Abby and I took a trip to Las Vegas over fall break to see U2. I’m not a fan of the spectacle of Vegas, so we opted for the spectacle of nature. We stayed at an Airbnb with goats in the yard, which kind of set the vibe for this wacky Vegas trip.
Today U2 released a four-album collection of remakes of their classic songs. It’s called Songs of Surrender, following the recent releases Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
So yeah, they reimagined classic songs (worried yet?). Most of them are calmer or quieter, stripped back to acoustic guitar or piano. In some cases Bono has tweaked the lyrics (he’s often said songs are unfinished and these versions are more of what he intended).
My early takes on these things often change, but here’s my initial reaction:
- Classics: It’s interesting to hear U2 revisit some of their classics and offer a different take. It’s why some live versions are often better than the original recording. But most of these are classics for a reason. “Pride,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Beautiful Day”? You’re not improving on those songs.
- Old songs: Perhaps the greatest opportunity here is to revisit some old songs and give them a fresh sound. “40” is a good example, sounding a little less jubilant and more contemplative with Bono’s aging vocals. There are a few other older songs, but they didn’t grab me right away. I’m surprised there are so many more classics.
- New songs: Some of U2’s latest albums have been their worst. So this is a good chance to rework some of those so-so takes. And here we have a few successes. “Lights of Home” and “The Little Things That Give You Away” sound good. “Song for Someone” also sticks out, thought not sure it needed a retread.
- Bigger changes: “Bad” and “Walk On (Ukraine)” are songs where I noticed more significant lyric changes. I don’t know if it’s better (time will tell), but it’s interesting. (“Walk On,” specifically, was rewritten to shift away from Aung San Suu Kyi and focus on Volodymyr Zelensky.)
I don’t know if U2 did anything here that’s going to blow anyone away. I’m not sure if they’re going to have any new singles (does they still do singles?) or get the kids interested in an old rock band’s quieter take on their old songs.
And I’m guessing that’s not the goal. This feels like a project for the fans. Or maybe themselves (I can’t image fans were clamoring for this). It reminds me of the album Double Take from the Christian rock band Petra that came out in 2000. It’s maybe interesting to fans, but unnecessary.
What do you do as an aging rock star? U2 has been reinventing themselves for 30 years, and this might be acceptance that they’re getting old. It’s about the opposite of the rock ‘n roll geezer weirdness of “Get On Your Boots” (“sexy boots!”). This album, paired with their Las Vegas residency, seems to indicate a new chapter. A quieter, stripped down, semi-retired chapter.
As much as I love U2, I have to admit it’s disappointing. But I also have to concede their recent albums are far from their best work. They have some great moments here and there, but a lot of it just doesn’t connect.
It’s not fair. A bad U2 song would be a hit for anyone else. I’ll likely play this album a lot because there’s something just good about U2, even when they’re stripped down or not at their best. And what can you expect? Not every album can be Joshua Tree.
I just keep hoping for a Johnny Cash-like late chapter in U2’s career. We’re not there yet.
(This LA Times interview with Bono and the Edge gets at some of these critiques.)
The new U2 album, Songs of Experience, came out today. For the last several U2 albums, I’ve blogged my impressions as I listen to the album for the very first time.
It’s a silly thing to do because I’m not very good at writing about music. But I like capturing my first impressions and then coming back later to laugh at my first take.
So here we go…
- Love Is All We Have Left – Weird slow intro. The reverb vocals are even weirder. Sets a unique tone for the album, thought not sure I like it.
- Lights of Home – Sonic shift from that opener. Seems to have a different feel from what I expect from a U2 song. I like the chorus better than the verses. “Free yourself to be yourself” bridge with the piano is interesting.
- You’re the Best Thing About Me – This is kind of a weird pop-rocker hybrid. Initially it struck me as so-so, but it’s growing on me. (This came out early as the first single, so hearing it again now with the album, it feels more familiar and I’m definitely liking it more.) “I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy.”
- Get Out Of Your Own Way – The intro music feels so U2. The intro vocals are a little weird and breathy… ah, there’s Bono. The breathy part of the “Get out of your own way” in the chorus is kind of weird… and that’s a mouthful.. but the rest of the chorus is great. I like the repeats. “Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside, I could help you but it’s your fight.” Hearing this again (it was released early), I like the rhythm in the verses. This feels like a quiet favorite.
- American Soul – The beginning of this does not sound like U2 at all. That guitar sounds a little more U2, but it’s different. I like it. The chorus sounds like another U2 song, I can’t place which one though.
- Summer of Love – This is slower and somehow more melodic. I liked the bridge, I was waiting for some soaring vocals but we barely got those. Meh.
- Red Flag Day – Seems like a very different album rhythmically, and I don’t mean drums and base but the rhythm of the vocals. This one feels catchy.
- The Showman (Little More Better) – Nice: “Singers cry about everything.” This reminds me of a song I hear on the radio and think, “That’s dumb, I don’t like it.” Some phrasing or the way they sing something seems annoying. But they keep playing it, and I start to like it. I don’t get that feeling often from a U2 song, but this song is totally it.
- The Little Things That Give You Away – This is the slow verse U2 song that’s itching to turn into an anthem on the chorus. We get hints on the first chorus, we’ll see if it picks up as it goes. The bridge sounds familiar (like another U2 song I can’t place). Now it’s picking up. I’m curious to see how this one holds up to repeat listens.
- Landlady – This song really didn’t catch my attention, until the last minute or so. That part felt catchy. Otherwise meh.
- The Blackout – The beginning sounds like several different old U2 songs (again, I can’t place them). Love the bass. I love these driving rockers. Second verse, is this about Trump? Seems like this one will be better live.
- Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way – Sometimes it’s just interesting to hear U2 make music. They’re trying to do new things, not just cranking out more U2-sounding songs. That doesn’t always work. This song feels like that kind of experimentation. Parts of it work, parts of it don’t. Parts of it feel familiar, parts of it feel unique.
- 13 (There Is a Light) – Is this our quiet album closer? The chorus is super familiar—where have I heard this before? Is this a reprise of another song? Oh there, it is, “A Song for Someone” from the last album. Interesting choice there—I’ll need to compare these versions.
It’s always hard to judge a new album after hearing it for the first time. Am I liking it just because it’s U2? Is it initially catchy but won’t last?
I think it’s fair to say U2’s last several albums haven’t been major hits. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb seems like the last one I thought, yeah, I like that. No Line On the Horizon still feels kind of fuzzy in my mind (what are the hit songs? None? “Moment of Surrender” and “Magnificent” are my favorites, but probably not hits). Songs of Innocence likewise felt short on hits (though “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” got radio play and is probably my favorite).
Songs of Experience feels lacking in a signature single. I like “The Blackout,” but other songs feel like they’ll need to grow on me.
Holy Week began yesterday morning with the waving of the palms. We stood outside our church on the corner of Ford Parkway and Macalester, savoring the little bit of sun that offered warmth against the bitter Minnesota cold. It may have been the first day of spring, but it was still in the 30s. We waved our palms to sing Hosanna, to fight back the cold, to celebrate the march toward Easter.
So with that backdrop I offer an Easter music list.
I’m always making mix CDs for my wife, and as I started another list for her, I realized I was collecting a lot of gospel songs. Most of my mixes are pretty random, so I decided to lean into the theme.
The result is a collection of music that speaks to faith and spirituality and hope and the gospel. I’m well beyond saying this is “Christian” music, but it is a collection of hymns, psalms and laments, tinged with that old-time gospel sound.
- “Little Light” by The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers
- “What Wondrous Love Is This? by Chelsea Moon & The Franz Brothers
- “Not Enough” by Caedmon’s Call
- “Here it Comes” by Romantica
- “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” by The Welcome Wagon
- “The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash
- “Purpose (live)” by Cloud Cult
- “Hand in Hand” by Jayanthi Kyle
- “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Rattle & Hum movie version)” by U2
- “Be Thou My Vision” by Ginny Owens
- “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons & Daughters
- “The Transfiguration” by Sufjan Stevens
- “Lamb of God, Have Mercy” by Gospel Machine
- “People of God” by Gungor
- “Poor Man’s Son” by Noah Gundersen
- “This Little Light” by Mavis Staples
- “This No More” by The Vespers
- “Amazing Grace (featuring The Lily of the Valley Gospel Choir)” by Justin McRoberts
- “40 (live)” by U2
It was our fourth U2 show, and while nothing can beat watching U2 during a rainstorm, this was pretty good. I’m continually amazed with their stage setup. They had a walkway down the middle of the arena, with a video screen/catwalk that could be raised and lowered.
So at one point The Edge is walking along the walkway while Bono is walking towards him on the catwalk, 10 feet higher in the air, with a video screen around him that makes it look like Bono was walking down the street.
You can see lots more pictures here.
U2 also played a great mix of songs, playing a lot from the new album (7 songs total) but also playing all the old favorites. I had a hard time coming up with a classic song they didn’t play (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is probably the one I missed the most, but they hit so many others and have so many classics, seems like a win to me).
They also included some they haven’t played much, including “Gloria” (not played live in 10 years) and “Lucifer’s Hands” (a b-side for the new album they’ve only played live once before).
I couldn’t help grabbing some video:
The show was on Sunday, June 28 and the Friday before the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its historic ruling on gay marriage. This was the first U2 show since the decision and it was referenced a coupled times.
First, U2 played “Bullet the Blue Sky” and Bono referenced “Don’t Shoot” and “Can’t Breathe” from the Black Lives Matter movement, before doing a snippet of “The Hands That Built America” and then launching into “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
During “Pride” a rainbow flag landed on the stage that Bono twirled around before shouting, “Gay pride in the name of love!” Then he urged the crowd to sing for Baltimore, Ferguson and Charleston, referring to the on-going racial violence in the U.S.
While introducing the final song, “One,” Bono again returned to gay marriage: “Why would you be against anyone committing their lives to each other?” He dedicated the song to Chicago’s Pride parade that happened that day and put in a little dig that Ireland passed gay marriage before the U.S. (“We put the gay in Gaelic”).
All in all it was a pretty amazing show. Lots of energy, lots of heart, lots of rock.
So yesterday’s surprise news at the Apple event that U2 was releasing a brand new album and giving it away for free? Incredible.
There was a mad scramble as 500 million iTunes users powered up the program (many of us for the first time in a long time) and tried to grab the new album. Once I finally got it downloaded, I had to sit back and let it play.
The last time a new U2 album came out—2009’s No Line on the Horizon—I sat at the kitchen table and streamed the entire thing on MySpace (yeah, remember MySpace’s short-lived second life as a music site?) while waiting for news of my son Milo’s adoption.
Listening to U2's new album (myspace.com/u2: pick NLOTH from the playlist drop down) while waiting for word on our adoption. It's a good day
— Kevin D. Hendricks (@kevinhendricks) February 20, 2009
(We cleared court and were able to announce Milo’s adoption to the world later that day.)
U2’s music is special, and that first listen is always interesting. I like to grab my initial thoughts on a new U2 album. It’s funny because it’s hard to judge music on a single listen. The songs you hate at first grow on you. The songs you loved can get tired. So you end up being wrong. But it’s still fun. I did it with No Line on the Horizon and before that with 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Songs of Innocence
What’s perhaps most interesting about this album is that U2 has been working on putting out an album for ever. Bono has said they’ve recorded several albums, they just haven’t released them. And now they drop the album with very little warning. If you were following the rumors, there was talk that we’d get a new album in 2014, then in September, then a week before the Apple event there were unconfirmed rumors about U2 being involved. But we never had a single, never had an album name, never had a date and the Apple rumors were denied right up to the day. It’s a very different release strategy (compare it to the hype for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which also included a big Apple partnership).
The album is also being described as a very personal one, reaching back to U2’s roots as teenagers.
My Song-by-Song First Impressions
So with all that, my initial thoughts as a fan:
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone”
It feels bold and joyful, crisp and fun. I love the guitar, love the driving beat. I like the line, “Music so I can exaggerate my pain.” Really like the abrupt end.
“Every Breaking Wave”
I like the sonic feel of this album.
“California (There Is No End to Love)”
I hate the “Santa Barbara’s” at the beginning, but once it gets going it’s better. I love the idealism in the lyrics: “All I need to know is there is no end to love.”
“Song for Someone”
Slowing it down. I like the echoing on the verses. Thematically it reminds me of “Stuck in a Moment” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.”
“Iris” (Hold Me Close)
It reminds me of “Miracle Drug.” But it has a deeply melancholy feeling (I read later that Iris is Bono’s mother, who died when he was 14).
I like the thumping bass. It has that ‘garbage can’ feel reminiscent of “All Because of You,” though this is a little more polished. I like the driving beat. The album seems to get darker and grittier from here on.
“Raised by Wolves”
Huh? This is different. The near spoken word delivery remind me of “The Wanderer” and the chorus has echoes of “Bullet the Blue Sky” and early U2. As much as U2 embraces belief, they also embrace doubt: “I don’t believe anymore.”
More of the gritty feel. Nice acoustic guitar in the mix. “A heart that is broken is a heart that is open.”
“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”
Wha? Weird keyboard stuff at the start. This one is dark and ethereal. I like the falsetto on the bridge: “Hope is where the door is / When the church is where the war is.” I don’t know what that means, but I like it.
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”
More of the gritty sound. This one is fun. I like the “choir-ish” vocals. It doesn’t sound like U2 and I love that.
I like the guest vocals from Lykke Li. Bono is amazing, but I wish they would experiment like that some more. This is a dark closer, but it’s hopeful. I like how it ends.
Songs of Innocence as a Whole
I’m not sure what I think of the whole album. No Line on the Horizon was a so-so album, and I think there are elements of that here. But it also feels like they push past that and create some better stuff. I’m still not sure if I have some standout songs. I like “The Miracle,” but it doesn’t strike me like other singles have. Not yet anyway.
I do like the thematic approach. They feel like more personal songs.
I love church on Easter Sunday. It’s a party. The music rocks harder. People dance. Everybody comes in smiling. And after six weeks of a quiet, somber end to church, we get to say Alleluia again.
Last year Milo banished us to the cry room and Lexi threw a fit when we went up for communion. This year Milo seemed to want to sing in the choir, even though we don’t have a choir. Lexi did fine at communion, pausing to lean Pinky against the kneeler before she stood at the communion rail. After church I didn’t have much time to talk to anyone because Milo made a beeline for the door and we spent a while playing in the grass.
This year the sermon closed with a reading of John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” I’d never heard it before and find Updike to be very hit or miss, but this was good. The poem focused on the importance of Christ’s bodily ressurrection—that Jesus literally came back from the dead. Updike focus more on the reality of it, but a few lines reminded me of the very Buffy the Vampire Slayer nature of the ressurrection. The grave was empty. The body was gone. And he was walking around. Not all putrified zombie corpse, but whole and restored. That’s crazy. And that’s the point. From Updike:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door. …
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
U2’s new album, No Line on the Horizon, debuted today on MySpace (you have to choose NLOTH from the playlist dropdown in the player—easy to miss). They streamed the entire thing. So below I offer my very first reactions to hearing the album. I did this with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and it’s kind of fun to record the initial response and see how horribly wrong I am.
No Line on the Horizon
Very first thought: Wow, Bono’s voice sounds ragged. He’s certainly not protecting his voice as he gets older. The Oh-oh-ohs are catchy.
The intro felt very not U2, but then the guitars came in. Now it actually feels like very early U2. Interesting lines: “Only love can leave such a mark. / Only love can leave such a spark.” and “I was born to sing for you.” Reminds me of the Magnificat (I image that’s intentional).
The first single from U2’s new album, No Line on the Horizon, is now available. The song, “Get On Your Boots” is being streamed from U2’s web site and is available for purchase on iTunes. No Line on the Horizon comes out March 3, 2009.
You can buy just the single for 99 cents, or pre-order the album for $9.99 and you can download “Get On Your Boots” today. The pre-order version of No Line on the Horizon includes two bonus tracks (one is an iTunes exclusive, the other is a pre-order only, but no details on what either one is).
You can also pre-order the deluxe version of the album for $17.99 from iTunes, which includes the two bonus tracks, a film from Anton Corbijn and a digital collector’s magazine.
I mentioned before Christmas that the new U2 album, No Line on the Horizon, is coming out March 3. Let the hype machine begin. I’ve talked in the past about the marketing of U2, so I’m curious to see what they do this time around. Here’s a round-up of some of the current news:
- Q previews the new album, comparing it to Achtung Baby in spirit and offering hints that producer Brian Eno and guitarist the Edge think it may be U2’s best album.
- Rolling Stone offers a track by track appraisal of the new album.
- Lead singer Bono brushes off nervousness about the new album: “Sure, you’re always nervous, but we’ve gone at it as if it was our first and the critics who have gotten a chance to listen to it already have all said it’s the best yet.”
- Drummer Larry Mullen Jr.: “I think it’s some of the best music we’ve ever written.” (Q interview)
Hmm… I sense a theme developing.