Almost from the first listen, I’ve imagined U2’s Songs of Experience as a kind of pilgrimage from Christmas to Easter. The album certainly takes us on a journey. From innocence to experience. From birth to death to new life. From knowing to unknowing to reknowing.
Martin Wroe’s “Eight Days (Poem at Easter),” published on Holy Saturday, reminded me again of these connections.
While there’s never a one-to-one meaning in anything U2 writes, there are often both specific and more global interpretations for the band’s songs. Many songs on SOE might be written for individuals that are important to Bono, but they are also signs of deeper truths that matter to the quartet.
“The best day ever” is an ode to Love, the kind of Love that is enfleshed in a defenseless baby crying on a doorstep. At a Christmas Eve service in Dublin years ago, Bono read again the story of Jesus’ birth. Deeply moved, as if reading it for the first time, he reflects,
The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw . . . a child . . . I just thought: ‘Wow!’ Just the poetry . . . Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this . . . . Love needs to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. To me, it makes sense. It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic. Essence has to manifest itself. It’s inevitable. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh. (Assayas, 125)
Themes of life and death resonate across SOE (as well as Songs of Innocence). We move from a macrocosmic view at one end of the telos-scope to hovering right above a nearly lifeless body suffering from some kind of mortal blow. “I should be dead.”
Fast forward past the pains and struggles of “Get Out of Your Own Way,” “American Soul,” “Summer of Love,” and “Red Flag Day,” and we find one of the most curious and compelling conversations I’ve heard in a U2 song. “The Little Things that Give You Away” seems to be either an internal argument or the passionate exchange of two friends locked in existential crisis. One side sees potential. The other only despair.
“Little Things” reminds me of Peter’s relationship with Jesus. Peter was the disciple who was always shooting off his mouth, saying outlandish things, swearing he’d stay with Jesus through death. He even drew his sword and cut off the ear of an accuser in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was being arrested. Peter was quite the showman. But in the end, all his bravado was worthless. Ultimate failure came as he denied Christ a third instance. “I do not know the man!” By the time the cock crowed, reminding Peter of his loudmouthed betrayal, it was probably early in the morning, likely just before sunrise.
I can’t imagine what Peter must have felt. “What have I done?” The anxious, reckless thoughts consuming the once audacious zealot. Four in the morning. The darkness is swarming. Fear. Grieving. Disbelieving. The end is not coming. The end is here. It is finished. He is gone. Game over.
From Peter’s vantage point, the death of his rabbi brought chaos, doubt, and isolation. Utter hopelessness.
But the journey of SOE moves on. “Landlady” tells the story of a wanderer who fears he may no longer be accepted, yet he is received as a full member of the family by the lady of the house. The Spirit embraces the vagabond. Jesus, too, welcomed Peter back in to the fold, reinstating him three times after the resurrection. “Don’t do. Just be.”
If SOE is about Easter, the theme is most evident in the final two songs of the album. More than just a nice sentiment, Love, indeed, is bigger than anything in its way. The tomb is open. (“Oh can’t you see what Love has done?”) In the New Testament, Paul reminds us, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Westley in The Prince Bride was right: “Death cannot stop true love.” Bono reminds, “When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.” Resurrection.
SOE’s concluding thought is encouraging. “There is a Light.” The final words of Jesus to his confused disciples were also both somber and hopeful. The bad news: I have to leave you. The good news: The Spirit is coming, and “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” The Easter song is about Light overturning darkness. Love overruling fear. And Life overpowering death. Don’t let it go out.
Songs of Good Friday.
When all you’ve left is leaving
And all you got is grieving
And all you know is needing
Darkness gathers around the light.
Songs of Easter.
And I’m a long way from your hill of Calvary
And I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be
If there is a light you can’t always see
There is a world we can’t always be
If there is a kiss I stole from your mouth
And there is a light, don’t let it go out