It’s always weird to see a veteran band suddenly get terrible at something at which they once excelled.
The band I’m talking about here is U2, and the “something” is their ability to name a song. Scanning the track list of their latest album, Songs of Experience, is like watching Yu Darvish pitch so badly he got pulled before the end of the second inning in two World Series games.
A song title, like the name of an album or a band, is a delicate thing. Done right, it can be a one-word poem. But it ain’t easy. Would “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” be as satisfying as if the Stones had called it “How White My Shirts Could Be?” Would “Revolution” be as revolutionary if called “We All Wanna Save the World”—or even “It’s Gonna be Alright?” Both titles express the song’s je ne sais quoi just fine, after all. But both titles kind of suck.
U2 used to be world-champion-level song-namers. Often smartly pithy or cannily specific, either way as atmospheric and evocative as any of the music from their Eno/Lanois peak, titling songs once seemed like one of the many things U2 could do bigger and better and more meaningfuler (I challenge you to come up with a better term to describe how they do what they do) than anyone.
Witness “I Will Follow,” a literal admission of submission which somehow seems utterly defiant when screamed live, a sentiment in which roughly a kabillion Christian kids were grateful to bask as the band got bigger and bigger and BIGGER.
The titles started good and they stayed good. “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Bad,” “‘40’,” “Pride,” “The Fly,” “Numb,” “Beautiful Day,” “Vertigo”—over and over, the balance of information and glorious mystery was astute. Their finest song, their only tune that other folks can cover without sounding like a tribute act, sports the simplest title of all: “One.”
The longer titles were more specific but just as evocative: “Until the End of the World,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Love is Blindness,” “No Line on the Horizon,” the positively epic “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and the stunning mixtape staple “All I Want is You.” “Bullet the Blue Sky” doesn’t even quite scan as English and yet it’s much more eloquent than, say, “I Can See Those Fighter Planes.”
Then the wheels started to come off. Slowly at first. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” was an early offender, but hey, even the greats stumble, and anyway it was just for a soundtrack. “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own?” Well, OK. A little on the nose, maybe, and funnier if it had been “(Sometimes You Can’t) Make it On Your Own.”
Then the snowball kept a’rollin’. “Get on Your Boots” could have used a copy editor—does Bono want us to stand atop our shoes? And “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” was a straight up “Wait, seriously, guys?” moment.
Après ceux, le déluge: “Stand Up Comedy” (should have stopped at two words), “FEZ—Being Born” (my kingdom for a backslash), and the singularly brutal “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” which somehow sells out both miracles and Joey Ramone, even though we all know the latter was definitely the former.
Which brings us to Songs of Experience, out today.
Let’s set aside the quality of the songs themselves, which, upon several painful listens, reveal a scattershot panic of sound and vision the likes of which we have never before heard from these guys. (Maybe. You could argue that Pop had a mid-life crisis reactionary vibe but at least there was a point of view present and it felt like the culmination of a very certain exploration.)
But eesh, these song titles.
1. “Love Is All We Have Left”
2. “Lights of Home”
3. “You’re The Best Thing About Me”
4. “Get Out of Your Own Way”
5. “American Soul”
6. “Summer of Love”
7. “Red Flag Day”
8. “The Showman (Little More Better)”
9. “The Little Things That Give You Away”
11. “The Blackout”
12. “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way”
13. “13 (There is a Light)”
From “One” to “Get Out of Your Own Way?” From “Zoo Station” to “Love is All We Have Left?” From “Bad” to “The Little Things That Give You Away?”
My best guess is that the band hoped to get more emotionally specific. But emotional specificity has never ever ever been U2’s strong suit. Theirs has been a career-long quest for an ever-bigger bigness. Suddenly busting out song titles that might be fine if you were a (real) gospel act or Elizabeth Gilbert’s backup band doesn’t close the gap.
Here, let’s see if we can make this look more like a U2 record.
1. “All We Have Left” (you don’t need to tell us this one is about love)
2. “Lights of Home” (fine)
3. “The Best Thing” (recalls “The Sweetest Thing” which was also about a partner/lover/spouse being the best thing about someone)
4. “Get Out” (removes Brené Brown-ism, recalls recent film, looks cooler)
5. “American Soul” (fine—but wow, this is a terrible song)
6. “Summer of Love” (fine)
7. “Red Flag Day” (totally vintage sounding, A+)
8. “Showmen” (removes tragic non-English parenthetical; makes it more universal)
9. “The Little Things” (see also “The Sweetest Thing”)
10. “Landlady” (fine)
11. “Blackout” (most of the time, you don’t need a definite article in band name or song title)
12. “Bigger Than Anything” (again, you guys have spent your careers writing about agape vs. eros vs. philia—you don’t have to tell us it’s about love)
13. “13” (good and vague)
There we go. Fixed.
Anyway, U2, I know it’s a little too late for this one, but I hope this helps on your future song-titling endeavors. Merry Christmas and best of luck with whatever comes next.
And please do something about that whole tax evasion thing, it’s a terrible look.
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