U2’s Songs of Innocence (2): Enigmatic Personal Variations and Iris
So I’ve been pondering a lot on the fact that Bono has called Songs of Innocence a personal album. Here he is in Rolling Stone last week:
“We wanted to make a very personal album,” Bono told Rolling Stone‘s Gus Wenner the day before the press conference in an exclusive interview. “Let’s try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys — first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”
I guess I’m fairly inured to celebrity guff and so I didn’t take that line seriously to begin with. After all, isn’t there a sense in which every creative act is personal in some ways? But again, I’ve been thinking a lot about Beth’s recent post, which I pointed to in my previous post. If No Line On The Horizon was verging on an anthology of cameos (Parisian cops, middle eastern soldiers etc) then Songs of Innocence, often explicitly, is an album of formative influences: individuals, bands and places – these are the influences which (in Bono’s words in the album booklet) are “always tattooed under your skin.” It is not that they seem to have turned their backs on their musical shifts over the decades – there are moments in this album that one can hear echoes of every decade’s albums. However, thematically it is a reminiscence – and this seems reflected in the design for the album’s cover and booklet – it is a skilful pastiche of a garage band’s amateur-hour demo tape, with notes typed up on a dodgy old typewriter.
I’ve had a stab at outlining what these influences are/might be – the highlighted songs seem to be about individuals, those in red explicitly so.
But before thinking about another song individually, a slightly mad idea occurred to me, one which will no doubt seem rather absurd to some. But it suddenly struck me that this album is a bit like Elgar’s Enigma Variations. For this, Elgar created a haunting, allusive theme and then does that classic compositional discipline of offering 14 variations on it, each evoking different individuals in his life.
Now, lest anyone thinks I’ve gone off the pseud-deep end, I’m certainly not suggesting that this album is anything like as musically complex or artful as Elgar; nor does it even claim to use the variation form. I’m not seeing/hearing things that aren’t there. However, the funny thing about Elgar’s sublime late Victorian work (with its melancholic, British imperial sunset tone), is that he weaves an enigma into the whole anthology, without actually revealing what that enigma is. There are hints at that with his initialling the different variations (even though he talked about each of these explicitly). This is what he said about it:
The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played…. So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas … the chief character is never on the stage.
Could it be a melodic theme? Or the theme of friendship generally? Some even suggest that it is the mathematical constant π because of the theme’s first 4 notes (the 3rd, 4th, 1st, 2nd notes of the scale). But one intriguing suggestion is that Elgar’s ‘dark saying’ alludes to the KJV translation of 1Cor13:12 in Paul’s great sermon on love: “For now we see through a glass, darkly (enigmate in the Latin of the Vulgate); but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
And this is the key thing – all human relationships at their best (love, friendship, trust, dependency) are all reflections of the GREAT eternal relationship, which is yet to be fully experienced. And it seems to me that when we come back to Songs of Innocence, as with Elgar, so with U2 – “the chief character is never (at least in this album’s instance) on the stage”. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t present.
Bono’s mother, Iris, died after collapsing at her father’s own funeral. Bono was only 14. The sense of devastation is unimaginable. It is hardly a surprise that Bono is still affected by her memory, even in his 50s. But she was clearly a remarkable person, with a great and positive influence on him (not least spiritually).
- The ache of grief for “the star that gave us light has been gone a while” is “so much a part of who I am”; “I’ve got your life inside of me”, which is, at the very least, true in the biological/genetic sense.
- The focal point of that grief seems to be the lost embraces of a mother (‘Hold me close and don’t let me go”) and the guidance of the previous generation (“you took me by the hand”)
- When you lose a mother so young, it is awful to consider the fact that a large proportion of those shared years in infancy are forgotten “once we are born, we begin to forget…”
- Especially haunting is a memory of that classic mother’s complaint about her highly spirited boys “you’ll be the death of me” while playing at the beach. But “It was not me” that was the death of her.
Yet for all the missing years of shared experience and growing up – the fact that she never had an inkling of the U2 life to come, unlike Bob, Bono’s father – there is something in the memory of ‘your eyes’. She seems to know. “She tells me I can do it all”
And what I particularly love about this song is the simple play on his mother’s name – for of course an Iris is key to the eyes – and eyes are fundamental to perception.
- ‘the darkness just lets us see who we are”
- “Free yourself, to be yourself if only you could see yourself”
Is there not an allusion to that old fairy tale of the death of a loved one being the process by which they become a star in the sky? But it is subverted by the 3rd verse as irrational nonsense – ‘the universe is beautiful but cold’.
Nevertheless, in this decades-old grief, there is an optimistic thread – which has run its course through all of Bono’s songs about his mother from I Will Follow onwards. And that particular 1980 song is key to this.
There, a boy was trying to be a man when his mother takes him by the hand (i.e. cramping his style). Now, as a man, he realises that she was the one ‘who made me your man’, she was the one actually leading him. She did know. And where she went, he follows. Following in her footsteps – in her footsteps of faith. And I think that’s the point here. She could see… Until he followed her as she followed HIM, he was “lost but now is found.” And when he follows her, he sees her. “I see you when I go there.”
Back to this song, he’d forgotten the reason we came – but through her, and her legacy on his 14 years (“long before the night the stars went out”), is such that “we’re meeting up again.”
And eschatologically, that is precisely what happens when we follow… when we meet the chief character who is off-stage.
“If only we could see…”