Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2’s Songs Of Experience

Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2's Songs of Experience - title photoSo the U2 fandom is crying…  big blobs of salty tears…  (I’m not crying, you’re crying!) No, not because of the Ticketmaster Verified Fan kerfuffle… This time, it’s because of U2’s latest album release, Songs of Experience (SOE), the band’s 14th studio album. Someone even suggested we need a support group…

I’m serious. For the past 2 weeks, my social media has been full of the U2 tribe posting about sitting in their cars openly weeping on the way to work, crying at their desks at work, or at home, on their couchs, just sobbing through the songs… on repeat… just SOE…  playing nothing else since its December 1 release.

Well, maybe Songs of Innocence (SOI), because it is a companion piece after all.  (I’ve been crying because it took this long for my pre-ordered vinyl set to get to me… but also because this album is just so beautiful, and emotional…)

And these two albums do belong together.  You cannot have one without the other.  Well, technically I guess you can… We’ve had SOI since 2015, sans Songs of Experience, but now that SOE is out, why would you not want the pair?

These albums together are simple genius.  Inspired by William Blake’s collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, U2’s two-some uses a similar framework for the albums.  Both U2 and Blake present Songs of Innocence as a look at the world through the perspective of childhood and youth and Songs of Experience as an adult’s perspective. Both utilize repetition of themes, imagery, and words/phrases (lyrics), pairing the poems/songs from one volume to another. (This website offers full text of all the poems for Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.)

A Lens of Innocence and Experience

Innocence

The poems in Blake’s Songs of Innocence are mostly a hopeful, idyllic look at the world, religion, birth/creation, and childhood experiences like playing in the park. They are told from the perspective of children or about children.  Dark things such as death, illness or poverty may happen in Blake’s SOI, but the poems are usually told through the lens of innocence and optimism.

U2 borrows this idea as the driver of their Songs of Innocence, but they morph it into innocence equaling youth rather than a youthful, idyllic view.  Their songs deal with  their beginnings (e.g. growing up on the streets of Dublin [Cedarwood Road – Bono’s childhood street], falling in love for the first time [Song for Someone]) and formative years/events.

But these beginnings aren’t always happy and idyllic, there are dark things that happen in the stage of Innocence: e.g. Bono’s mom’s passing (Iris), Bono’s anger at losing her and the resulting household/world he found himself in without her as a buffer (Volcano), and the bombing that took place in Dublin when the band were youths (Raised By Wolves).

U2’s Songs of Innocence takes these harsh moments of childhood and draws on the positive that can derive from them: yes, Bono’s mom passed away, but it made him the artist he is; yes he struggled with anger and fear at the world, but he found music and friends that saved him; yes, Ireland was reeling from the conflict in Northern Ireland, but we are “stronger then fear.”

Perhaps innocence isn’t just a newness or naivete, perhaps it is how you handle experience?

Experience

The poems in Blake’s Songs of Experience take a darker, questioning look from a lens of adulthood and loss of innocence.  Though the topics are often the same as in SOI (death, poverty, child labour, religion, creation), the poems come at these topics with themes like jealousy, repression, and mortality.  Where Blake’s Songs of Innocence were often meek, soft, lovely; his Songs of Experience are more violent and powerful.

U2’s Songs of Experience is preoccupied by death, but in a joyfully defiant sort of way.  The focus of death is due to a serious health scare Bono had near winter 2016. Serious enough that he writes in the liner notes: “Last Winter I was on the receiving end of a shock to the system myself, a shock that left me clinging on to my own life like a raft… It’s an arresting experience.  I was arrested.”

Bono and the boys are keeping the details of this incident private; it’s not the biking accident, nor the terrorist attack in Nice (Bono was at a restaurant very very close to where this went down), it’s not the door of his plane coming off mid-flight.   But whatever it was, it had a huge impact on him, his family, and the band.  And therefore on the album.

Apparently, the band were almost finished Songs of Experience around the time this took place.  So did another arresting experience – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States… and before that, Brexit.

All these incidents made the band pause their almost finished album to take another look.  Add to that advice to Bono from Irish poet Brendan Kennelly “to write as if you were dead” – if these are your last days, what do you want to say?

As a result, many of these songs on U2’s Songs of Experience are written like letters to Bono’s loved ones – Ali (his wife of 35 years), his kids, the band, us fans, and to himself.  Interestingly, some of Blake’s poems can be interpreted as letters as well: Little Girl Lost begins with this:

Children of the future Age
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

And the last poem: The Voice of The Ancient Bard, another letter to youth:

Youth of delight, come hither,
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born.

As with Blake’s SOE, U2’s Songs of Experience also hits upon birth/creation, religion, and plenty of darker topics.  The death-focus is not just on Bono’s near-death but also the near death of democracy, freedom, liberty and the changing world that brought us Brexit and Trump. It also focuses heavily on the plight of refugees.  Three songs in particular handle this heavy topic, one after another on the album: American Soul, Summer of Love, and Red Flag Day. Boom. Boom. Boom.  There is also a thread of anxiety.

But as with U2’s Songs of Innocence, and much of U2’s music, out of the darkness comes light.  Joyful defiance.

You see now why we cry: the raw honesty of the letters to loved ones, the thought of losing Bono, the thought of losing things we hold dear – like freedom, democracy… the empathy for what Bono might have gone through during and after his scare, the empathy with refugees.  This album is an emotional juggernaut.  It hits you with all the feels…

Pairing Songs in Innocence and Experience – William Blake

When U2’s American Soul was released (pre-SOE album), fans were shocked to hear the exact same refrain from Songs of Innocence’s Volcano: ‘You and I are Rock n’ Roll’…

Had U2 lost their mind?  Could they not come up with fresh lyrics anymore?  It must be on purpose, there is surely a good reason!

Well yes, yes there is. As mentioned above, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience contain poems that not only carry forward themes from the first to the second book, they also repeat words, imagery, phrases, and titles throughout the works.

Indeed, repetition plays a significant role in the companion books of poetry.  Blake uses it to continue the stories from youth to adulthood and to juxtapose the perspectives of innocence and experience – how innocence sees religion/creation/the world around it, is not always how experience sees it. Experience reminisces on its lost innocence.

These books are a journey from innocence to experience; the repetition creates that sense of continuity of theme and growth in perspective between the books

For example, The Lamb, from Blake’s Songs of Innocence looks at creation/the Maker and asks the lamb, “Do you know who made you?” Who gave you life and all the wonderful things you need to survive?  The imagery is soft and lovely:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright…

The poem answers: it is He who is called by your name (the narrator is referring, of course, to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God). And describes this Lamb as meek and mild.

It’s companion poem from Songs of Experience, The Tyger, takes a darker look at the Maker and being made.  It begins with one of poetry’s most famous stanzas:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The imagery that follows is violent and powerful (twisting, burning, hammers, anvils, phrases like “What the hand dare seize the fire?”  and “what dread grasp dare its deadly terrors grasp?”), a juxtaposition from The Lamb‘s meekness. Yet the narrator asks “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”

Other pairings in Blake’s collection include:

  • Holy Thursday: Songs Of Innocence’s version, a quaint look at children on their way to church, singing loudly, joyfully at church, with a line about ‘the wise guardians of the poor”; Songs of Experience’s, a harsh look at poverty, where the song is a cry: “can it be a song of joy? And so many children poor.”
  • The Chimney-Sweeper: Both of Blake’s poems with this name centre on a child Chimney Sweeper- in SOI, one of the children dreams that ‘thousands of sweepers’ are locked up in coffins, but he awakes and the child is ‘happy and warm’ so they all go about their job.  In SOE, the narrator, I think, is a ghost-child Chimney Sweeper. The two not only share the title, but also the repetition: “Crying: Weep! Weep!”
  • Little Boy Lost/Little Boy Found/Little Girl Lost/Little Girl Found:  There are several poems throughout Blake’s collection under these titles.
  • Nurse’s Song: (The Nurse in these poems is the nanny, much like Peter Pan’s Nurse (the dog) and Romeo and Juliet’s Nurse, rather than a health-care type nurse.)  The Songs of Innocence version is about children playing in the park (the green) (the imagery of the green is carried out through many of the poems in both SOI and SOE), the sun is setting so the Nurse wants them to come in and get ready for bed, but the children plead to stay, she agrees and they continue to play and laugh.  SOE’s poem is the Nurse reminiscing about the past, watching the children play.  The sun setting is a metaphor for aging, the youthful seasons have passed and the winter years are setting in.
  • Infant Joy/Infant Sorrow: Infant Joy is an ode (is it an actual poetic ode.. I’m not sure!) to a newborn baby: “Pretty joy! Sweet joy,  but two days old. Sweet Joy I call thee…” Infant Sorrow gives an account of a more forceful account of birth: “My mother groan’d! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt: Helpless, naked, piping loud: Like a fiend hid in a cloud.”

Continuity of Imagery and Themes: U2’s Songs of Experience

U2 are not just calling their companion albums after Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, they have also, most artfully, taken what makes Blake’s series noteworthy – that use of repetition of themes and lyrics – and ran with it.

Not only are SOE’s songs these deeply touching, emotional cry-fests, they are part twos of some of U2’s SOI’s stories.  Like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience they carry themes of mortality, birth/creation, religion, and world issues from innocence to experience.  They repeat imagery (the four images that stand out the strongest for me are home, light, stars and oceans) and lyrics (though not exact song titles).

These songs are frickin multi-layered genius.

The repetition is an intellectual easter egg for anyone that wants to dig deeper into these albums.

So here is my Songs of Experience song by song look at Blake-ian pairings and repetition of themes and imagery (mixed with some fangirling of the emotions and music…):

Love is All We Have Left

This album opens up with the gorgeous, soft, melodic number Love Is All We Have Left and the words:

Nothing to stop this being the best day ever
Nothing to keep us from where we should be
I wanted the world but you knew better
And that all we have is immortality

Love and love is all we have left

Let the chills and tears commence… Clearly an epiphany after a near-death experience: when it comes down to it – love is all that matters; when we are dying, love is all we have left, so live like that while you are alive, after all “this is no time not to be alive.”

This song pairs imagery in the lyrics with Iris from SOI:

Iris: “The star that gives us light has been gone awhile.”
Love is All We Have Left: “So many stars, so many ways of seeing.”

Iris: “Something in your eyes took a thousand years to get here.”
Love is All We Have Left: “Seven billion stars in her eyes.” (sang with an eerie, out-of-this-world, emotional auto-tune. bawling here.)

Lights of Home

If you weren’t crying yet, grab the tissues.  This song is a raw, honest account of Bono’s health scare and getting back to Ali, to home.   It starts with the stark realization “I shouldn’t be here cause I should be dead.  I can see the lights in front me.” Slam, in your face, images of near-death experiences and the lights at the end of the tunnel.

And I’m thinking just how close to death were you Bono, and what the hell will I do if that ever happens?! – Michael Jackson’s death had me bawling for days, David Bowie left me numb.  Prince… And none of them are U2… losing a member of U2 and I will be catatonic, unconsolable…

He goes on to describe what sounds to me like crippling anxiety resulting from the near-death, but with that joyful defiance – this isn’t going to keep me down: “I’ve got to get out from under my bed to see again the lights in front of me.”

At least, that’s how I interpret it based on my own sort of near-death health scare. I don’t know what Bono’s scare was, but mine was blood clots in my lungs – could’ve killed me, was treated with blood thinners. Meaning I felt like a walking time bomb – either the clots could still get me, or I could bleed out if anything happened.  I’d never had anxiety like that – the fear of dying, of having been close to it… intense anxiety.

I told myself my own version of “I’ve got to get out from under my bed” and start living life fully again… but words are easy… it takes so much longer to heal from the psychological trauma than the physical trauma.  It’s not easy…

In the song, the “lights of home” are the beacon that pull Bono out: “I’ve been waiting to get home a long time… In your eyes I see it, the lights of home.” Home being Ali.  Not just the physical home they share, but Ali.

This song is paired with Iris from Songs of Innocence through the use of the lyrics in both songs:

Free yourself to be yourself
If only you could see yourself
If only you could
Free yourself to be yourself

The song also shares the theme of creation/being born with Blake’s Infant Sorrow from his Songs of Experience, and with U2’s The Little Things that Give You Away, The Showman (both from Songs of Experience) and Magnificent (from No Line On The Horizon):

Lights of Home: “I was born from a screaming sound.”
Infant Sorrow: “My mother groaned, my father wept: Into the dangerous world I lept, helpless, naked, piping loud.”
The Little Things: “A hurricane being born.”
The Showman (Little More Better): “Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.”
Magnificent: “I was born, I was born to sing for you… From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise.”

The bonus album has a version of this song with a string orchestra… U2 with orchestra… I’m dying… It’s beautiful!

You’re The Best Thing About Me

I reviewed this song here, so I won’t go into much detail on that.  This song is full of imagery and themes that carry throughout the two albums: imagery of stars (“Full of shooting stars brighter as they’re vanishing”) and oceans/beaches (“To wake up on a bed or a beach”); themes of the death of democracy (“The best things are easy to destroy”) and anxiety (“I have everything but I feel like nothing at all” – this can be low self-esteem as well, but it reminds me of anxiety – the numbness.)

Get Out Of Your Own Way

This is a letter to Bono’s daughters; a parent watching their children make their own way in life, getting hurt by love and life and wanting to step in and make it alright, but understanding we each have to fight our own fights – and sometimes nothing is stopping us but us; so a reminder: get out of your own way…

But in true U2 fashion, the song also takes on multiple meanings.  Not just a letter to his children, but a warning of the death of democracy:

Fight back, don’t take it lying down you’ve got to bite back
The face of liberty is starting to crack
She had a plan until she got a smack in the mouth and it all went south

I love this song – love the “hahhh, ah ah hahhhh’s” and the heartbeat, reminiscent of Beautiful Day from All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  Catchy, easy to sing to, love the acoustic versions the band are playing on the promotional tours (check out this one on a random street in NYC – the sound cuts out a bit but they sound so good!)

Chills and more tears… I’m just saying… this album and allll the feels!

American Soul

America – U2’s second home.  They adopted the USA years ago. Their love of it was part of the inspiration for The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum.  Bono has often said America is not a place, its an idea.  This song takes that theme and counters it with the version of the USA that is epitomized by Trump.

This song’s Blake-ian pairing is with Songs of Innocence’s Volcano.  Both contain the lyrics: “You are Rock n’ Roll.  You and I are Rock n’ Roll.”

The death of democracy theme is repeated in this song:

Could be too late but we still gotta try
There’s a moment in a life where a soul can die
In a person, in a country ,when you believe the lie

The last line reminds me of U2’s tour Zoo TV and the image of the word ‘Believe’ with the middle highlighted: Believe.

It is also the first of the three in a row that comment on the plight of refugees:

It’s a call to action not to fantasy
The end of the dream
The start of what’s real
Let it be unity
Let it be community
For refugees like you and me
A country to receive us
Will you be my sanctuary
RefuJesus

Summer of Love

This song is an easy, breezy summer number.  Or so you would think.. It starts with a gentle guitar, then bass and maraca shaking easily.  The lyrics: “I’ve been thinking of the west coast…” The feeling, a lazy summer day.

But don’t be fooled.  This is song two of the refugee trilogy.  The lyrics tell the story of refugees, “a preacher, a teacher,” leaving Syria (“In the rubble of Aleppo”), “freezing, we’re leaving,” by boat.

The pairing is with Songs of Innocence’s California. California being the west coast we immediately picture when we hear that phrase, but as the lyrics in Summer of Love quickly tells us, the west coast Bono is thinking of here is “not the one that everyone knows,”  it is the west coast of Syria.

Summer of Love features Lady Gaga’s beautiful, haunting, background vocals. Another teary song…

Red Flag Day

Song 3 of the refugee triptych.  This song, like Summer of Love, tells the story through the eyes of refugees leaving their home country via the ocean (the imagery of oceans, beaches and waves are repeated throughout SOI and SOE).

It pairs with Songs of Innocence’s Every Breaking Wave through its lyrics: “I will meet you where the waves are breaking.”

The Showman (A Little More Better)

A letter from the Showman to his audience.  I love this song.  This is lyrical awesomeness – lots of imagery and literary genius (“Walked through the room like a birthday cake, when I’m all lit up I can’t make a mistake.”) The Showman might be a bit of Bono’s The Fly.  (Interestingly, Blake’s Songs of Experience includes a poem called The Fly…)  That cocky showman: “I lie for a living, I love to let on.”  The ultimate performer: “The showman gives you front row to his heart.  The showman prays his heartache will chart.”

The song pairs with the many songs I mentioned in Lights of Home with a lyrical theme of creation/birth of a singer (“Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.  Singers cry about everything.”)  This last part also reminds me of Songs of Innocence’s The Miracle (of Joey Ramone): “We’ve got… music so I can exaggerate my pain.”

The Little Things That Give You Away

Bono’s letter to himself: as he says – ” a dialogue between my innocence and experience.”  This is another song from the list in Lights of Home with lyrical imagery of birth: “A hurricane being born.”

Other themes include anxiety (“I wake at 4 in the morning, where all the darkness is swarming and it covers me in fear”) and death, death of whatever: “Sometimes the end isn’t coming, It’s not coming. The end is here.  Sometimes.”

Landlady

This song epitomizes relationship goals… we should all be loved the way Bono loves Ali:

The landlady takes me up in the air
I go, I go where I would not dare
The landlady shows me the stars up there
I’m weightless
Weightless when she is there…

I’m bawling. I’m floored.  The love Bono pours out in this song… geez man…

Bono met Ali the week he joined U2, high school sweethearts.  When they were young and the band was just beginning, Ali supported Bono, paid the bills, the rent (making her his landlady…)  “I’ll never know what starving poets meant, cause when I was broke, you always paid the rent.” “Roam, the phone is where I live till I get home, And when the doorbell rings, you tell me that I have a key. I ask you how you know it’s me?”

Landlady pairs with Every Breaking Wave, using those lyrics almost word for word:

Every wave that broke me
Every song that wrote me
Every dawn that woke me
Was to get me home to you.

In Songs of Experience, home is Ali, wherever she is, is home and the imagery is of Bono getting to her:

Every soul that left me
Every heart that kept me
The strangers that protected me
To bring me back to you

Songs of Innocence also has a lot of imagery for home, but home is the physical location in the songs- the streets of Dublin where U2 grew up, where Bono’s parents met (Cedarwood Road, Raised by Wolves, Iris, The Crystal Ballroom, Lucifer’s Hands).

The Blackout

I reviewed this song with You’re the Best thing About Me (here) so I will just mention the Blake-ian stuff:

Like much of U2’s Songs of Experience, The Blackout touches on the themes of near-death of Bono and of democracy (both in the line: “Dinosaur, wonders why it still walks the earth”).

There is a lot of anxiety in here as well. The lyric “Earthquakes always happen when you’re in bed” perfectly draws the picture for me of one of the most common and longest lasting symptoms of anxiety I had – body vibrations – I felt like I was standing against a running laundry machine or sitting in an idling bus, all the time.  I was vibrating so much that when I would lie down, it really did feel like an earthquake, the bed was shaking from me.

The chorus also describes this shaking sensation: “when the lights go out” – bedtime, closing your eyes –  “And you throw yourself about in the darkness” – that vibration.  But the rest of the chorus brings that positivity, that hope, that I love U2 so much for:

where you learn to see
When the lights go out
Don’t you ever doubt
The light that we can really be.

This whole chorus can also be a metaphor for near-death: When the lights of life go out…

This song also shares peoples’ names with Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweeper, from his Songs of Innocence.  Blake’s poem lists names of some of the Chimney Sweeper kids – Tom, Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack.  The Blackout calls out the names Jack and Ned.

Also, the child in Blake’s poem lost his mother when he was very young,  a theme that runs through U2’s Songs of Innocence (and much of their other works) due to Bono’s own loss of his mom at the age of 14.

Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way

This title is a phrase Bono wrote in a note to a member of the U2 tribe who was battling cancer in 2017.  Cancer eventually won, so this song was marked to be an emotional onslaught regardless of anything else about it.  Love is bigger than cancer.  Love is bigger than death.  Love is bigger than fear and anger.

But the emotions never end with this album, nor this song.  It is a letter to Bono’s sons; like Get Out of Your Own Way, it speaks of a parent’s desire to protect their children, to guide them, but also to realising that the child must make their own way: “The door is open to go through, if I could I would come too. But the path is made by you.”

However, the song, and the above verse, is also jam-packed with near-death imagery.  It reminds me very much of U2’s I Will Follow, a song about Bono’s mother’s death and the deep-seated hurt and therefore desire to follow her.  This line above gives me an image of Iris greeting Bono at the door to the afterlife (whatever that might be) during his health scare but sending him back (“When you think you are done, you’ve just begun.”)

“Write a world where we can belong to each other and sing it like no other.” Words from Iris to Bono and/or Bono to his sons (one of whom has his own band).

(Like I said earlier, I don’t know just how close to death he actually was, these are just the images that are evoked for me – the narrator isn’t necessarily real Bono, I know this…)

The first verse reminds me of Cedarwood Road from Songs of Innocence and the line “If the door is open, it isn’t theft.”

13 (There is a Light)

This song is paired with Song for Someone from Songs of Innocence, repeating its refrain:

If there is a light you can’t always see
If there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

Cause this is a song
A song for someone

Song for Someone is another beautiful song for Ali. Its story of innocence is first love.  13 (There Is a Light) is the continuation, but rather than a love song for Ali, this song is for Bono’s kids (“A song for someone, someone like me”):

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 it’s own mind?
Darkness gathers around the light
Hold on, hold on

The line in the verse “Are you tough enough” also pairs imagery with Ordinary Love (“Are we tough enough for ordinary love?”) (which makes an appearance on the extended albums as a bonus track) and Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (“Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff”).

The tie to Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own is quite poignant;  Sometimes is Bono’s words to his dying father (who has since passed); 13 is his words as a father who had a serious health scare to his kids… Innocence to Experience, the circle of life….

Crying here…

Big drops of Salty. Freaking. Heart-broken. Parent-mourning. Ugly. Alligator. Tears….

And finally,

Book of Your Heart – Bonus Track.

Just beautiful. Another one for Ali:

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

The book, the book of your heart
One tiny mark, an entry
The book of your heart
It’s written on skin
To even be in
The book of your heart

Babe I don’t belong to you
Love is what we choose to do
Babe you don’t belong to me
It’s not that easy.

And a pairing with Song For Someone from Songs of Innocence:

Song for Someone: “I have scars from where I’ve been.”
Book of Your Heart: “That’s the beauty of the scar.”

I adore the haunting whatever instrument is in the background in this song…

There, whew!  My next post needs to be a short one!

Is anyone out there familiar with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience?  Did I miss anything that would add to the joy of these U2 albums?  Anyone find any other pairings of lyrics, imagery, etc?

I’m gonna go dry my eyes now… and press play again.

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