A Look Back at the Songs of Experience Singles to Date
Original Story by Brad Hood (2017-12-17)
Back in August of 2015, we took a look at U2’s single releases, or rather lack thereof, in support of Songs of Innocence. To date, it remains their first and only LP for which no retail physical singles were produced. The band did finally come through in September of that year with a digital single for “Song for Someone,” complete with a live version as a B-side, albeit only on streaming services with the exception of one download store in Czech Republic. The paucity of singles for Songs of Innocence was largely due to the unconventional album release. As you will certainly recall, U2 infamously surprise delivered the standard album to the libraries of all iTunes users in October 2014, precluding the need for a customary lead single.
U2 has returned to a more traditional album release cycle for Songs of Experience, so it stands to reason that their single release strategy would also see somewhat of a return to form. Interestingly, the band chose to introduce their fans to two new songs within the span of a week to kick off the pre-album stretch. U2 had elected to introduce their previous three albums with hard-driving rock tracks, but for Songs of Experience, the more pop-minded “You’re The Best Thing About Me“ was selected as the lead single. However on August 30, U2 premiered a live video for “The Blackout“ on Facebook, perhaps to reassure fans that the new album wouldn’t be entirely pop-centric. But at the same time, it was emphasized that the “true” lead single would drop on September 6.
“You’re The Best Thing About Me“ was delivered to streaming services and digital store fronts on the promised date, shortly after Dave Fanning’s time-honored first play on Irish radio. Though there was no physical release, this was a more typical lead single than “The Miracle” in that two remixes and an acoustic version were also produced. In previous years, these different versions would likely have been spread across physical formats such as one or two CD singles and a 7-inch vinyl. In the digital age, they were instead added individually to streaming/download services over the next few weeks, and one of the remixes was a promotional only release. Different artwork accompanied each of the digital releases. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” also received three different videos: a lyric video, a video with the band performing and exploring New York City, and a short film reflecting themes from the song.
U2 were rumored to be preparing a physical release of “You’re The Best Thing About Me” for Record Store Day Black Friday on November 24, but when the list of titles was published on October 17, there was no mention of any contribution from U2. Nine days later, on October 26, a special announcement was made that a 12-inch version of “The Blackout“ would be the Black Friday release, pressed by Jack White’s Third Man Records and backed with a remix by Jacknife Lee. The single was touted as “the first physical release from U2’s upcoming new album,” which it indeed turned out to be. The 12-inch vinyl was pressed in two versions. The standard black vinyl was distributed to all participating RSD shops, and though no exact number of copies was quoted, the supply was apparently more than enough to satisfy the initial demand. The black and white vinyl version, designed to look like a corona surrounding the “eclipse” of the black label, was limited to 750 copies; sold only at the two Third Man stores in the US and one shop each in London and Dublin. The studio version of “The Blackout” was initially released on November 1, the same day that album preorders became available. Depending on the streaming/download service, the track was alternatively offered as a pre-release album track or a standalone “single,” but in either case it was accompanied by the album cover art. The physical single was sold in a plain black sleeve, though custom artwork had previously been featured with the live video release in August.
The Songs of Innocence era forced us to ask some existential questions regarding what constitutes a single release. It’s hard to dispute a physical release, obviously, but some of the other factors to consider include whether the track was offered as an individual download, if unique cover art or a music video were produced, and whether the song was promoted for radio. A couple of other Songs of Experience fall into this grey area. “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” were both available to fans who preordered the album. “Get Out of Your Own Way,” like “The Blackout,” was available to download on November 1, while “American Soul” officially became available on November 16. (Some customers who preordered from U2.com were able to download “American Soul” on November 1, apparently in error.) Also similar to “The Blackout,” both tracks were available for individual download on some digital storefronts, but only with the album cover art. What is a bit confounding about these two tracks is that they appear sequentially on the album, and a spoken-word passage by Kendrick Lamar spans the transition between them. Each track therefore has difficulty standing alone as presented, because each contains only a portion of this passage. An edit of “Get Out of Your Own Way,” fading in after this transition, was pushed to radio in North America and Europe, but the version of “American Soul” that went to radio is essentially identical to the album version. “Get Out Of Your Own Way” was delivered with a promotional photo of the band as cover art. U2 have released a lyric video for “American Soul,” and a performance video for “Get Out of Your Own Way” shot in Mexico during the Joshua Tree 2017 tour has been teased for release in the very near future, so the plot continues to thicken.
The first Songs of Experience track that fans were introduced to was actually “The Little Things That Give You Away,” which was debuted on May 12 at the opening show of the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 in Vancouver. The song was played several times during the tour, including a televised performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live on May 24. On Black Friday, one week prior to the release of Songs of Experience, U2.com streamed a live version of “The Little Things That Give You Away (May 14, Seattle),” reminding fans that the song gave us “our first clues about the new album.” On December 13, an exclusive streaming single appeared on Spotify, featuring a live-in-studio take of the track, recorded at Neptune Studios in Los Angeles. The streaming single also included a B-side, a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” recorded at the same session. While U2 had not previously recorded “What’s Going On,” Bono and The Edge had contributed to a 2001 charity-single EP featuring several versions of the track, of which Bono has the most mic time performing a duet with Chris Martin. While it is not a trend that I am particularly happy about, I am sure that we haven’t seen the end of streaming-only singles.
No original tracks have been included as B-sides with the Songs of Experience singles to date, and indeed the trend seems to be to include session tracks that didn’t make the final cut for an album as deluxe bonus tracks rather than B-sides. This has been the case for “Book of Your Heart” for the current album, as well as “Lucifer’s Hands” and “The Crystal Ballroom” for the previous cycle. In fact, U2 has not offered an original track as a B-side since “Are You Gonna Wait Forever?” (on the Vertigo CD single and 7-inch) in 2004. This is also a trend I expect to continue as physical singles are quickly becoming a thing of the past.