Songs of Innocence thematically could very well have been U2’s first album. Each song on the album brings us back to U2’s early days — you know, before they became the biggest band since The Beatles.
“Iris (Hold Me Close)” is one of Bono’s most personal songs to date. Bono’s mother Iris, specifically, the death of his mother when he was just a teenager, has been a driving motivational force in his life. Her death pushed Bono toward eventually finding his way into a band, and once in U2, she’s “appeared” in many songs throughout their discography — such as “Tomorrow,” “Lemon,” and “Mofo.”
Unlike the aforementioned songs, “Iris” tackles Bono’s acceptance — but not in the traditional sense. It’s Bono accepting that he’s always going to feel the loss of his mother, and that it’s something that he’s not going to be able to get over.
Like most great U2 songs, “Iris'” lyrics are polysemous.
“The star that gives us light
Has been gone awhile, but it’s not an illusion
The ache in my heart
Is so much a part of who I am”
After an intro that includes one of Adam Clayton’s best bass lines, classic guitar work from The Edge and even guest background vocals from Chris Martin, Bono begins singing — but in a subdued, almost depressed manner. It’s a vocal take that Bono wouldn’t have been able to accomplish in his younger years. No, his voice isn’t as strong as it used to be — but, for “Iris,” that’s the half the point, as his voice during the first verse is weathered, if not defeated, as he accepts that he still carries his mother’s death with him to this day.
“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 picks up a bit, if only to tell his mother that he’s finally understanding a life lesson she tried to teach him when he was just a child.
“Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Hold me close, like I’m someone that you might know
Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see who we are
I’ve got your life inside of me
We finally get to the song’s first chorus, when Bono yearns for his mother. Musically, the chorus works perfectly. The rhythm section comes to a halt for the first half, while The Edge plays vintage U2 guitar work, before the rhythm section joins for the second half of the chorus. Vocally, Bono is masterfully restrained. It could’ve been very easy for him to go over-the-top with, but the restraint shown in his voice, especially when he sings his mother’s name, fits the mood of the song.
“Once we are born, we begin to forget
The very reason we came
But you, I’m sure I’ve met
Long before the night the stars went out
We’re meeting up again”
“Iris'” second chorus doesn’t directly deal with his mother, but rather, a consequence of her death. It’s no secret that Bono comes from a half Catholic, half Protestant background, and the upbringing is evident in “Iris'” second chorus. Again, this is only a lyric and vocal that Bono could come up with later on in his life, as he reflects upon doubting his own faith — forgetting the reason we’re here. However, he reaffirms his faith in God, saying he’s sure he met the Almighty — and will meet him again.
The song then launches into its second chorus, as Bono sings “hold me close.” This works perfectly on the heels of the second verse — instead of asking for his mother to hold him close, he’s asking God to hold him close, and not let him go.
“The stars are bright, but do they know?
The universe is beautiful but cold”
Even if we haven’t dealt with the loss of a mother, these two lines can resonate with anyone. To stand outside in the night and realize that there is something more out there, but recognizing the harsh, brutal realities that we must face in our daily lives.
“You took me by the hand,
I thought that I was leading you
But it was you made me your man
I dream where you are”
Once again, the subject in “Iris” shifts — and this time, it’s to Bono’s wife. Bono recalls how his then-girlfriend helped him through this difficult time in his life — and even makes note of Kraftwerk’s album, Man Machine, which was Bono’s first-ever gift for Ali.
“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
Iris playing on the strand,
She buries the boy beneath the sand
Iris says that I will be the death of her,
It was not me”
Iris once again becomes the subject matter, as Bono emotionally recalls memories of his mother. The memories, though specific to Bono, are vague enough that everyone can relate to them — after all, how many times did your mother encourage or calm you as a child, or pretend to bury you in sand at the beach?
The last line above, and its delivery, is perhaps the best moment in the song. “You’ll be the death of me” is a common phrase for a parent to tell his or her child. You can just feel the melancholy in Bono’s voice when he says “it was not me.”
“She said, ‘Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself’
‘Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see'”
The emotional roller coaster isn’t quite over until the song reaches its coda. Perhaps this is a phrase that Bono’s mother once told him — and perhaps it resonates now more than ever. Perhaps this is Bono’s way of letting go and accepting that she’s gone; that he has to take Iris’ advice and free himself from the pain that he’s felt throughout his life.
“Iris” isn’t likely to be a single since its chorus is restrained, and the song structure itself isn’t necessarily conducive to Top 40 radio. Still, “Iris” is classic U2, and will be remembered as one of Innocence’s highlights. Musically, it combines both the 80s and 90s sounds that U2 have, with the craftsmanship that the band has developed throughout the 00s and 10s.
Succinctly put, “Iris” is U2 doing what U2 does best.