Author Topic: For U2, Life Perishable. But Love is Eternalis  (Read 494 times)

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Offline siblis

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For U2, Life Perishable. But Love is Eternalis
« on: January 04, 2018, 04:11:01 AM »
U2 doesn’t make it easy for themselves. Or their fans.

After 40 years together as rock’s most enduring super group the constant, self-imposed pressure to write relevant songs with current appeal eventually becomes just too overwhelming, if not impossible. Even with a world on fire. So, Irish poet Brendan Kennelly dared lead singer and lyricist, Bono: “Write as if you’re dead.”

Death is the big theme permeating U2’s fourteenth full-length album, “Songs of Experience” (Interscope). Of course, Bono’s recent “brush with mortality,” as he coyly calls it in the liner notes, reinforces the issue, literally. But death is a tricky leitmotif for a band like U2.

Over the arc of its career U2 has sounded inspired, defiant and even expensive, at times. Now they sound uncertain. And worse, mortal.

As a writer, Bono long ago transitioned from poet to lyricist. Now, with death as a catalyst, he seems to have transitioned from writing about this life to writing about what life looks like after this life. It’s a disturbing proposition given Bono’s massive celebrity, a larger-than-life figure. In 2006, at the National Prayer Breakfast, he jokingly confessed to having a “messianic complex.” This album could easily have been titled “Songs of Existentialism (Crisis).”

After hearing and absorbing the vibes on “Experience” listeners might come away shaken. Granted, the band has explored dark matters in the past -- abandonment, betrayal, repression -- but a fervent, ecstatic faith always triumphed in the end (Bono’s “joyful defiance”). The struggle was redemptive. Here, even with love and light trying desperately to counter, if not conquer, death and darkness, the struggle is final. Bono is mired in self-doubt and embalmed in aural synesthesia. That tension is palpably captured on this record.

As an antidote, U2 injects many doses of space-age idealism and soaring melodies to help the proceedings from being utterly irredeemably bleak. And joyless.

“Songs of Experience” begins with an eerie, ghost-like Bono floating above the spectral apocalypse. Accompanied only by droning, minimalist synthesizers, he speak-sings, “Now you’re at the other end of the telescope, seven billion stars in her eyes… hey, this is no time not to be alive,” on “Love is All We Have Left.” His voice, notably, is intermittently transmitted through a vocoder, as if an otherworldly soul and signal is trying to reach a troubled earth from the heavens. (“All we have is immortality.”) Post-punk to post-human. It’s funeral-like.

Returning to earth, over a haphazard acoustic guitar, the protagonist realizes “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead,” on “Lights of Home.” Pleading, and still travel weary, he asks, “Hey now, do you know my name, hey now, or where I’m going?” Guitarist The Edge ably guides the journey mid-way through the confusion with a gorgeous yet subtle electric slide solo. Nevertheless, any tortuous trip with Bono -- the road home -- needs hope at journey’s end. How do you defy the path to death?

You dream up an alternative reality. A happy ending. Out of nowhere, improbably, a resoundingly big chorus repeats a trippy refrain, “Free yourself to be yourself” during the long fade out. It’s a strange ending. A sonic chimera seemingly bolted on late into the recording process. Metaphorically, it’s still unclear if this gets you home. What is clear is that this isn’t 1990s U2, full of irony and frivolity. Now, they’re full of mortality.

Never has U2 opened an album with a one-two punch of such self-doubting desolation.

“Songs of Experience” was originally intended to be a speedy follow up to 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” album as a sort of call-and-response collection from the perspective of middle age. Musically, it was going to channel William Blake’s collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Conceptually, U2 would fuse Bono’s idealism and romanticism with sunny choruses and modern production techniques. Bound by reflection and introspection.

Innocence would be revisited through the prism of childhood Ireland, whereas Experience would be reexamined through the excursions of four globe-trotting rock stars. (Incidentally, the two records contain a U2 first -- extensive liner notes by Bono, who explains his motives in detail; they are fascinating insights.) Usually, U2 songs need no explanation. But Bono wistfully seeks psychological comfort: “At the far end of experience, through wisdom, we hope to recover innocence,” and “innocence haranguing experience” brings clarity. Those were the original ideas, anyway.

But ideas have a way of going awry. And they did here.

New realities bred new uncertainties: Bono’s serious bicycle accident in Central Park in late 2014; extensive touring of the “Innocence” songs in 2015; Donald Trump’s election in 2016; and Bono’s “brush with mortality” somewhere in between, all delayed “Experience” from being released, as intended.

Supposedly, the new songs were ready by the time Trump became President, but the band reassessed their relevance in a new world dominated, they claim, by alt-right politics. The new material therefore needed more distillation. Conveniently, as a stop-gap, they went on a retrospective tour of the landmark album “The Joshua Tree” earlier this year, marking its 30th anniversary. That detour allowed them to effectively retool and reappraise the project; and rework the songs while on the road.

What transpires is not so much a classic concept album (all U2 records are ultimately concept albums) where songs are unified by a thematic cohesiveness, (like a Capital Years Sinatra long player) but rather a collection of disparate singles not necessarily hewn by the “Experience” premise. This collection, therefore, seems weirdly disconnected. That’s understandable since nine producers were used in making the record. Current hipsters to turn morbid ideas into pleasing hooks.

As a result, U2 sounds modern, but the songs sound largely generic. Consequently, with no unifying thread, their sequencing on the album is also out of kilter. Maybe experience isn’t linear. The techno dance-crunch of “The Blackout,” a stand out track, doesn’t fit neatly where it is positioned on the disc. It’s an orphan, among many. More problematic, The Edge, known for his distinctive guitar tones, is practically reduced to a session player. Most of his sonic signatures have been turned off or lowered in the mix. And potential new ones left in the box. That might be the most arresting aspect of the record. Mostly, it doesn’t sound like U2. It sounds like its producers.

But make no mistake. This is Bono’s record. Conceptually, lyrically, and sonically. What began as a sincere attempt to explore experience seems to have intentionally morphed into something different. Alas, Bono discovers that the new material really produced “love letters” to family, friends and places. Not death marches. Life may be perishable, but spirituality (love) is eternal.

Indeed, there is enough love, light and redemption interweaving the set to add color and pulse to the dark, barren universe. “The Landlady” is a tribute to Bono’s wife of 35 years, (Ali) who shows him “the stars up there.” She also appears in “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” an infectious dulcet melody, finding U2 at its most pop friendly in years (“I can see it all so clearly…”).   

No U2 album would feel complete without political commentary. Trump victory or not. The snappy “Get Out of Your Own Way” speaks to “Lincoln’s ghost” and warns “the face of liberty is starting to crack.” In this gloomy landscape “love has got to fight for its existence.” Next, on the electric bite of “American Soul,” Bono asks, “Will you be my sanctuary Refujesus?” Bridging the two songs is a spoken word-rap by Kendrick Lamar, delivering from his pulpit a kind of Beatitudes de Bono. It’s a bold interlude, for sure. At the same time, though, its placement on an album about the leader singer’s personal experiences seems oddly discordant.

And “13 (There is a Light),” the album’s absurd closer, is U2 struggling to end the mish mash. Bono lifts most of its lyrics from “Song for Someone,” from the “Innocence” album (“If there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt, and there is a light, don’t let it go out”). It’s almost as if U2 noticed that this concept album lacked a necessary thematic simpatico with its forerunner, and lacked a closing sentiment all its own. As a crucial thread of continuity, the song is a contrived coda., even as it technically unifies the two albums. But who samples a song from an album three years old to bring unity to a new album?   

Still, there are moments of collective brilliance.

Three songs at the album’s midsection -- “Summer of Love,” “Red Flag Day,” and “The Showman (Little More Better)” -- are merciful diversions, clever disguises from impending doom. Call them U2’s redolent soul. They’re fun!

Steeped in 1960’s idealism and musical tones, they rekindle the creative spirit and spark of The Beatle’s “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.” The Edge is free to explore shifting styles while drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton steadily anchor Bono’s freewheeling antics. Clayton delivers the best playing of his career and the combined rhythm section is at its most potent in twenty years, since 1997’s overly ambitious “Pop.”

“Love is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” is an ode to hippiedom in the digital era and reminiscent of “All You Need is Love,” but doesn’t match the latter’s simple grandeur. It’s not nearly as memorable, either. After all, 2017’s studio wizardry and Bono’s fantasy just don’t match 1967’s flowers and incense for far-out authenticity. Or originality.   

The album’s penultimate track is “The Little Things That Give You Away,” by far the band’s best performance. Finally, nine songs in, The Edge’s glorious guitar echoes return. Pitch perfect, they slowly twinkle then gradually crackle -- bursting into layers of magnificent crescendo. The echoes act as a counterpoint to Bono’s early contemplation (“The night gave you a song, a light had been turned on”) and later match his fearful urgency (“The end is not coming, it’s not coming, the end is here. Sometimes.”). It’s heavenly. The song contains a key lyric, the needed glue: “And all of my innocence has died.” Ideally, it should have served as the album’s concluding passage. The final struggle. (It might prove to be U2’s last great song.)

U2 could have defied current trends -- which emphasize songs over albums -- by issuing the best songs from the Innocence/Experience sessions under a single double-album. That radical idea would have resolved the thematic discontinuity plaguing both records and would have transformed the efforts from mediocre to masterful. As always, U2 doesn’t make it easy.       

Offline summerholly

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Re: For U2, Life Perishable. But Love is Eternalis
« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2018, 05:53:54 AM »
Wow that is quite a read! Thanks!  OK now I feel very shallow! In SOE I quickly missed the The Edge's distinctive sound and lost interest for the most part.
« Last Edit: January 04, 2018, 09:01:41 AM by summerholly »