U2’s Songs of Experience: A Liturgy for Existentialists

By Tim Neufeld, @U2

It’s been a long time since a U2 album has had this kind of staying power in my soul. Songs Of Experience taps something primal in me. While I appreciate it as a great collection of singable, feel-good lyrics and tunes, it’s the depth of the album as a concept project, and the collective synergy of its songs about fear, doubt, insecurity, death, life and love, that entices me.

Existentialists ask the kind of big questions about our existence that are addressed on U2’s latest. Questions such as, “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is my place in the universe?” The architects of existentialism, including Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Nietzsche, were dissatisfied with rationalism and reacted against a “science will save us” attitude that dominated the Age of Enlightenment. Rationalists ask, “How does this work?” In contrast, existentialists ask, “Why do we exist?”

Bono has quoted Nietzsche numerous times over the years. On the Vertigo tour we heard a paraphrase of the philosopher’s famous aphorism, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” Nietzsche also said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering,” and “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who suffered in Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote his famous book, Man’s Search For Meaning, after he was rescued. He concluded that people are capable of finding meaning even in the most horrendous conditions of death, despair and darkness. He wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” Existentialists argue that meaning can only be found by authentically experiencing life itself, especially in the darkest of hours.

Songs Of Experience could have easily been titled Songs Of Existence. The search for purpose is seen throughout. Undoubtedly, Bono’s “brush with mortality” colored his own experience. In the liner notes for SOE, he says it left him “clinging on to my own life like a raft.” He continues, “…it would feel dishonest not to admit the turbulence I was feeling at the time of writing.” This kind of here-and-now honesty about mortality is paramount for existentialists.

The flow of U2’s latest album is rhythmic chaos, like a liturgy exploring existence, moving through experiences of doubt, anger, confession and ultimately resolving in hope. Here’s a look at SOE through the lens of existentialism.

Read Dr. Neufeld’s entire analysis HERE.

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