Finally, it happened.
The album that was going to be in our hands months ago, then was delayed, gossiped about, and almost forgotten, finally hit half-a-billion virtual shelves (whether people wanted it or not) across the world in what some describe a masterstroke launch with Apple, and others demonize as the world’s biggest band corporatizing itself even more.
I’ve been a staunch fan of the band ever since I first heard Angel of Harlem on a Melbourne (Australia, not Florida) radio station in my parents’ backyard shed while practising my golf putting on a hot summer’s day. I was 12 years old. That lyric “eyes swollen like a bee sting” hit me, and wham, that was it.
Instant unconditional love.
I’ve given Songs of Innocence a decent thrashing since I downloaded it, hands trembling on the mouse as I negotiated my way through iTunes to find it.
Iris resonated with me immediately – musically, lyrically and emotionally.
Written, of course, about Bono’s mother Iris and the pain of losing her when he was just 14, it again shows the power U2 can generate through the craft of songwriting. Such a personal story laid bare for everyone to hear. The song spoke to me instantly and this is my take on its meaning.
Let's start with the first verse:
That gives us light
Has been gone a while
But it’s not an illusion
In my heart
Is so much a part of who I am
Bono sings in a guttural voice, devoid of hope. It's dark in there with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Then it changes, some brightness, a bit of colour enters through the cracks. A glimpse of Iris in a dream perhaps? The Edge, Adam and Larry find a positive bent on the groove too.
Something in your eyes
Took a thousand years to get here
Something in your eyes
Took a thousand years, a thousand years
Bono’s voice then takes on an anguished pain. This part almost brings me to tears every time.
Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Here he’s yearning for his mum to hold him, despite knowing she’s not there. Don’t we all long for one last chance to touch/speak to a dearly departed relative or friend? Here’s Bono sharing something that is quite intimate, but at the same time, anyone can relate to it.
Hold me close, like I’m someone that you might know
If he was to meet his mother right here and now, would she recognise her son? He’s a very different person to that 14-year-old she last saw at her father’s funeral.
I’ve got your life inside of me
It is clear time does not heal all wounds and, as we do with all loved ones who leave us, we carry part of them inside for the rest of our days. The groove has an uplifting quality to it, despite the tragedy being unraveled by the lyrics. “Smack in the middle of a contradiction is the place to be”, Bono is quoted to have once said. That idea is still present here – melancholic lyrics launched towards the heavens by a joyous undertone of drums, bass, guitars and keys. Then the memories come flooding in. Iris is being a mum to her youngest boy.
Iris standing in the hall
She tells me I can do it all
Iris wakes to my nightmares
Don’t fear the world, it isn’t there
And then the words cut really deep. Full of guilt, Bono wonders if Iris’s death is his fault.
Iris says that I will be the death of her
How many times, as a parent, do you say to your kids “You’ll be the death of me”? It’s such a throwaway line, but for a someone who lost his mum so long ago, he still carries those words with him. We all know Bono has described himself as a difficult child, and Iris probably in her deepest throes of frustration might have thrown that line at him. No big deal, we all do it. But then she collapses and days later she dies. It’s ludicrous to think Bono is to blame, but in his darkest moments of mourning, the thought that he caused her death might have fleetingly crossed his mind. We all carry guilt after a death. Was our last conversation with that person an argument? Why didn’t I tell them I loved them? This is Bono dragging us in to his most private thoughts, but also teaching us that we should always be careful how we express ourselves because our words can still ring in a person's ears many years down the track. Amazing.
It was not me
After all this time, he’s realised just how absurd he is to think that he caused his mother's death, but there's a sense of innocence in his voice, almost as if he's pleading with himself to believe it.
Free yourself, to be yourself if only you could see yourself
Again, Bono remembers wise words from Iris. It's a phrase a mother might make to a child accomplishing a task for the first time "oh if only you could see yourself".
But he turns this totally on its head with the next line. It's now Bono singing to Iris.
Free yourself (from death?), to be yourself if only you could see.
Indeed, if only she could see what he’s done with his life.
There's so much going on in this song. I might be totally wrong with this interpretation, but that's the great thing about U2. Their songs speak to us in so many different ways. I just wanted to share my interpretation with other fans.
Thanks for the opportunity.