For 30 years I’ve been actively listening to U2. But even before that the videos for “New Years Day” and “Pride” were capturing my attention. So when a new U2 album is released, it’s an event. In fact, since Rattle and Hum I can recall the events surrounding every one of their releases.
But I’ve been anxious about the new album. The pre-release reviews have been positive. Multiple said it was their best since Achtung Baby, which is my favorite U2 album. But I’m always worried. Do I love all their albums? Yes. But there is in all of us U2 fans the desire to be blown away. I want U2 albums that make me feel like I did when I skipped school to be the first in line to get Rattle and Hum and then listened to it over and over for weeks on end.
This past Friday we got Songs Of Experience, the long-awaited follow up to Songs of Innocence. The following are my thoughts after about 20-25 listens.
1. After two complete listens, I texted my two best friends and told them I thought it was better than anything since Achtung Baby. They were nonplussed. After more than 25 complete listens, I not only still stand by that assessment, I am more convinced of its truth. It will go down as one of the great U2 albums.
2. The refrain with the chorus at the end of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is one of the most powerful musical moments I’ve ever encountered. I cannot get it out of my head. Those lines are rolling around in my head constantly.
3. This album starts with a hymn and ends with a psalm. And everything in between feels like something out of the Psalms: injustice, mortality, repentance, confession, joy, hope, and thanksgiving.
4. Bono’s voice has never sounded better. Hard to believe, but it really is true. The space age auto-tuning used in the first song is not because he needs help. It’s for effect, almost as if he is looking back at the world from space.
5. At the end of “American Soul” Bono sings “For Refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus. It’s a play on words, of course, that most people will find a little hokey. But the more I’ve thought it, the more I’ve appreciated that last word. Who is he referring to here? Is this a reference to America as a Savior to refugees and they are Refu-Jesus? Or at least, should be? Or is this a reference to the refugees as Jesus? “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Regardless, it deepens the entirety of the song’s message.
6. I joked the other day, that Songs of Experience is my favorite Christmas album. But maybe, I made more sense than I even knew. This is a dark album in many ways. The music and the lyrics deal with a darkness that pervades our culture and even worse lurks in our hearts. But it’s awfully hopeful too.
Darkness is the natural habitat for hope. I’m showing my students the movie, The Nativity Story in class right now. The movie makes clear the cultural and political world in which Christ was born. Their hope of his coming was always on their lips because the darkness was ever present in the specters of Rome, poverty, and a culture of death.
This album has no cynicism. No irony. All hope for the darkest of nights. But what it does that is a little different from the international situation we have now, is add ourselves into the mix of the guilty. The problem is not merely “out there.” Which, of course, is why he came.
7. “The Little Things That Give You Away” is as good as any song U2 has ever done. It’s “One” good.
8. “Red Flag Day” reminds me of War in the best possible way. It’s a perfect pop/rock song. And because it is a response to this, it’s just that much more of a great song.
9. The fact that my kids love these songs is important. Listening to U2 as a family is something we’ve enjoyed for a number of years now and if they didn’t like it or if we didn’t, there’d be trouble.
10. U2 albums are personal for me and have been for a long time. I’m not the kind of fan that dreams of meeting them. I don’t figure out how to see them on every tour. But they have shaped the way I think about myself and the world. And they’ve been doing that for 30 years. That’s no small thing.