The origins of Songs Of Experience
The successor to Songs Of Innocence brings us 13 songs about Experience. Where Innocence brought us back to the young U2, Experience brings us a different U2 with a Bono that tries to leave something behind. Each of the Songs of Experience has its own story, musically and lyrically. In this article we unravel some of those stories.
Intimate letters to places and people
It was a "brush with mortality" around Christmas 2016 that got Bono to reconsider the direction of Songs Of Experience. Inspired by a quote from Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, Bono had to ask himself the question: "If I'm not around, what would I like to leave behind?", which resulted in a series of letters; intimate letters to places and people close to Bono's heart: family, friends, fans, and even himself.
"If you really want to get to the place —the dark heart of the matter— write as if you’re dead. You won’t be worrying about what anyone is thinking, won’t have any ego." - Irish poet Brendan Kennelly
"Lots of us have a brush with mortality, it was an arresting experience. I won’t dwell in it or on it. I don’t want to name it. But these songs have that impetus behind them and it would feel dishonest not to admit the turbulence I was feeling at the time of writing." - Bono
Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience
In the late 18th century English poet William Blake released an illustrated collection of poems titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Bono is a known reader of Blake and has leaned on Blake as a Romanticist role model for at least 30 years. At that time U2 recorded a song titled Beautiful Ghost/Introduction To Songs Of Experience, where Bono recites Blake's poem Introduction. Bono's Zoo TV character/persona The Fly was also likely inspired by the poem of the same name in Blake’s work.
The idea of one (or a double) album called Songs of Innocence and Experience dates back to at least as far as 1992, when Bono mentioned to NME that he just wrote a song for U2's "new record".
"I've just written a song for our new record called Songs Of Innocence and Experience, after reading Blake" - Bono (NME 1992)
What once referred to Innocence later appears as the voice of Experience warning Bono’s own children about the pitfalls in life
In a promotional clip for Songs Of Experience, Bono talks about sometimes having a conversation with his conscience: "This conscience could be called your innocent self, but it's certainly your younger self. On the tour for Songs Of Innocence, we setup this argument between the two selves, and I think it continues on Songs Of Experience."
The conversation Bono has with his younger self on the i+e tour version of Bullet The Blue Sky was a striking example of this in action, and it continues through into the songwriting process on Songs Of Experience with tracks such as Love Is All We Have Left, The Little Things That Give You Away and perhaps even Get Out Of Your Own Way to some degree.
Love Is All We Have Left
A song "speculating on mortality" (Q Magazine) opens Songs Of Experience. Back in 2006, Bono made a trip to Africa during which he wrote lyrics for a song called Love Is All We Have Left. Bono admitted that he thought he had written a Frank Sinatra song. A year prior to the release of No Line On The Horizon this track was also identified as one of the songs to make it onto the album.
"My favorite opening line to a U2 album: 'There's nothing to stop this being the best day ever.' In the second verse, innocence admonishes experience: 'Now you're at the other end of the telescope, seven billion stars in her eyes, so many stars so many ways of seeing, hey, this is no time not to be alive.'" - Bono
Lyrically, Bono employs a literary and cinematographic technique where the narrator detaches completely from the world and can see all living people on Earth as stars in the eyes: "Now you're at the other end of the telescope. Seven billion stars in her eyes. So many stars, So many ways of seeing". The narrator can see simultaneously all the people's lives, dreams and perspectives and this inspires him or her to keep living ("no time not to be alive"), maybe not so much anymore to eat up the entire world ("I wanted the world, but you knew better"), but to love as the only thing left to do. Something in which, from a religious point of view, 1 Corinthians 13:13 can be heard, where it says: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
Lights Of Home
Bono recently admitted on SiriusXM that he enjoys the psalms where David argues with God. The lights of home is a song about Bono arguing with God. The metaphor of Lights Of Home could refer to a clear purpose in life, the motivation that drives our actions. Bono's close encounter with mortality ("I shouldn't be here cause I should be dead") led him to question his place in life ("Jesus if I'm still your friend, what the hell you got for me?") and his motivations. He re-discovered his purpose in life in the eyes of the ones closest to him, Ali and his children ("In your eyes I see it, in your eyes alone I see the lights of home").
The Lights Of Home is Bono arguing with God. Referring to a clear purpose in life, the motivation that drives our actions
He said to them, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading:
'Sir, open the door for us.'
But he will answer, 'I don’t know you or where you come from.'
Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'
But he will reply, 'I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!'
With Bono known as a master of open interpretations in his lyrics, we leave the last word on the lyrics to you. Perhaps you have found another interpretation of this song?
When Bono sees the Lights of Home, could he be talking about that light you're supposed to see when you're dying?
You're The Best Thing About Me
As with many U2 songs, fragments of You're The Best Thing About Me were first heard in a "beach clip", which are audio fragments recorded outside Bono's house in the South of France. This happened on the summer of 2016, days before DJ Kygo debuted his remix of the song at the Cloud9 Festival in Norway. As for the title of the song, in May 2017 Bono revealed that sports commentator, and former author of a U2 biography, Eamon Dunphy had inspired him: "Eamon said this beautiful thing about me once in a bar in Dublin – he said 'Bono, Ali is the best thing about you,' referring to Bono’s wife Ali Hewson."
"We were just out having a drink. It was really nothing serious but he remembered it – it must have been 10 or 15 years ago. She’s a wonderful girl. So that’s all I said. I was actually in France when he said it."
- Eamon Dunphy on The Best Thing (RTE)
After we published this article several (mostly Irish) fans responded to us that Bono leaving out the "to" in this sentence is apparently an Irish colloquialism ("everyday language"), where the Irish sometimes leave out to the "to" in a sentence like this.
Get Out Of Your Own Way
Get Out Of Your Own Way is a perfect fit for the theme of Experience. "What experience teaches you is that it is you that is the biggest obstacle in life. You are getting in your own way", as Bono explains to Ruud De Wild for Dutch TV. Or, as Bono puts in an interview with Rolling Stone, it's about "not to fight with yourself, in striving to perform at the top of your game."
"I've tried to use some biting irony to reflect the anger out on the streets" - Bono
Musically, this song has a lot of similarities to Beautiful Day. A U2 fan on Reddit took the time to dissect the song and realised that you can even sing most of the Beautiful Day lyrics over the music of Get Out Of Your Own Way, fitting naturally. The organ of Where The Streets Have No Name is another familiar part for us U2 fans to be heard in the first few seconds of the tune.
The song makes a perfect pair with American Soul, the next track on Songs Of Experience. At the end of Get Out Of Your Own Way, Kendrick Lamar can be heard taking on the role of a "lunatic preacher" who is "reinventing the attitude" going into the start of American Soul. Kendrick’s outro is inspired by the Beatitudes, a series of eight blessings that Jesus preached in Matthew 5:3-11. The Beatitudes promised rewards or satisfaction for traditionally marginalized groups. According to The Bible this took place on The Mount of Beatitudes, a hill in northern Israel.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."
(The Beatitudes, the Bible)
The song American Soul is a letter to America and starts off where Get Out Of Your Own Way left us, with Kendrick Lamar as the lunatic preacher. Parts of this song were used for the song XXX on Kendrick Lamar's latest album, albeit with a different arrangement, closer to jazz music. The "It's not a place, this country is to be a sound of drum and bass" line for instance can be found in both songs.
"We all have a vested interest in America succeeding, and that’s what American Soul is about" - The Edge
For the origins of U2's American Soul we have to go all the way back to 1987. While working on The Joshua Tree, Bono was reading William Blake's work as mentioned earlier (resulting in Beautiful Ghost/Introduction To Songs Of Experience). The working title for The Joshua Tree was "The Two Americas". Atu2's Scott Calhoun suggests that if Bono used more from Blake that The Joshua Tree might even have been called "The Two Contrary States Of America’s Soul," inspired by Blake's volume titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
Has U2 now, 30 years after The Two Americas, found a place for the original idea in the song American Soul?
Musically, the song has used the same chorus and lyrics as used on Volcano from Songs Of Innocence. Other familiar lyrics in the song come from the song Glastonbury, played live a couple of times during the 360 tour in 2010. Glastonbury had a line being "Even in the dreams you can't seem to sleep in", which now found a place in American Soul as "In your dreams you can’t be sleeping". Musically, the song has some similarities with Glastonbury, suggesting that the latter is one of the songs U2 worked on in the past, and it finally came together as one song in American Soul.
Summer Of Love
Summer Of Love and Red Flag Day are another pair of songs that go well together, just as Get Out Of Your Own Way and American Soul. Both address the refugee crisis in Europe and are “about people running for their lives on the same Mediterranean that we’re running through the shallows" (MOJO). Also both are songs on the album that are actually not letters. Bono describes them as "sort of photographs", as "two love songs with pungent dark clouds crouching over them". A lot went into Summer Of Love, but one of Bono’s jumping-off points was a CNN story about Abu Wad, the “gardener of Aleppo”, who planted flowers in Aleppo amidst all the terror, hoping for some relieve and tranquility, but eventually got killed.
"It was a political statement to the entire world that he kept this garden going. He was this deeply philosophical character and to him it was an act of defiance to grow flowers in the middle of Aleppo. He actually wound up getting killed in an air raid, so it was a very sad ending, but Bono was really inspired by his defiance. When we were looking at that song, we decided that should be the focus geographically"
- Edge (Rolling Stone)
"I’ve been thinking of the west coast, but not the one everyone knows" is a clear reference to Syria, written from the perspective of being in the south of France where Bono and Edge have houses, and "just knowing when you're having your vacation that on the same sea people are fighting for their lives, attaching themselves to bits of wood and rubber tires." (Q Magazine)
Musically, the song was heavily influenced by the producer Ryan Tedder, the frontman of OneRepublic. He writes most of his music with the thought that they will become songs for his own band, so it is then no surprise that as early as February 2016 a OneRepublic song called West Coast was uploaded to social media, where we can hear the rest the band members playing a song with lyrics and music similar to Summer Of Love.
This is another song with a featured artist, as Lady Gaga was invited to be part of the song. You can specially hear her singing “Love” right before the bridge.
Red Flag Day
Red Flag Day is another photograph song and written for the refugees that are running for their lives. The lyrics all make sense from that perspective: a couple, a family who are so desperate to escape that they are taking the chance of trying to cross over the sea onto Europe, despite the danger the weather presents: Red Flag Day.
A red flag on the beach is the most serious of all warnings and means that it’s extremely dangerous to swim and one should not go into the water. Refugees crossing the ocean often deal with these adverse circumstances. Bono is known to use waves and sea for the unknown, for uncertainty. The main characters in this song are so desperate they are taking a chance with these unknowns.
Bono is known to use waves and sea for the unknown, for uncertainty
As with many of Bono's lyrics and songs from this band, this track is also open to more than one interpretation. While the song is clearly about refugees, the fact that Bono has been using the metaphor of waves and turbulent seas for uncertainty about our own destiny (see paragraph above) since at least Every Breaking Wave, leads to an interpretation of this song as a tale of a couple facing the crucial decision of going all in in a relation, despite perhaps the circumstances not working on their favor (a “Red Flag Day” to start a relationship). Despite this, the narrator wants to “dive in” and take a big risk, believing in this relation against all odds: "I, I can feel your body shakin', I, I will meet you where the waves are breakin', Baby it's a Red Flag Day, Baby let's get in the water."
Musically, we know that this song was being worked on extensively during the rehearsals of the Innocence + Experience 2015 tour in Vancouver with producer Andy Barlow who just joined the band at the time.
This song is a letter to the audience, to U2's audience, to be careful of performers (being Bono) and how you shouldn't trust them too much. It's a "love letter to anyone who falls for the bluster of a performer with too much/too little confidence." (Bono)
The lyrics are written from the point of view of a performer on stage, someone that gets everyone in the room excited when he enters the stage ("Walk through the room like a birthday cake") but he knows once the show starts and the lights are on him he can’t make a mistake ("When I am all lit up, I can’t make a mistake").
Every showman, every performer has his or her own insecurities and they sing and show us their fragile side for a living
Early on in rumoured tracklists there was a song called Much More Better, it might very well be that this ended up to be (part of) The Showman. Musically, this song apparently was a "great demo" but it "only became a great song when Larry sat behind his kit and, in one session, threw a whole other take on the tune." (Bono)
The Little Things That Give You Away
Debuted live in Vancouver on May 2017, The Little Things That Give You Away was the first Song of Experience performed on a live stage, 8 months before the release of the album. Before the song acquired its current title it was known under the title The Morning After Innocence (mentioned in a September 2015 interview with Charlie Rose). As beautiful as the live performance was, the lyrics of the song initially worried fans as it felt like this was a song about the (upcoming) end of U2, in particular with lines such as "the end is near."
The Little Things That Give You Away is a far more complex song than that luckily. Like some of U2’s lyrically strongest songs, it can be interpreted in a number of different ways that allow so many people to relate to the song. Originally written about deceit, the song ended up being a letter to Bono himself, something he did not expect to write when he started and he "realised too late". Could this song be Paul Hewson (Innocence) talking to Bono (Experience)?
"At the end the man of the world, the experienced man breaks down and explains that he is afraid, that there is fear in his life" - Bono
"In all of these advice type songs, you are of course preaching what you need to hear. In that sense, they're all written to the singer. One other piece on Blake, I don't know if I'm explaining too much here but the best songs for me are often arguments with yourself or arguments with some other version of yourself. Even singing our song One, which was half fiction, I've had this ongoing fight. In Little Things, innocence challenges experience" - Bono
Going deeper into the lyrics the start of the song can be interpreted as being born. There is a very Christian motif about God giving you "talents" when you are born: "The night gave you song, a light had been turned on, you walked out in the world like you belong there." The end of the song as explained by Bono is he himself is admitting his deepest fears. Fearing that his tasks are so thankless (a line sang on the live versions, that was replaced with thoughts are so reckless on the album), his tasks as a husband, father, rock star, philanthropist, may they have been in vain? These moments of doubt do not appear as eruptions, but rather, as "little things that give you away" alone, at night when you can’t sleep "I wake at four in the morning."
These [Bono's] moments of doubt do not appear as eruptions, but rather, as little things that give you away alone, at night when you can't sleep
As early as St. Patrick’s Day, 2016, U2 published on Instagram part of the official lyrics of this song with a photo of Bono at his own front door. Landlady is another lovely song about Ali, acting as more than just moral support for U2's frontman. In the early days, her help was more tangible, helping Bono making ends meet and even paying rent, hence he affectionately calling her his "landlady".
"The landlady is the person that put you up and paid your keep. I rather like it." - Bono
The song links with Book Of Your Heart, both songs talk about good relations as those that endure and are built day to day
Like the Chilean poet, Bono is thankful for all the circumstances and fortuities that let him get to Ali, even if those include some sad moments, because at the end every one of those moments brought them a little closer to each other: "Every wave that broke me, Every song that wrote me, Every dawn that woke me was to get me home to you, see".
This Song of Experience, with its unmistakable stop-and-listen-to-me-right-now guitar hook and defiant sense of urgency, was first teased in an official U2 social media post back in early June 2016. The song had its first live public outing at a video shoot held at a small club in Amsterdam in July of 2017 just as the band approached the end of the European leg of The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary tour. The song was performed five times in succession and went on to be globally premiered on U2's Facebook page a little over a month later, as a further taster for Songs Of Experience.
The song's genesis revolved around Bono's brush with mortality and is also strongly inspired by the earlier mentioned quote from Irish poet Brendan Kennelly.
"The Blackout, which started off its life about a more personal apocalypse, some events in my life that more than reminded me of my mortality but then segued into the political dystopia that we're heading towards now." - Bono (Rolling Stone)
Curiously, the song also references a serious of male names at the end of some of the verse lines. Namely, Fred, Ned, Jack and Zac. It appears two of these names, Ned and Jack, may be another tip of Bono's songwriting hat to the works of Blake as they both feature in The Chimney Sweeper – a series of two poems set against a backdrop of child labour in Georgian England.
Published in two parts across Blake's 1789 Songs Of Innocence and then five years later on in 1794’s Songs Of Experience, Ned and Jack were the names of two young chimney sweepers mentioned in a dream by the young narrator Tom. Together with thousands of other young chimney sweepers, Ned and Jack were locked up in "coffins of black". In the dream, Tom was given a key by an angel to set the chimney sweepers free from their coffins. Reading further into this, it appears Blake was making a statement on the hardship of child labour of the time and how the Church seemingly encouraged such practices, even if perhaps indirectly, with the suggestion that by enduring hardship in this life, one would be rewarded in the next life.
Ned and Jack both feature in The Chimney Sweeper, a series of two poems by William Blake
Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way
The title of this song is a line that Bono has been mentioning for a while. For instance, in a letter Bono wrote and published right after the Paris attacks in 2015. About the line: "I came up with the phrase, ‘Love is bigger than anything in its way.’ And I mean it", he said. "And that is not an airy-fairy, flowers-in-the-hair version of love. I mean that most of the songs in the album are details of emotional landscapes rather than physical landscapes." Later Bono further explained the title saying it is the one sentence you would like to give or leave to your kids being a father.
"I mean the thing that experience has taught me, above all else, is the primacy of fun and frolics and devilment and mischief and joy as a defiant act against our mortality, and that brings us back to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where U2 came from." - Bono (SiriusXM)
This song is another letter, this one to Bono's sons, on what he would say to them if it was the last thing he could say to them. Telling them to follow their own path and not that of their fathers ("The door is open for you to go through. If I could I would come too. But the path is made by you as you're walking"). One of Bono’s sons, Elijah, actually is the frontman of his own band, so some of the lyrics about singing may be directed to him: "Start singing stop talking. If I can only listen to what I say."
13 (There Is A Light)
The closer of the album is another song written to Bono's songs and is certainly one of the main examples of Innocence interacting with Experience, and themes and narrators reappearing between the two albums, as Blake did in his poems. While in Songs Of Innocence the lyrics:
If there is a light
We can't always see
And there is a world
We can't always be
If there is a dark
Now we shouldn't doubt
And there is a light
Don't let it go out
were directed to Ali from a young Bono, in Songs Of Experience the same words are aimed to his children, as they grow into adulthood. The someone the song is for passed from a passive "you", that is, Ali in Songs Of Innocence, to a more personal and reflective "me" in this song, as he tries to hold on to this light called kindness and love that guides his path and now passes this message to his sons. 13 (There Is A Light) renews his commitment to the purpose and sustenance he still finds in music, songwriting and performance.
While in Songs Of Innocence, the lyrics were directed to Ali from a young Bono, in Songs Of Experience the same words are aimed to his children as they grow into adulthood
Book Of Your Heart
In this song Bono revels against the common opinion that our personality, traits and background, all engraved in us like a "book" or an inscription will determine how we must react in a relationship. This would suggest that the success or failure in love is determined right from the start: "Right at the start, You put this into words, How you think we should proceed." Bono offers us instead a vision of a completely uncharted territory, full of open questions and rewards if we are willing to work hard enough in a relation: "This is our wedding day. This is the promise that we'll stay. Through the long descriptive passages, where we don't know what to say."
"This is a song about helping your partner to get through life and vice versa. Great relationships need management. In a great relationship that management is shared.” - Bono
What is next, Songs Of Ascent? Man?
In March 2009 Bono first mentioned Songs Of Ascent as an album title, suggesting that the band had so much material from the No Line On The Horizon sessions that they could use this for their next album Songs Of Ascent, a sister project to the aforementioned record. This has a striking similarity to the way the band talked about Songs Of Experience at the time Songs Of Innocence was released. This interview with Edge and Larry provides some good insights into the bands’ schemes at the time in 2009.
In 2011 Adam mentioned that the band is now feeling "a long way" from that material and will probably not be pursuing the Songs Of Ascent project anymore. Songs Of Ascent then wasn't mentioned by the band for a long time until September 2015, when Adam during a Skype interview said that "Songs Of Ascent is still in the pipeline - we’re gonna go back to that at some point".
"Songs Of Ascent is still in the pipeline - we're gonna go back to that at some point" - Adam, 2016
This article is the result of many months of work and research and is written by U2start members Remy, cesar_garza01 and Caledonia. We would like to thank the many fans who helped us providing information, corrections, references and ideas. Some of the information is this article are some of our own theories/speculation and not factual information. We welcome your own thoughts in our forums, every song has its own topic here. We tried to give credit where credit is due but if you feel your or a reference is missing, feel free to let us know for us to include.
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The article The origins of Songs Of Experience was first published on U2start.com by Remy.
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