A thought from the 4 Corners: Steve Stockman - seeking the deeper meaning in U2's Songs of Experience
U2's new album is more than a collection of good tunes, says Steve Stockman - it's also sound advice for soul and society
U2's new record dropped last Friday and for me that is always religious news. I devour the lyrics like I'm at a Bible study. I am all over them, seeking out its deeper meaning.
To be truthful I am usually more interested in the theology and spiritual wisdom than I am with the tunes.
Let me tell you, though, that the tunes on Songs Of Experience are brilliant; it is a melody-fest of maybe the very best collection of crafted songs in the U2 catalogue.
Making a relevant sounding record has never been enough for U2. It has to be relevant to the world it lands into.
Songs of Experience are sung into a world of darkness and fear where death is all around, "democracy is on its back", "Aleppo is in rubble" and bullies, the filthy rich and the arrogant are being blessed.
We are told in the poetic liner notes, written by Bono, that he had a close brush with death which changed everything about Songs Of Experience.
As well as companions for how we travel the terrain thrown up by Brexit, Trump and a refugee crisis, these songs are resources to help us deal with the fragility of our lives and our too fleeting existence.
Being U2, though, these are songs full of hope. Joy here is an act of defiance, of resistance and resilience.
The record is top-and-tailed with songs of love and light. Love, we are told throughout, is the only thing, the strongest thing, the lasting thing. Where there is light, the darkness gathers; but wherever we find that light we should hold on to it.
Where is the substance, though? It is all very well a rock band throwing out words like light and love and hope on top of great choruses that we can sing along to. But is there anything robust underneath the anthem bluster?
For me the key to what Bono means by all the positives is captured in a couplet in the first song: "Love is all that we have left/a baby cries on the doorstep."
Advent is the clue to the baby. This is a baby born with no room in the inn. Bono has talked a lot about the poetry of the Christmas story and here he uses it as his symbol to the God shape at the heart of the thesis of Songs Of Experience.
As I've been listening I have been thinking about our own unique little conundrum here on the island of Ireland.
Brexit has us in "a state o' chassis". The inertia at Stormont has paralysed the fulfilling of future peace.
Into this U2 suggest we hold on to our dreams, that there is a light, that we should get outside our safety zone and risk everything for our families, beyond even beaches where the red flag is flying.
These songs tell us to Get Out of Your Own Way - good advice for all of us - and that Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.
In another songs they sing:
"It's a call to action, not to fantasy
The end of a dream, the start of what's real
Let it be unity, let it be community."
Songs of Experience is not just a good record - it's good advice for our souls, and our society.
- The U2 album Songs of Experience is out now, on the Interscope Records label.
- The Rev Steve Stockman is minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast and, with Fr Martin Magill, is a founder of the 4 Corners Festival, which aims to promote unity and reconciliation in the midst of Belfast's - and Ireland's - troubled past.
- The 2018 4 Corners Festival will run from Friday February 2 to Sunday February 11.