While he’s been coy about the exact details, Bono apparently almost died in 2017.
In general, it’s been a rough few years for the frontman of the world’s biggest rock band. The backlash against U2’s last record, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, was perhaps fiercer than for any other album released this decade (though the hate was more for the gung-ho iTunes release strategy than for the actual music). Then, a few months later, Bono crashed his bike, fractured his face, and shattered his arm. The injury, he later said, may have put a permanent end to his guitar playing days.
Still, neither Bono nor U2 have slowed down much. If anything, they sped up. This year, the band zipped around the globe playing The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary. Even at a relatively brief (by U2 standards) 51 dates, the tour grossed $316 million—enough to be the year’s highest grossing concert tour. Meanwhile, U2 have spent months tinkering with Songs of Experience, the sequel to their maligned 2014 album, which was supposed to come out a year ago. Even with the 12-month delay, Songs of Experience still arrives just three years and two months after its predecessor—the band’s briefest album-to-album gap since the early 1990s.
Songs of Experience is anything but business as usual for U2, though. The darkest LP in the band’s catalog since 1997’s Pop, Experience is overhung with specters of death and musings on the apocalypse. While the record was reportedly just about ready to go at this time last year, it seems likely that the band either rewrote most of the songs or scrapped everything and started from scratch. It’s tough to imagine U2—a band that has spent the better part of the new millennium in victory lap mode—writing an album this gripping and vital before the events of 2016.
Bono’s near-death experience and the political fallout of 2016—Brexit, plus the election of Donald Trump—inform most of the songs on this record. The result is the least complacent U2 have sounded in 20 years. It’s less eager to please than its overproduced predecessor; more fully-realized than 2009’s experimental, meandering No Line on the Horizon; more unflinchingly personal than 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; and more willing to ask difficult questions than 2000’s comeback crowd-pleaser, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It may or may not be the best of those LPs, but it’s almost certainly the most fully realized.
The advice that Bono gave himself during the making of this record was to “write as if you were dead,” probably because he almost was. Whatever the reason, the advice proves a good mantra for Bono, who, for the first time since “Vertigo,” seems like he isn’t chasing a hit. Not that he’s stopped writing sterling hooks. Lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me” sounds like a darker version of “Sweetest Thing,” with plenty of that song’s exuberant infectiousness. “Get out of Your Own Way” is a stadium-sized epic on the order of “Beautiful Day.” And “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” is the album’s grand climax, a euphoric number that shows U2 is still better at doing the big inspirational anthem better than any other band on the planet.
Elsewhere, though, Bono allows himself get dark. Opening track, the menacing “Love Is All We Have Left,” is a contemplative prayer where Bono lets his voice get put through a vocoder for the first time ever. “This is no time not to be alive,” his altered voice intones, like a message from the other side of consciousness urging a dying man to keep going. Then comes “Lights of Home,” which opens with the words “Shouldn’t be here, ‘cause I should be dead,” sputtered over a ragged acoustic riff borrowed from Haim’s “My Song 5.” A second later, he goes after the savior himself: “Oh Jesus, if I’m still your friend/What the hell you got for me?” Bono has gone on record about dealing with doubt, fear, anger, and temporary loss of faith during his brush with mortality last year. “Lights of Home” is the sound of him reckoning with those things in song, and it’s one of the most thrilling U2 tracks in years.
Songs of Experience is a strong record on its own, but it’s even better when played immediately after Songs of Innocence. In sound, influence, and story, Songs of Innocence was an album about growing up. The songs tackled first love (“Song for Someone”) and first loss (“Iris”). They looked at what it was like growing up in a violent, dangerous neighborhood (“Raised by Wolves,” “Cedarwood Road”), and at what it took to leave those streets behind to chase dreams (“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”). By the time “The Troubles” spun around at the end of the record, it felt like a much-deserved end credits roll on the trials and tribulations of youth. Played in chronology with Songs of Experience, though, “The Troubles” seems like a coy warning of bigger troubles just around the bend.
As it should. Songs of Experience is supposed to be the record about adulthood, in the same way that Songs of Innocence was the record about youth. Just as adulthood brings more complicated challenges, these songs are less straightforward in their thesis statements than the tracks on Innocence. “You’re the Best Thing about Me” seems like a cut-and-dried love song based on its title, but the key line “You’re the best thing about me/And the best things are easy to destroy” adds a dark subtext about the fragility of everything—even love. To underscore the complex messages, the band reprises bits of several songs from the previous record. “Free yourself to be yourself/If only you could see yourself” was the repeated line that closed out “Iris,” a song that was, in part, about Bono looking forward to seeing his mother in heaven someday. It comes back at the end of “Lights of Home,” a haunting acknowledgement that “someday” might not be as far off as any of us think.
The other reprisals are similarly resonant. On the blistering “American Soul,” the bridge from “Volcano” gets repurposed as a chorus. On Songs of Innocence, the line in question—“You and I are rock and roll”—captured how Bono and other young men of his generation (particularly the lads in U2) sought refuge in the expression of music. “American Soul” is a parallel, about how so many people came to America seeking a different kind of refuge. When Bono sings “You and I are rock and roll/Came here looking for American soul,” it’s a show of solidarity for all the people currently facing adversity at the hands of our esteemed Commander-in-Chief.
The final reprise is “Song for Someone,” whose chorus re-appears in “13 (There Is a Light),” this album’s slow-burning finale. On Innocence, “Song for Someone” was a declaration of love from a boy who probably didn’t know what love was yet. (Bono wrote it about falling in love with his wife, which happened when they were both kids.) Here, it feels like a prayer for resilience at the end of the world, from a father to his kids before they shed their innocence. “I know the world is done/But you don’t have to be/I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves/Are you tough enough to be kind?/Do you know your heart has its own mind?/Darkness gathers around the light/Hold on.” For Bono, part of “writing as if he was dead” was saying the things he needed to say to family and friends before he ran out of time to say them. This letter to his children is the most poignant of those missives. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first time the end of a U2 album has felt like it could fittingly serve as the end of U2.
That’s probably not going to happen, though, if only because there are a few songs here where it feels like the band legitimately can’t wait to get out onstage to play them live. The clearest example is “The Little Things That Give You Away,” the album’s biggest triumph. Already used as the grand finale for many shows on The Joshua Tree anniversary tour, “Things” is an instant career highlight, boasting a patient, cathartic crescendo more effective than any the band has attempted since “Bad.” With U2, especially on this album, it’s easy to put the focus on Bono—what with his talk of a near-death of experience and his pointedly personal songs about his wife and kids. This song, though, is a glowing reminder of how important every member of the band is. Rising out of a near-ambient intro into a sparkling tidal wave of sound, “Little Things” is everything most U2 fans love about U2: Adam Clayton’s runaway train of a bass; Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums, both as gentle as a heartbeat and as thunderous as a car crash; and The Edge’s effects-laden guitar, recreating that heavenly “Where the Streets Have No Name” sound like he knows it’s his Ninth Symphony. In the midst of it all, Bono cries out at his most emotive: “Sometimes, the end is not coming/It’s not coming/The end is here.”
Again, it sounds like a swansong, but I prefer the prophecy Bono gives himself just a few songs later: “If you listen you can hear the silence say/When you think you’re done/You’ve just begun.”