Friday, March 13, 2009

They Still Haven't Found What They're Looking For: More U2 NLOTH

Over at U2 Sermons there has been lots of discussion of the new U2 album, NLOTH. Beth, whose site it is, has been offering up really interesting and provocative musings on the album. Here’s one line from a recent post:

U2 don't want to show us the certainties we humans make of religious experience after the fact; they want to show us actual religious experience in all its imperious, weird, transformative power.”

I think she’s right about that. I think this album (especially) provides more of a phenomenology of religious experience than an interpretation of it. The lyrics are written from the on-the-ground perspective of lived experience. They are not written in what we might call the theoretic mode, which comes after the experience has been filtered through a particular hermeneutic grid.


Life, it is often said, is always lived forward but only understood backward. This U2 album is very much written in the forward direction, not the backward. But if that’s so, then I don’t think we can say that the face looking back at the guy at the ATM machine in Moment of Surender is the face of Jesus, as one commenter at U2 Sermons does. From inside the story I think it’s ambiguous just whose face is staring back at the character. I think even the identity of the unknown caller in the song by the same name is, from inside the story, also ambiguous. Is it God? Is it a wrong number? Who is it? The ambiguity of the identity of the caller is supported by Bono himself who says exactly that in the book that accompanies the deluxe editions. He himself asks, “Who is it that’s calling? Is it God? Who?”

I think we’ve got to be careful about saying what lyrics mean or to whom the characters in them mean to be referring. As a piece of art the lyrics are open to myriad interpretations which, though they may be radically different, can all be faithful to the lyrics. From within the narrative of the album or the songs themselves, however, I think the source of transformation in MoS and UKC is shrouded in mystery.

One more thought. Also over at U2 Sermons Beth has a beautiful post titled Dhikr in which she talks about the Sufi influences on NLOTH. One of the things she suggests in her discussion is that there’s not as much ache in NLOTH as there is in previous U2 albums. She says,

“U2 often used to give us quite a lot of lament alternating with dazzled foretastes, or the two married into a kind of ache. But there is not much aching on NLOTH. The album is more settled and assured on both ends; its quest is to dwell in reality, not drum up drama, and yet it seems more confident than ever that there is a realm of very palpable connection with God available now as well.”


Well, I dunno. I think the very title of the album, together with the future orientation of many of the album’s moments, suggests otherwise. I think this album no less than previous ones drips with what the Germans call sensucht, a perpetually unsatisfied longing and yearning, an ache, at the center of the human condition. Indeed, I was just talking with students last night about this in connection with C.S. Lewis. Lewis claims in Surprised by Joy that sensucht, more than anything, was the central story of his life. I believe this to be the central message of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. The band members may have in fact been found by God, but they still hadn't found what they were looking for. That's sensucht. And it’s there in White as Snow. It’s there too in Cedars of Lebanon

This shitty world sometimes produces a rose
The scent of it lingers and then it just goes

That just about says it all, doesn’t it? That just about summarizes all U2 albums: it’s a shitty world. But sometimes it produces roses. Enjoy the roses, because soon enough their fragrance will be gone. And the longing will return. The ache, in fact, is never fully massaged away, ever; at least not on this side of the Silence.

So NLOTH, no less than U2’s other albums, is radically this-worldly. But insofar as it is I don’t think it’s any more settled or assured than previous albums. Life in the sound is intrinsically unsettled. It’s characterized by darkness and punctuated now and again by real but fleeting glimpses of the Divine. Love may have the last word and a few beautiful penultimate words. And joy no doubt gets in its two-cents worth, too, between the already and the not-yet. But the scent of them both lingers and then it just goes. And so we find ourselves always longing, always yearning, never settled.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Thanks for the links and the very thoughtful responses. What you say about the importance of ambiguity, and of not seeking to find "the" meaning of a work of art is so important -- and often missed by Christian U2 fans, who can jump to the assumption that every lyric is in some way naively autobiographical. (One of our running-joke policies when we were editing material submitted for our book was "whenever possible delete the word Bono.")

I don't mean by any of the comments I've been making that on NLOTH U2 are picturing a promised future that has collapsed into the present -- without that eschatological tension there'd be no U2 -- or that they have ceased to include themes of being troubled by fallenness/injustice. (Given a lead singer whose day job is being the unpaid CEO of an international network of non-profit and for-profit organizations that exist for no other reason than to change the world, I doubt that will happen anytime soon.) By definition, yes, we don't find what we're truly looking for in this life. But for me, I still don't believe I hear anything on this album with the intensely felt aspirational ache of, say, "All I Want Is You," "With or Without You," or "When I Look At The World."