my favourite reviews, Calum Marsh observes that the band is struggling to make itself relevant in the second decade of the twenty-first century; against these more negative pieces, David Fricke argues that, while flawed in parts, it is their most powerful album in a long while and Alexis Petridis noted it as album of the week.

Of course, what the world has been waiting for is a middle-aged academic to weigh in the subject, so to ensure that no more breath is baited I’ll offer my brief summary of the albu. As a musical addition to a band’s output that has not, frankly, much interested me since their 1987 The Joshua Tree, I was genuinely surprised to actually rather enjoy the album, certainly much more than Songs of Innocence which was the insipid contribution to their back catalogue. There are the inevitable jangly guitars, signature mark of David Howell Evans (because, even thirty years later, I can’t bring myself to call him the Edge, as much as anything because I’m never one hundred percent sure where the capitalisation starts…). Actually, U2, while being far too middle of the road for my tastes deserve much greater respect than any sarcastic knocks from a literary scholar and so I shall simply observe that Songs of Experience, while amusingly pompous at times (this is, after all, U2) is certainly much more listenable than recent work.

What this review will focus on instead is how significant the title choice is. Songs of Experience, named, of course, after William Blake’s 1794 famous collection of verse, was meant to be released more quickly after Songs of Innocence as a companion piece but apparently, due to the progress of the 2016 election and a near-death experience on the part of Bono (I’m genuinely resisting all the tasteless jokes for a moment). Personally, I suspect the almost-unanimous hostility that greered SoI was another reason to pause: convincing Tim Cook to release the album to every owner of an iOS device was business genius but a bit of a PR disaster – it’s been a long time since Apple was synonymous with the phrase “think different” and the sheer arrogance of assuming a few hundred million iPhone and iPad owners wanted to listen to your Blake-inspired warblings was astonishing.

By contrast, Songs of Experience is genuinely enjoyable at times if somewhat more maudlin and still obviously the work of a band that believes it will change the world. This is clear on tracks such as “Lights of Home” (available in two versions on the album), which is actually one of my favourite tracks but with its final chorus – ominously repeating a motif from SoI‘s “Iris (Hold Me Close)” – enters full on pseudo counter-culture territory as it invites listeners to “free yourself to be yourself”. A proverb of hell this is not. It’s almost as though punk never happened and, at that precise moment, reminds me of Primal Scream’s great song, “Kill All Hippies.” Nevertheless, the album often displays a greater degree of self-knowledge that is genuinely touching, as on “You’re The Best Thing About Me” when Bono sings “Shooting off my mouth / That’s another great thing about me”. How many of his critics have thought that about him?

Petrusich’s review is one of the most thoughtful but, for reasons I’ll come on to later, also one of the most inappropriately academic. A couple of paragraphs in, she endeavours to explain the significance of Blake which, of course, invites all kinds of generalisations and inadvertent falsehoods which is often the case in the format of a music review. As Blake himself wrote, “to generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit”. Her overall point, however, is correct – if also somewhat obvious: to future generations, it is Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that will be remarked worthy of the distinction of merit. She also points out that while U2’s Songs of Innocence did seem to capture some of the essence of childhood and adolescence, their Songs of Experience seems to miss much of the point. On the whole, I agree: the experience of U2’s songs is generally a more self-concerned – if sometimes genuinely touching – mark of introspection, the obsession with the authors’ own mortalities, rather than Blake’s genuinely angry cries against social injustice.

This is not to say that U2 have not read Blake. Originally, I had intended to offer a more detailed analysis of many of the individual tracks from the album, but the blog In Search of Rock Gods has already done this and I recommend that you read this for a detailed song-by-song analysis in the post “Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2’s Songs Of Experience“. I do not completely agree with all of the author’s observations – I think there is a tendency to find similarities where some may be much more tenuous, nonetheless the following is an interesting example:

“Infant Sorrow”: My mother groaned, my father wept: Into the dangerous world I lept, helpless, naked, piping loud.
“Lights of Home”: I was born from a screaming sound.
“The Showman”: Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.

This demonstrates both a strength and weakness: the line from “Lights of Home” is genuinely compelling and an interesting allusion, but that from “The Showman” is far too generic to be convincing. However, the ultimate argument of “Hopeful Symmetry”, and one which I found illuminating, is that both of U2’s albums work by reflecting and pairing each other. Thus, for example, “Love Is All We Have Left” (SoE) pairs with “Iris” (SoI) and “American Soul” (SoE) with “Volcano” (SoI). This point is intelligently made, and the repetitions of phrases and motifs suggest that this was clearly intended by the band, leading to a more dialectical approach to the two collections that would fit with a Blakean approach to the two contraries of the human soul.

And yet, ultimately it is Songs of Experience itself that fails to convince me that U2 have clearly absorbed the darker energies of Blake’s poetry. Like the earlier collection of poetry, there is a lyric that deals with an iconic place: for Blake, it is London – for U2, it is America. Both are ideas as much as physical locations, and both deal with the darker manifestations of those places – Trump’s USA and the England of William Pitt. First of all, Blake’s “London”:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem has been known to generations of children (and rightly so) and I know from my experience of teaching those school children when they come to university it is a poem that leaves a lasting impresion on them (even if they are not always sure why). Contrast this to U2’s “American Soul”:

Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward

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

Look around, look around
Look around, it’s a sound
Look around, look around
It’s a sound

It’s not a place
This country is to me a thought
That offers grace
For every welcome that is sought

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

It’s not a place
This is a dream the whole world owns
The pilgrim’s face
It had your heart to call her home

Call her home, Brother John
So every mother’s weepin’
Dream on, Brother John
In your dreams you get me sleepin’

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American, American

Put your hands in the air
Hold on the sky
Could be too late, but we still gotta try
There’s a moment in our life where a soul can die
And the person in a country when you believe the lie
The lie (the lie, the lie)
There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream
It’s a call to action, not to fantasy
The end of a dream, the start of what’s real
Let it be unity, let it be community
For refugees like you and me
A country to receive us
Will you be our sanctuary

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American soul, American soul

I do rather like this track on the album – it has delightfully dirty, soulful backing guitars that give it a raw power – but as a modern counterpoint to Blake’s denunciation of the corruption of a country ruined by war it falls far short. Blake’s poetry is terse, burning with rage against religion, war, child slavery and child prostitution (the latter not abstractions in eighteenth-century London). By contrast, U2’s lyrics are… worthy. I admire the sentiment, but it is sentimental. The heart of Blake’s nameless narrator is filled with wrath, for Blake knew that the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction, yet U2 have hitched themselves up to the latter, preaching to the converted with weak puns (“Refu-Jesus”? Seriously?) rather than denouncing the evils that men do the children they should protect. A liberal piss fit because Trump was elected will never match the Jeremiad of Blake’s righteous wrath. It is one thing I have always loved about him – while the religious right frequently lays claim to the power of the words of the King James Version, it is that radical antinomian who denounces God, priest and king who more accurately captures the violent cadences of the Bible.

In the end, for me U2’s Songs of Experience is too weak, too well-meaning to fully adopt the mantle of Blake’s poetry. I do actually rather like the album (although much of this week I’ve been listening repeatedly to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love as a truly wonderful Blakean adaptation), but ultimately the band is concerned with love conquering all. Although Blake frequently observed that experience was not the end, that “organized innocence” provided a fruitful marriage of the two contrary states of the soul, he was also a great enough poet to allow evil to speak with a clear voice, the better that it could be understood and rejected. This is the prophetic voice of the original Songs of Experience, one that contains – in poems such as “The Sick Rose”, “London” and, of course, “The Tyger” – some of the clearest delineations of evil ever to have been written and which Blake allows to stand alone at this point, without the intervention of a loving god to rescue us. Blake’ trusts his readers to understand within their own souls the pathways they must follow. After all, when he asks “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” he does not rush to provide an answer, for the assertion that love conquers all is meaningless for those whose innocence is taken away. In one of the darkest poems of Songs of Experience, Blake grimly observes:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we

Against such clear-sighted vision, Bono’s assertion that “Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, for all its invocation of near-death experiences, will always remain too simplistic, too glib by comparison.

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