Thursday, May 21, 2009

Music to My Ears: Part 3

U2 has long since been more than just a band; they’re very nearly a corporation and have a globe-trotting, tinted-shades wearing activist with a Messiah-complex as their CEO. Given the event that each album and subsequent tour becomes, it seems nearly impossible for Bono and company simply to release just any old album. Instead, each release comes across as a highly strategized business plan, one that is calculated to ensure that they retain their title as the world’s biggest rock band. Aside from themselves, they have a lot of people to please.

Ever since their brave (as well as dark and dense) but near-disaster release Pop (1997), U2 have, it could be said, played it relatively safe. Forsaking the experimental sounds they incorporated into their 90s releases (Achtung, Baby!, Zooropa, with the aforementioned Pop being the pinnacle if not the actual creative height of this period), during the new millennium they’ve instead relied more on straight ahead anthemic stadium rock of the kind they were known for in the 80s.

This is why their 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind was considered such a throwback—it had been years since U2 had sounded like four guys in a room playing songs. And indeed with this album the songs were propelled to the foreground and anything experimental was there simply to enhance the songs. Much the same was true of 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Though with this release the Edge’s guitar seemed, on many tracks, to be amped up even more (“Vertigo,” “All Because Of You,” “City of Blinding Lights” being the best examples).

During the first half of this new millennium U2 seemed to be enjoying a new lease on life. Both ATYCLB and HTDAAB and their respective tours were incredibly successful and they showed no signs that the upward curve of rock stardom was waning. To me, at least, it’s impressive that not only have they remained one of the biggest concert draws for the better part of two decades, but have also continued to record new, vital music at this stage in their career rather than rest on past laurels.

All this does, I suppose, raise that perennial question first posed by Neil Young: “Is it better to burn out or to fade away?” That is, how long can any band or recording artist maintain their level of success? And how do you know when it’s time to bow out gracefully? Certainly no one wants to wait until that moment when all of a sudden no one’s buying your albums and buying your concert tickets. How does one know when the downward part of the curve begins? To put it another way, when does a fan cross the line from being proud and supportive of the artist in question to being embarrassed to be a fan?

I ramble on in this way only because U2 recently released their new album, No Line On The Horizon. And it is with this album that they very well might close out their third decade of recording and performing, which, in rock music terms, is a geologic age. Right now the question is: does the new album qualify as a worthy entry into a discography already loaded with classics (War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung, Baby!, and, some would say, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)? Or does it show signs that perhaps the downward part of the curve has begun?

First of all, in listening to the new record it’s clear that it’s not nearly the stylistic departure from previous releases that both the band and their producers (and co-writers) Eno and Lanois claimed it would be. It is not, despite pronouncements from inside the U2 camp, as a big a leap from previous records as Achtung, Baby! was from The Joshua Tree.

Yet at the same time it isn’t as safe a record as All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb arguably are; that is, there are examples of experimentation that both recall their 90s period but also draw sonic comparisons to The Unforgettable Fire. It’s a strange melange in a way. One can hear hints and suggestions of U2’s various incarnations throughout but none of them come to dominate and nor do they ever coalesce into something altogether different or surprising. And I have to say that I’ve moments when I’ve loved the album and others when I’ve been less sure.

I don’t think, however, that No Line On The Horizon represents the beginning of the downward curve. “Magnificent,” for instance, is quite possibly one of the best U2 songs of the last 10 years—as well as one that unabashedly acknowledges and celebrates our origin and purpose in God. And “Get On Your Boots,” the much-maligned first single, is better, I think, than most critics suggest. Not unlike one of the other stronger songs on the album, “Breathe,” it bravely suggests, despite current political, economic, and world events, that there is reason for hope, that we can, without being cynical, put one foot in front of the other and walk out into the world.

And there are signs all over this album that the reason for hope is grace—a grace with its source in eternity. “I know a girl with a hole in her heart,” says Bono on the title track, “She says infinity’s a great place to start.” Makes me think of Augustine’s famous statement from his Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” Augustine, and perhaps U2, would argue that only God can fill that hole in the heart, that it is in fact a God-shaped hole. Infinity is a great place to start, indeed.

On “Breathe” Bono speaks of a “love you can’t defeat” and says that “every day I die again and again I’m reborn.” As the song reaches its climax, he’s singing his heart out: “I found grace inside a sound/ I found grace, it’s all I found/ And I can breathe.” It’s because of this grace, it would seem, that he’s found the “courage to walk out into the street with arms out.” Set to the Edge’s chiming guitar, the hopefulness that builds in the chorus is the perfect counterpoint to the more anxiously sung-spoken verse sections.

Taking on the guise of a dying soldier overseas, on “White As Snow” (set loosely to the melody of the carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) we have intimations of the need for a Saviour: “Once I knew there was a love divine/ Then came a time I thought it knew me not/ Who can forgive forgiveness when forgiveness is not/ Only the lamb as white as snow.” In the same song he asks, “Where might we find the lamb as white as snow?” and finds himself wishing, “If only a heart could be a white as snow.”

Though not one of the strongest tracks on the record, “Unknown Caller” also portrays the need for divine intervention, specifically the need for repentance and how this can only come from a divine source. Using, rather awkwardly, terms derived from computer-speak, we hear a voice tell the listener to “Restart and reboot yourself/ You’re free to go.” This same mysterious voice says “Hear me/Cease to speak that I may speak,” and this almost sounds like the Scripture verse: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

A definite clue to the meaning of “Unknown Caller,” that it is in fact a conversation between a human being and God, lies in the line “It was 3:33 when the numbers fell off the clock face.” The numbers 333 also appeared on the cover of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, printed as J33:3 (a sign in the airport terminal). Bono remarked in an interview that this was a reference to Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” He called it God’s phone number, and now here again those divine digits show up.

Altogether I wouldn’t say this album grabs the listener as strongly as How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It falls more into the category of more transitional albums like The Unforgettable Fire and Zooropa. At the same time, I think that it shows a band that has little interest in simply repeating itself. However the album does in the long run, I hope that it doesn’t prevent U2 from following their creative instincts wherever they lead. I’m thinking here primarily of comments in the press that the band hopes to put out a companion album to Horizon sometime in the next year, one that would be called Songs of Ascent. Bono says the plan is for this to be a more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage. Given that the announced title for the album comes from a section of OT Psalms (120 – 134) called the "Songs of Ascent," which are about a pilgrimage, a journey to the holy city of Jerusalem, this makes such comments all the more intriguing. Let’s hope if U2 does continue long enough to have a definite downward slide that it begins after this album.


Joni said...

Now I want to go out and buy U2's new CD! Great review.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that in rock-and-roll or pop music age is seen as a liability? In jazz, or classical the artist's age has nothing whatsoever to do with their popularity, or at the very least age's influence is less strongly felt when compared with the ability and accomplishments of the performer or composer. What nonsense is the pop/rock establishment.

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