And then, just as the album was all but complete, British and American elections shook up the world, delaying the album again and eventually bringing a darker, more directly political cast to some of the lyrics. “We needed some distance from it,” Bono said. “The world had changed. We needed to put things on pause to take in the scale of the change.” The album, “Songs of Experience,” is now scheduled to arrive Dec. 1.
It appears at a moment when popular culture is gathering its spirit of righteousness and resistance — a moment that could well be suited to U2, whose pealing guitars and martial beats have, through the years, become rock’s sonic signature of idealism. “Songs of Experience” merges personal reflections with tidings from the wider world, and it calls for compassion, empathy and rectitude. “The wickedness in the world, we just let it perforate the album,” Bono said. “But it still had to be a very personal album, not a polemic.”
He added, “The elections were a shock to the system personally and a shock to the system politically, not just in America but in Europe. This is my lyrical response to both of those shocks. I leaned more on the personal than the political, but the political is there to put the personal songs in the context of time, of history.”
Bono was on the phone from the south of France, just over a week ago. “As I look out the window, at the Mediterranean sea that is so tranquil today,” he said, “I see young families splashing about. And just across, hardly a distance at all, are people tacking their lives to bits of wood and creating these human flotillas to escape from what is still a war across the way. I wanted to write about that.”
Credit Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
U2 released “The Blackout” as a performance video at the end of August. It’s a buzzing, thumping rocker that begins, “Dinosaur wonders why it still walks the earth” and later wonders, “Is this an extinction event”; it also observes, “Statues fall/Democracy is flat on its back.” In writing and rewriting the song, Bono said, “I made it about democracy, not an aging rock star.”
U2 refuses to rush its albums. Ever more aware of its singular status as a rock band that has started its fifth decade with its original lineup — and is still selling out arenas and stadiums — the group constantly weighs both its past and its determination to move ahead. Its ambitions are high-minded and grandly scaled; its attitude remains earnest, patient and craftsmanlike.
“We still really believe that we can make a great record,” the Edge said last month by telephone from Dublin, where he was pondering the final sequence of “Songs of Experience” and working on guitar sounds for the next U2 tour, built around this album. (The band’s current worldwide stadium tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree” runs through October). “Which is a very different motivation to go in to make an album than thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got to whip one out for the fans.’”
It’s a sentiment Bono would echo. “It’s almost impossible to be great,” he said. “That’s why we call it great. And that’s our drug of choice. Very good is the enemy of great — there’s lots of that. But who wants to be in a very good band at this point? Whatever you think of our oeuvre, or whatever you think of the U2 group, we’re still attempting to get beyond ourselves.”
When U2 released “Songs of Innocence,” it immediately promised a follow-up with the title readers of William Blake would expect: “Songs of Experience.” But “Songs of Experience” isn’t exactly a sequel. “Songs of Innocence” was as explicitly autobiographical as U2 had ever been, including one song named after Bono’s mother, “Iris,” and another citing the street where he grew up, “Cedarwood Road.” In contrast, “Songs of Experience” returns to the broader strokes that fill U2’s catalog: love, fear, mortality, responsibility and hope.
Credit Stephane Cardinale/Corbis, via Getty Images
Many of the songs, Bono said, are like letters addressed to specific recipients: his family, his friends, the audience, America. Above all, the new album posits “joy as an act of defiance,” Bono said. “That’s the heart of rock ’n’ roll, that’s its life force.”
As usual, U2 worked on — and worked over — the album with multiple producers from various spheres and styles. Mr. Thomas has worked with the rawboned rock duo Royal Blood; other producers included Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic, Jacknife Lee and one of the band’s career-long collaborators, Steve Lillywhite. The band also sent some works in progress to Kendrick Lamar, hoping to get a guest rap from him as a kindred socially conscious musician. Instead, Mr. Lamar used a vocal line from Bono for “XXX” on his “DAMN.” album. On U2’s album, the snippet is part of a full-length song about America and its history of welcoming immigrants.
The new songs rove from U2’s arena anthems to celestial ambient hymns, echoes of 1950s rock and glimpses of disco and new wave. “All our best work has that pull between experimental on one hand and pop clarity on the other,” Bono said.
For “Songs of Experience,” U2’s self-imposed agenda was “a commitment to the fine art of songwriting,” Bono said. He and the Edge both spoke about hearing more innovation outside rock than within it: in R&B, hip-hop and pop. “Seeing the demise of a certain kind of songwriting, particularly in rock, it made the band determined to go there,” Bono said. “Crafting songs, melodies and modulations, and lyrics that people could follow. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ — that’s a big melody, and declarative, and not trying to be cool. The problem with rock now is that it’s trying to be cool. But clear thoughts and big melodies — if they come from a true place, they not only capture the instant, they become eternal in a way.”
The Edge offered a simpler criterion: “On this record, we went, ‘Is it going to be played by people in a bar in 25 years?’”
After decades in the public eye, U2 is thoroughly self-conscious. Bono, who has leveraged his rock-star renown toward global initiatives that include battling HIV and AIDS and reducing extreme poverty, constantly analyzes his own efforts.
“What’s the difference between ‘Innocence’ and “Experience’?” he said. “The core of ‘Innocence’ to me is a lyric from our second album, which says, ‘I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.’ The core of ‘Experience’ is — and this is cheeky! — ‘I can change the world, but I can’t change the world in me.’ And so you realize that the biggest obstacle in the way is yourself. There are things to rail against, and there are things that deserve your rage, and you must plot and conspire to overthrow them. But the most wily and fearsome of your enemies is going to turn out to be yourself. And that’s experience.”
“Songs of Innocence” was released as a free album that suddenly appeared in the libraries of iTunes users worldwide, only to be greeted by many people not as a gift but as an invasion of their private music collections — an exercise in hubris rather than generosity. Yet band members believe that in the end, the giveaway introduced U2 to the newer, younger fans they see at their recent concert audiences.
“Songs of Experience” is being presented as a more old-school album, released through standard channels with plenty of notice. U2 has been playing one of its songs, “The Little Things that Give You Away,” on its “Joshua Tree” tour, and it just released the album’s first studio single, “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” It’s as straightforward a love song as anything in U2’s repertory — sparked, band members said, by the example of vintage Motown songs, though it ended up sounding far different.
“You’re putting out a song about your girlfriend when the world is on fire?,” Bono asked, anticipating one reaction. “Yes. Joy is an act of defiance.”