Bono’s edge of reason

Why U2’s songs of experience is a dialogue between the young and old Bono

  • Published 1.12.17
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U2’s 14th studio album, Songs of Experience (releases today on Universal Music), opens on a fragile note: This is no time not to be alive. What follows is the band coming to terms with a world that’s on the brink.

Excerpts from an interview with Bono and The Edge.

Songs of Experience has been two-and-a-half years in the making for U2. As a band you must be very happy to get this record over the finish line...

The Edge: Yeah, oh, so happy. I’ve sort of been listening to it for the first time as a fan. It’s like: ‘Oh, I didn’t remember that.’ Bits that just caught me here and there.

Bono: It turned out great. (Laughs) But as I keep telling anyone interested in our band, thanks for your patience. 

How did it compare to the making of Songs of Innocence (2014)?

The Edge: For sure, there’s some connective tissue with some of the tunes that we started during the Songs of Innocence sessions, or even before. I think working with (musician, songwriter and producer) Danger Mouse on Songs of Innocence really gave us the insight into other production approaches that we could add to what we were already doing. So, on Songs of Experience we really were taking advantage of the thing that we can do as a band that no one else can do. But also not attempting to fit in, in a kind of very slavish way, to a traditional recording approach.

Bono: Really, it’s not that mysterious what people like... may I say love... about our band. It’s when we’ve big tunes with some big ideas wrapped around their necks.... Sonic innovation is key to who we are, but our best work is when we have the tunes on top of the experimentation. That was the biggest lesson on Songs of Innocence. And we continued with those ideas through Songs of Experience. They just got sharper.

It’s been well-documented that in 2016 Bono suffered what Edge described as a “brush with mortality”. How serious was it?

Bono: Well, I don’t want to get too much into details out of fear of the kind of minor/major melodrama reality TV kerfuffle. What’s more interesting is a lot of people have these moments. I’ve had a few. But it’s just one of those moments when nothing else matters.

The Edge: It was serious enough that he genuinely had a major fright. But where that brought him to as a writer was an amazing place.

Bono, you followed the advice from Irish poet and novelist Brendan Kennelly to “write as if you’re dead”?

Bono: Yeah. What do you have to say for yourself? And what do you want to say to the people you care about and the people you love?

You said early in 2017 that you’d put the recording of the album on pause to reflect on the big political changes in America and Europe. But, of course, it’s ended up being a mix of the political with the intensely personal?

Bono: The personal and political apocalypse came together (laughs). If we’re honest, the personal elbowed the political out of the way. The funny thing is in The Blackout you have both. When you get your lights punched out, you discover yourself in the dark. If that’s true personally, I’m tempted to believe it’s true politically. We’ve had our lights punched out, but it’s in this moment of confusion and doubt, in these darkened days, that actually we can rediscover our values, if we’re smart. So what happened to me personally really just confirmed in a way what was going on outside.

Most of the lyrics were conceived as final letters to those nearest and dearest to you, Bono?

Bono: Yeah. But even The Showman is a letter to our audience. You have a letter to America with American Soul because, y’know, the US has been a muse of ours, let’s be honest. 

Get Out Of Your Own Way is addressed to your daughters?

Bono: I started writing that for my daughters (Eve, 26; and Jordan, 28), but these letters end up being to yourself too. You preach what you need to hear. But that’s also a portrait of a young girl in love. And suddenly they’re all that matters — your kids, your friends, your family.

The Edge: Like in a lot of our songs, we don’t like it to be so specific that there is no other interpretation. Get Out Of Your Own Way, I always think of it as, y’know, we are all our own worst enemies. It’s about getting on with what we really want to do. We could do a lot more but we always get in our own way. I know I do. 

Kendrick Lamar pops up in the segue from Get Out Of Your Own Way into American Soul. You’d originally sent him the work-in-progress American Soul and he ended up sampling Bono’s voice for XXX from his DAMN. album. So here he returns the favour on Songs Of Experience?

The Edge: Yeah. At first we hoped he would come up with some ideas or a part for himself to put into the song. We didn’t hear from him for a bit and then we got asked would we mind if he used part of Bono’s vocal in his tune.

Bono: That worked out very well and now we have him in the middle of the riot as this kind of cracked preacher. I was doing that part and then we thought... somebody else should do this. I said to Kendrick, ‘Would you be interested?’ And it just arrived on my phone.

The standout line there is: Blessed are the liars for the truth can be awkward.

Bono: “Yeah. (Laughs) There’s a big orange vision which comes into view.

Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way is addressed to Bono’s sons (Elijah, 18 and John, 16)....

Bono: Again, I’m singing to my sons, but I’m singing to myself. The teenage rage, that thing, I really relate to it. I feel I haven’t quite grown out of that teenage thing that I have. Rage is at the heart of rock ’n’ roll, isn’t it? That’s the difference between rock and pop. Turning pain into beauty is the job of art and turning rage into rock ’n’ roll, that’s what we do. What I love about the album is that it’s got that energy. It’s not punk rock but it’s got that energy and it’s got the defiance. 

The album’s closer, 13 (There Is A Light), partly reprises the lyric and melody of Song For Someone from Songs of Innocence. Why return to that?

The Edge: There Is A Light was in the running for the last record, and then at a certain point we had the potential of the two songs. The chorus was common to both. But we thought we would bring There Is A Light into Songs of Experience because we liked the idea of there being a bridge.

Bono: We were never gonna do more than 12 songs and the idea was to try to hide it at the end. You could do that with a CD, but you can’t really do it with streaming. Apparently, hiding things is quite an old-fashioned idea…. Then we said... we’re gonna do our 13th track. And we’ll call it 13 because it’s kind of about a teenage boy. We had two ideas for it. The idea was to write for the teenage girl that you fell in love with, and then for her children. 

The dialogue between the young, innocent Bono and the older, experienced Bono really comes into play in parts of Songs of Experience....

Bono: You have it in the second verse of Love Is All We Have Left. I originally said: ‘We just need to make it sound really innocent.’ It’s so poignant, your innocence singing to you: Hey, this is no time not to be alive. It’s really very hard for me to listen to it. In The Little Things That Give You Away, you have kind of an argument between the younger and the older self: I saw you on the stairs/You didn’t notice I was there/That’s ’cause you were talking at me and not to me. The older one has perhaps got a little too comfortable in the world. Then the older one just breaks down, and it’s heartbreaking.

The Edge: This dialogue between the young and old Bono is a great device. Songs of Innocence was so much about the narrative of where we started, it was very easy to write. But when it comes to writing about experience, that’s much harder. The worst thing you can do is put advice forward (laughs). It’s just the worst.

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