By Benjamin Guyer
U2’s newest album Songs of Experience is worth wrestling with. It is their most musically cohesive work since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Lyrically, it is less compelling. But as a period piece reflecting global uncertainties, particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the album’s thematic incoherence may prove its most endearing feature. Surveying global democracy in the flagrantly noisy rocker “The Blackout,” Bono wonders, “Is this an extinction event we see?” Threaded by the twin themes of personal mortality and political instability, Songs of Experience lacks resolution. It occurs entirely in media res.
The album opens with the brief, hymn-like “Love is All We Have Left,” and then turns to “The Lights of Home,” which chronicles Bono’s 2014 bicycle accident, as well as another, unspecified brush with mortality mentioned in the album’s liner notes. The first line of the song is bracing, albeit confessional: “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead.” There is weariness in these lyrics. Bono sings, “I’ve been waiting to get home a long time,” and throughout the song, the metaphor of lights doubles as both the lights of emergency vehicles and as something more celestial. The fragility heard here appears in other tracks as apprehension and even angst (e.g., “The Little Things that Give You Away”). Bono is at his most earnest and honest in songs such as these.
U2 has never shied away from being political, and for many fans, one of the band’s most inspiring features has been its willingness to bring unfettered idealism to bear on political realities. But here, for the first time, U2’s political musings have left me uncomfortable. Bono seems to have embraced a version of American political messianism. This comes out most strongly in the song “American Soul”: “It’s not a place / this country is to me a sound / that offers grace / for every welcome that is sought.” The moral force of the song is that America has betrayed its political vision by not admitting more refugees, and the Syrian refugee crisis is the topic of other songs on the album, most notably “Summer of Love” and “Red Flag Day.”
While I think the band is broadly correct in its ethical concern, I reject the view that America’s moral failure is due to its betrayal of a distinctly American moral vision or calling. Rather, our moral failure has to do with betraying universal humanitarian obligation. The United States has no messianic role to play in world affairs, and claiming otherwise smacks of the very same exceptionalism too often used to justify isolation, indifference, or invasion.
Political dissatisfaction is found in other songs, too, and the album as a whole abounds in unnamed targets. “Get Out of Your Own Way” is united to “American Soul” with a spoken-word cameo by Kendrick Lamar. Offering an inverted set of Beatitudes, Lamar mock-praises those who are arrogant, superstars, filthy rich, bullies, and liars. I suspect the target here is Donald Trump, who is also one of the targets of “The Showman.”
Since 1991, when U2 released Achtung Baby, Bono has been no stranger to irony. But irony only works if it is self-aware; otherwise, it is either cynicism or narcissism. When Lamar blesses superstars he adds, “in the magnificence of their light we understand better our own insignificance.” The irony of pop stars declaiming this way appears entirely lost on the band. The same is true of the benediction given to “the filthy rich,” as Lamar, Bono, and the rest make more in a year than most of us will make in a lifetime. “The Blackout” seems equally oblivious. When Bono sings, “We had it all / and what we had is not coming back,” I must wonder who he is referring to. I never had it all. My students never had it all. The poor communities around me in western Tennessee certainly never had it all.
Here is U2’s America: a promised land for refugees, safeguarded by (filthy rich) pop star prophets, and subverted by the wrong sort of elected officials. There are no blue-collar workers and no rural communities — in other words, some of the very people who voted most consistently for Trump, and who helped create the Republican surge that defined the 2016 election. It is easy to fret about democracy when you aren’t talking to, or singing about, actual voters.
U2’s stated political commitments will draw applause on television awards shows, but in order to stage its protest, the band has ignored the same segments of the American people already ignored by the centers of cultural production. The urban aristocracies of New York and Hollywood are defined at least in part by their own socioeconomic exceptionalism; they seem driven by a vision of enlightened superiority, one inspired by isolation from, and even hostility toward, other modes of American life. In the late 1980s, U2 successfully captured significant portions of Americana because the band engaged not just the more brutal realities of American politics, but the musical and the social realities of the American people. “Bullet the Blue Sky” from The Joshua Tree (1987) protested against American military intervention in Central America, while Rattle and Hum (1988) offered “Heartland,” a montage of American geography and one of Bono’s most poetic pieces.
On Songs of Experience, political frustration risks being as self-indulgent as the political monologues that define too many protest marches. Protest is not an inherently political act. Genuine political engagement is extraordinarily difficult because it pertains to the entire political community. Most people today have abandoned the work of such expansive moral vision; the complacent certainties of partisan outrage bring a rapid if short-term payoff in the form of a moral clarity that divides too simply between us and them. What we really need today are songs that aspire to the common good and articulate the necessity of such toil. They won’t be uniquely American anthems, and they won’t preach just one facet of America’s currently tortured political discourse. But I would be more than happy if they were performed by U2.