Saturday, March 7, 2009

U2: No Line on The Horizon

Conversation in the media and around the blogosphere surrounding U2’s 12th studio album, NLOTH, is both ubiquitous and animated, much like the front man of U2 himself, the ever present Bono. Some of the faithful love the album and tout it as their best yet. Others….not so much. Despite the fact that I, like ever so many, have been suffering from a severe case of “Bono Fatigue,” (as my friend Matt likes to call it), I was eager to get my hands on the new record. Indeed, I had been listening to it for weeks before I bought it from my local record store Vertigo Music the day it was released.

Some Christians are hailing the album as U2’s most explicitly Christian since October. Indeed, Christians have been finding everything from the album’s cover to the lyrics thick with Christian content and symbolism.

Music is art and just as good works of art help us to see new worlds or to sometimes see the same world with new eyes, so the work of art itself is open to a plurality of interpretations, depending on the hermeneutic of the viewer-listener-reader.

Let’s start with the album cover, pictured above. It features a black and white Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph of sky meeting sea. Some interpret the cover as a testament to U2’s eschatological vision of that day when God’s kingdom has come to earth in fullness. I like that interpretation and think the cover is certainly open to it. Viewed from the perspective of the Christian story, what I really like about the photograph is the bottom half. The top half is very light and the bottom half much darker. It’s easy to view the image as a bold contrast between light (heaven) and darkness (earth). And yet. And yet one can’t help but be struck by the circle of reflected light amidst the darkness in the bottom half, pushing the darkness outward; a beautiful image I think. The Christian sees in this God’s goodness pushing back the darkness, all that drags us down. That’s grace. Gravity (darkness and sin) pulls us downward, but grace (light and love) push back against gravity and lift us up.

How does Bono himself describe the album cover? Well, not with the language and imagery I just used. He describes it in terms that are woven throughout the lyrics of the album and which, though not at odds in any way with Christian thought, are certainly not explicitly Christian either. He sees the photograph as symbolizing infinity, an image of a future open to infinite possibility. His focus is neither on the light nor the darkness, but on the vanishing point in the infinite distance, the point beyond our vision. The upcoming tour, by the way, will be called Kiss the Future.

The notion of infinity is, as I say, woven throughout the album. From the title track, No Line On the Horizon, where Bono croons

I know a girl with a hole in her heart
She said infinity’s a great place to start

to the hymn-like confession Magnificent

I was born
I was born to be with you
In this space and time
After that and ever after
I haven't had a clue

to the equally confessional Breathe, where Bono speaks of the “roar that lies on the other side of silence.” I hear in all these lines an openness to the future, a denial that things must be the way they in fact are, a kind of joy in infinite possibility, and a yearning for what lies beyond. Christian? Explicitly Christian? If one is a Christian one will no doubt resonate with the themes of uncertainty in the face of infinity and that things are not now as they should be and will be in the shalomic future.

While many moments of autobiography can be detected on this album—gotta stand up to rock stars; Napoleon is in high heels; Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas, many of the songs are written, Bono tells us in the book that accompanies the deluxe editions, from the perspectives of characters he has created. The last two U2 albums—ATYCLB and HTDAB were straightforward autobiography, personal accounts of Bono wrestling with his own demons. This one less so; at least less so in terms of being written from the first-person perspective. But, as Bono himself reminds us, the mask reveals the man. And that’s no doubt true on this album.

Though not written from the first-person perspective there’s still a lot of Bono that shines through the characters he concocts for this album. What manages to shine through is humility, uncertainty in the presence of transcendence, doubt in the presence of unvarnished evil, longing, rebirth, and sheer joy, gratitude and love. If you're a Christian, all of those ideas are bound to resonate, and resonate deeply. Are they Christian? Explicitly Christian? Whatever they are they are certainly not exclusively Christian.

While Bono can be a little too full of himself for his own good, somehow he manages, I think, to convey a laudable sort of humility. This comes through brilliantly on Magnificent.

I was born
I was born to sing for you

I didn’t have a choice
But to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry
It was a joyful noise
Oh, oh…

This is not braggodocio. It’s Bono realizing that he’s been given a gift, a voice, something which, like unusually good looks, is not something one deserves credit for. It’s dumb luck or sheer blessing. And Bono, in full confessional mode, offers back to its Giver what he regards as a gift, and he does so with an obvious sense of gratitude. He even acknowledges that when he wrote the song he had in mind the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings upon her visitation to Elizabeth. Although the song as a whole is, he says, "about two lovers trying to hold on to each other and trying to turn their life into worship. Not of each other, but of being alive, of God...of spirit."

There’s another confession of humility in the full-on gaze of ego in Stand Up Comedy. There Bono sings,

I gotta stand up to ego but my ego’s not really the enemy
It’s like a small child crossing an eight lane highway
On a voyage of discovery

Bono knows his ego needs taming, but I think he’s here revealing a charming childlikeness, the smallness he feels in the face of it all and the glee we all used to take in the dare to “cross an eight-lane highway” just for the thrill of it. Bono has not lost that sense of childlike glee and adventure. The world, bent and broken though it may be, still presents itself to Bono as a vast playground or carnival, an adventure inviting him on its many rides and attractions. And he’s (sometimes) downright giddy about being in the midst of it all.

There are several places on the album that strike notes of yearning and rebirth. First, in Moment of Surrender, a song about a character Bono has manufactured, a war veteran who hasn’t been able to reinsert himself into civilian life or into his own skin or psyche for that matter. As Bono puts it, “he has dragged his wife into drugs and booze, [and] he can’t live with what he’s done to her and so he breaks down beside an ATM machine and begs God to deliver them.” The song is, I believe, the highpoint of the album. In any case, we get these chilling lyrics sung in Bono's brooding voice:

I’ve been in every black hole
At the altar of the dark star
My body’s now a begging bowl
That’s begging to get back
Begging to get back to my heart
To the rhythm of my soul
To the rhythm of my unconsciousness
To the rhythm that yearns
To be released from control

The way Bono envisions it, it’s this same troubled soul in Unknown Caller, who ends up in some motel trying to make a call on his cell phone. Who’s he calling? A drug dealer to score more drugs? Someone for help? We don’t know. But he doesn’t get a signal. Instead, someone (or is it Someone) is reaching out to him with a stunning and completely unexpected (text) message. The message tells him to,

Go, shout it out, rise up
Oh, oh
Escape yourself and gravity
Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak
Shush now….

Restart and re-boot yourself
You’re free to go
Oh, oh
Shout for joy if you get the chance…

I can’t help but be reminded in these lyrics of Jesus in the Gospels telling those he’s healed or forgiven, “Go; you’re free. You’re healed.” One can only imagine or perhaps not imagine at all, if you yourself take yourself to have been forgiven or healed, then you know perfectly well that feeling of unbridled joy that comes with forgiveness and healing. And there are times either in private or public you "shout it out!"

And then, these lyrics from Breathe,

Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn

The ideas of yearning and rebirth permeate the album and, I think, Bono’s way of being in the world. It’s just like Bob Dylan said “That he not busy being born is busy dying.” Anyone who is not open to being born again (and again and again and again) is already dying and is in danger of turning to stone. U2 have always been open to the new, to the unexpected, to the surprising and transcendent, open to being reborn, again and again and again. That’s what make them perpetually fresh, still attractive to fans young enough to be their teen children.

My favorite feature of the album, btw, and no doubt an element owing to the genius of Brian Eno, comes at the beginning of Fez-Being Born. If you’ve heard the chorus to the first single off the album, Get on Your Boots, you’ll recognize these lyrics

Let me in the sound
Let me in the sound
Let me in the sound, sound
Let me in the sound, sound
Meet me in the sound

At the beginning of Fez-Being Born, just behind the music, a barely audible Bono can be heard to sing, begging and pleading-like,

let me in the sound let me in the sound
let me in the sound, sound
let me in the sound, sound
let me in the sound.

That is brilliant! This is what Bono has been born to do. It’s the place he meets us, his fans, the place he is no doubt most himself, and the place he finds grace,

I found grace inside of sound; I found grace it’s all that I found.

Those beautiful lyrics are from the song, Breathe.

Is this U2's most explicitly Christian album? I'm not sure I even understand the question. Some of the lyrics will no doubt send chills up the spines of those of us who fit our own stories into The (Christian) Story. And Bono may no doubt have penned them from within The Story. But the lyrics and the album as a whole have broader appeal. You don't have to be a Christian to resonate with the realities about which Bono sings. I guess I get a little annoyed when Christians say things like "this is U2's most explicitly Christian album." While I'm not sure what that actually means, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Reading some of the theologically oriented reviews around the blogosphere leads me to believe that some are trying too hard to mine these songs of explicitly Chrisitan content. Sometimes a telephone pole in a movie is just a telephoe pole, with no deeper meaning. So, for example, when Bono sings "the sweetest melody is the one we haven't heard" in I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, I've got a hunch he hasn't got Revelations 4 in mind, as someone has actually suggested. Just a hunch.

As to the question whether this is U2’s best album, I'm agnostic about that, too. It may be a best since album. Their best since Achtung Baby or their best since The Unforgettable Fire. Is it better than Joshua Tree? I think Joshua Tree is in a class by itself. And I think we have to wait to see how NLOTH ages before we can say where it should rank in the U2 canon.

NLOTH is a GREAT album; I LOVE it and can't stop listening to it. And I’m pretty doggone certain an awful lot of people are going to meet me in the sound when they kiss the future in Chicago on September 12. How about you? Meet me in the sound?


Bob K said...

Nicely said, Kevin!

Steve Matheson said...

I'm so addicted to "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" that I think I've already gone crazy. In that light, let me share an inspiration I just conjured while listening to "Get On Your Boots." It's Isaiah 52:7.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
"Your God reigns!"

Beth said...

This is a nice treatment and I've linked it, as you may already know, on U2 Sermons. I just wanted to raise one question -- the link to the writeup of Steve Harmon's piece (and the piece is much better than the writeup) actually shows him calling it not "explicitly," but "thoroughly" Christian. To me, the nuance of those two terms is a bit different. An artist can produce what I would call "thoroughly" Christian work without using a significant number of "explicitly" or "exclusively" Christian references in it, and without designing it to be intelligible only to Christians. Tho perhaps this point is reading too much into a couple of adverbs.

Kevin Corcoran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tor Hershman said...

Did you ever hear Neil Innes' "God Is Love" orrrrr moi's "Krispy Krishna," for that matter?

Stay on groovin' safari,

James K.A. Smith said...

When I look at the cover, I can't help thinking of Rothko. And then I'm reminded of Jean-Luc Marion's meditations on the "depth" that characterizes Rothko's paintings--Marion reads them sort of as "icons" in his little book, "The Crossing of the Visible." Such a reading resonates both with Bono's interpretation of the cover and with yours.

I'm still waiting to digest this new album. But I share your sense that "Joshua Tree" has a kind of holy otherness about it that, for me, will remain untouched. But is that because of the music, or because we also associate it with being teenagers, listening to the album at roller skating while our hands are inching their way down the back of our girlfriend's jeans and we feel like we might just be finding what we're looking for? :-)

themethatisme said...

All right then I'll give it a listen. I've avoided U2 for years particularily as Bono got so up himself that he became revolting. I'm still not impressed by their recent move out of Northern Ireland to avoid paying taxes there, but I'll take your reccomendation.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hey Beth,

Thanks for stopping by. Yeah; I don't think I buy it. "Thoroughly Christian?" I just don't know what to make of that. If what is meant is the album is open to peculiarly Christian interpetation, well, okay. But it's equally open to non-Christian, religious interpretation. When I hear that the ablum is "thoroughly" Christian it makes me think of authorial intent; that Bono and the boys were out to make a "Christian" album. And I just don't believe that's true. I guess I don't believe it's false either, but that's b/c I'm not sure what a thoroughly Christian album would be.

As a Christian myself, I find this album haunting, honest, and resonant with the textures of my own spirituality. It moves between darkness and light, joy and sadness, a sense of longing and a sense of connection.
These features are features of peculiarly human existence. Perhaps insofar as Christian experience is human experience the album is thoroughly Christian. But I'm not sure that's what you meant.

For what it's worth.

Beth said...

Thanks for the response and for putting it on my blog to make sure I didn't miss it.

I'm not enthusastic myself, really, about the phrase "a Christian album" with any adverb in there. (In contradistinction to what?) It's not one I would use in my writing, anymore than I would ever call U2 "a Christian band." The phrases imply things that are inappropriate for the topic in any number of ways, and also discount the fact that U2 have been writing from the same worldview all along, not just on some albums -- as Bono has regularly commented.

One of the analogues I often use for U2 is Flannery O'Connor. I do think it is legitimate, in some sense, to speak about her work having a "thoroughly Christian" sensibility, raising issues that are shaped by Christian questions, and pointing to if not always giving answers that reflect a Gospel mindset. Take the Christian metanarrative and Christian experience away, and you have an entirely different artist. To me, this describes U2 exactly.

I will admit that contributing to my commitment to that analogy is years of reading U2 interviews where we get to see, you know, Bono explaining Koine Greek words to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, or talking about theological concepts and retelling Bible passages, and so on. So while I lose interest rapidly at efforts to say claim some particular U2 song as "explicitly Christian," I do have a hazy, generalized "authorial intent" filter that I wear when I listen to U2. But I've got citations for it! ;-)

Thanks for the conversation.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I'm w/ya in terms of the Flannery O'Connor analogy. Absolutely! Maybe it's nit-picky, but I guess I'd say that works of art cannot themselves be Christian or Jewish or Zoroastrian or what have you. Artists can. Bono's lived experiences is saturated with the Christian narrative. Absolutely. And the art he produces certainly reflects the contradictions, confusions, hopes, dreams, longings, lament, gratitude and delight that characterize a Christian way of being in the world.

NLOTH is no more shaped by aspects of that narrative, that way of being in the world, than any other album U2 have made. And that's why claims that it is the most "thoroughly" Christian Album since October makes little sense to me. Since Bono is probably no more or less Christian now than before I would expect that this album reflects no more or less the feel of that way of being in the world. From what you say, I think you'd agree w/that.

So, Beth, where are you and what is it you do? If you don't want leave that here, email me. You've got a very cool site over there at Keep it up!


Beth said...

Yep. With you. I think I might (and we are down to tiny distinctions here) want to explore the ides that there is some synthesizing of 30 years of Christian context going on with this album that is new-ish.

I'm a pastor in the Boston area, got into blogging about U2 as a way of promoting a book of sermons interacting with their work that I co-edited in 2003. Will email you a couple more details.

Mark Dirksen said...

Great conversation here, and I think you are spot on: Artists make Art. Of course it's produced out of the compost of their lives, and the more honest their mining of that compost the deeper and richer the art - hooray!

I am, however, going to chide you for an old and too common error: U2 is four men (plus or minus PMcG, DL and BE), and they create their art deep within the life of their community. It is not Bono alone, even a little bit. He may be the prophetic voice, but the Band is the artist. To focus on him and his experience (and his interpretations) is to miss a huge point.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Point humbly taken. I must say I'm a bit emarrassed to have made that mistake as I have been known to chide others for making the very same mistake. In any case, you are absolutely right. Thanks for calling me out on that.