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For the truth can be awkward

19 January 2018

Peter Barrett reviews the latest U2 album



U2 perform in Trafalgar Square, London, before the MTV Europe Music Awards last November; left to right: Larry Mullen Jr (drums), Bono, and the Edge (guitar)

U2 perform in Trafalgar Square, London, before the MTV Europe Music Awards last November; left to right: Larry Mullen Jr (drums), Bono, and the Edge (...

A NEW album by U2 is still an event. Despite being together for more than 40 years — with the same line-up (a feat almost unheard of in rock) — they have never settled for an easy ride. That is why their albums take so long to produce: U2 still believe that they can strive for greatness. Over the years, avoiding the temptation to churn out a formulaic sound, they have reinvented themselves with albums such as The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby.

Even this year’s “Joshua Tree” tour was less a celebration of the album that made them superstars than a reinterpretation of those songs in the light of today’s turbulence. Their visceral performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky” on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on NBC in September was evidence that they still possess that Old Testament prophetic rage — aimed here at Donald Trump:

Ground shakes but the children can’t weep
Vaporized in a single tweet
The emperor rises from his golden throne
Never knowing, never being known.

Songs of Experience, U2’s 14th studio album, almost never happened. During recent interviews, Bono admits that he has had a “brush with mortality” — no more details provided — leading Edge, the guitarist, to comment: “It’s been a hell of a year.” Ironically, the Dublin poet Brendan Kennelly’s advice to Bono for this record was “Write as if you’re dead.”

On their previous record, Songs of Innocence (2014), the first half of the William Blake-inspired couplet, Bono re-examined U2’s beginnings as a teenage four-piece, and particularly the “first journeys” — musical, sexual, and spiritual — that shaped them as a band. Gate-crashing a Ramones gig; the Rowen family in Bono’s road, who “made the word of God dance”; bomb blasts in the city; the death of Bono’s mother, Iris; and his first date with Ali, now his wife, in the same month as he joined U2.

But the backdrop of Bono’s mortality has made this record even more intimate. It is essentially a series of love letters to his partner and family, the kind of things that you would say if these were your last words. Two songs are about his wife, written in gratitude for her generousity, and admitting that he still doesn’t fully understand her:

. . . when I was broke
It was you that always paid the rent

I can see you love her loudly
When she needs you quietly
(“You’re The Best Thing About Me”)

There is also a trio of songs for his sons and daughters (“Get Out Of Your Own Way”, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, and “13 (There Is A Light)”), encouraging them to stand on their own two feet, make their own way, and focus on making a world they can believe in:

Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you but it’s your fight
(“Get Out Of Your Own Way”)

At one point, Bono speaks to his younger counterpart:

You were high above the storm
A hurricane being born
But this freedom it might cost you your liberty.

Bono has joked that his younger self would probably be on the other side of the barricade at G20 summits, while he is in the securely guarded hotel, fraternising with politicians, albeit for a good cause.

Bono is still arguing with God, too, admitting with typical honesty that he had to fight hard to hear “that still, small voice”, promising the “peace that passes all understanding”: “Oh Jesus, if I’m still your friend What the hell you got for me?” (“Lights of Home”). But this is someone digging deeper, grappling with doubt, and recognising that there is a “joyful defiance” at work here — to defy the odds, to defy death even.

It is exactly this struggle that connects U2 to their audience: they never package faith up as an attractive bundle, but speak openly about their uncertainties and fears. It is also what makes their explicit God-statements so much more palatable. Vulnerability is not a weakness.

Bono even conjures up an inspired 21st-century set of Beatitudes, recited by the rapper Kendrick Lamar (Bono, incidentally, duets in “XXX” on Lamar’s latest album, DAMN., using lyrics from “American Soul”):

Blessed are the arrogant
For theirs is the kingdom of their own company
Blessed are the filthy rich
For you can only truly own what you give away (like your pain)
Blessed are the liars

For the truth can be awkward.

But this wouldn’t be a U2 album unless the personal were wrapped up in the political. From his house in the south of France, Bono looks out over the Mediterranean and is reminded of the tragedy of Syria. Whether it’s the gardener, Abu Ward, who grew flowers in Aleppo and died in the bombings (“Summer of Love”), the countless families forced into the sea against all their instincts (“Red Flag Day”), or the lack of welcome from the West (“American Soul”).

In “The Blackout” — a song destined for stadium singalongs on their next tour — Bono contemplates the demise of democracy, making it clear on “Get Out Of Your Own Way” that it is the US that he’s talking about.

If Songs of Innocence was the black-and-white snapshots of early adolescence, Songs of Experience offers a more cinematic and textured view. But the bite is still there. Live performances of “American Soul” and “Get Out of Your Own Way” on Saturday Night Live showed that U2 were as serious as ever about the songs. Fundamentally, they still care about what they do, and that is what makes them such a vital force in the music industry and beyond.

The album is issued on the Island label.

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