Transgressing Theology: Locating Jesus in a “F—ed-Up World”

June 25, 2013

For many fans, POP marks the moment when U2 went too far.  The word “excess” is often associated with the album and the tour that promoted it.  The auricular experimentation amounts to a sonic assault, a breaking of the sound barrier, a soniferous boom and bust.  The album offers too much glitz and glitter; it’s an immersion in the momentary; it seems a celebration—or it is a seamy celebration—of the transient.   As the authorized lore goes, U2 regrouped after POP, returned to their roots, and started writing recognizable songs again.  In short, they came to their senses.

I see it differently.  For me, POP is that extra push over the cliff, as Nigel Tuffnel once remarked.  On this album, U2 “go up to 11.”

While I think this album challenges and breaks all sorts of musical boundaries for the band (supersonic guitar expeditions, funkified percussion, techno dance rhythms, drum loops, bits of sampled and synthesized esoterica, the short wave distortion fading in and out of “Wake Up Dead Man” to intimate Araby, etc.), I find most endearing (and enduring) the theological leap, the “leap of faith,” as it were, that U2 take on POP.

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In the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Pink Floyd (in very different contexts), U2′s songs amount to the plea: “tear down the wall.”  Within the framework of Christian doctrine, U2 put forward a “transgressive theology.”  In these POP tunes, U2 transgress the borders between spirit and flesh, sacred and profane, high and low.  On this album, the “Popmart” as medium of pop culture in the context of commercial exchange becomes hallowed ground.  To be extreme about it:  God is Pop.  This is the revelation U2 disclose and pursue through the 12 songs that constitute their 1997 album.

The POP album opens in the tradition of David—the songwriter who danced suggestively before the ark of the covenant—with an invitation to dance.  Over an entrancing beat and the relentless assault of electric guitars, Bono implores:  “Let go!  Let’s go:  Discotheque!”  This impulse to dance, to surrender to the moment, permeates the album.  And as in the biblical tales of David, God is not far removed from the scene.  Out there on the dance floor, the dancer is engaged in a search for “the One.”  Who precisely this one might be remains an open question here at the beginning of the album.  It could be the search for self; it could be the search for romance with an Other; it could even be the search for a savior—a messiah of some sort or other—who can effect the mystical union in which the seeker becomes the song.

Take for another example the dance tune “Mofo.”  At first listen, the song sounds like a paean to “mother sucking rock and roll” or something even more profane as the slang of the title suggests.  Still, the song is also driven by the same kind of quest enunciated in “Discotheque”—and articulated in the opening stanza:

Looking for to save my save my soul

Looking in the places where no flowers grow

Looking for to fill that God-shaped hole….

In “Mofo,” this pursuit includes the search for “baby Jesus under the trash”—that is, in the midst of the muck and mire of human existence, once again challenging the dividing line between sacred realm and the earth-bound.   Locating Jesus under the trash is not the same thing as positioning him “at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” to quote a doctrinal formulation.  Indeed (as Bono will sing in a different but related context in the song “If God Will Send His Angels”):  “the High Street never looked so low.”  Still, there’s something hauntingly familiar about this dislocation to “the places where no flowers grow,” to the realm of the discarded, to the barn out back after permission to enter the inn has been withheld.

While “Mofo” is about the yearning to draw near to God or mother, or both, “The Playboy Mansion” concerns itself with the desire to pass through the “Narrow Gate” which, in the religious imagination, in any case, leads to “mystical ecstasy, absolute knowledge, or faith.”  Mention of the gate brings to mind the passage in the Gospel of Matthew (7. 13-14) that warns:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide

and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and

there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow

and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are

few who find it.

Mention of the mansion, meanwhile, recalls Jesus’ saying from the Gospel of John:  “In my father’s house, there are many mansions.”  These suggestions of the New Testament are brought into contact with what might be called a survey of contemporary values—or at least, a catalogue of product trademarks.

“If coke (rather than or in addition to bread and wine?) is a mystery…” begins the theoretical givens upon which contemporary culture appears to be established.  If Michael Jackson’s 1997 album can be declared “history” (and only “book 1″ at that); “if talk shows [are] confession,” then what symbol represents “the good,” or the noble, or the “true,” in a culture such as this?  Where does one find eternal bliss?  U2′s answer, though given away in the song’s title, is held in suspension until almost the end of the song:  “the Playboy mansion.”

But then the judgments one must endure to secure passage into the mansion are finally thrown into eschatological relief.  The song fades into the distance with a heavenly choir repeating words from the Book of Revelation:

Then will there be no time of sorrow

Then will there be no time for pain

Then will there be no time of sorrow

Then will there be no time for shame

U2′s listeners are thus left to judge this ambiguous song.  Is it a satire on contemporary values?  Or is it an anthem for the dawning of the millennial age?

After many references to Jesus throughout the album, POP concludes with a direct address to Jesus, a prayer in the form of the song “Wake Up Dead Man.”  The person praying calls upon Jesus for help in sorting out his sense of being caught between two worlds:  the fallen world (the song uses the somewhat less theological “F-word”) and the world suggested in stories about eternity.  Here we return to a familiar theme that figured prominently in the song “The Playboy Mansion.”

The refrain employed in this song, “Wake up, dead man,” has been pointed to by some reviewers as evidence that U2 was flirting with blasphemy and entering into a post-Christian phase with POP.  But the demand that God “Wake up” and come to the troubled one’s rescue has pious precedents in the Psalms.  Not only that, but in the New Testament the command “Wake up” is an invitation to return to life from the dead; it is the call to healed; to be fully alive.

The middle section of this song advances the perspective that has been presented throughout the POP album:  it is in the common, the profane, the mundane that the uncommon breaks through, becomes recognizable.  I interpret this section to be a sort of response to the despair of the pious one who is caught in categories like “fallen” and eternal.

“Listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you” for the antidote to death, comes the reply—from within?  From without?  The distinction does not seem to matter.  Creation itself is meant to be engaged.  This reply is not the last word of the song, however.  The despairing voice reasserts itself as the song and the album come to the end.  Thus in the tradition of the Psalms, “Wake up Dead Man” invokes God’s presence by denouncing God’s absence.

A casual confession is uttered in POP‘s first song:

You know you’re chewing bubble gum

You know what that is but you still want some

You just can’t get enough of that lovey-dovey stuff

U2 may be creating bubblegum music on POP.  But POP can also be read in forward and reverse:  a palindromic testimony.  Perhaps in the midst of pop music, that “lovey dovey stuff,” the grand transgression occurs.  To recall a line from the Rattle and Hum era:  “I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.”  Bono asks his Jesus in “Wake Up, Dead Man”:

Is there an order in all of this disorder

Is it like a tape recorder

Can you rewind it just once more?

Read backwards and forwards, POP becomes a theological assertion.  It claims the commercial realm as God’s realm.  At the risk and the resort to profanity, it names the commercial realm “Abba, father,” that is to say:  “POP.” –Ted Trost

Ted Trost teaches religious studies at the University of Alabama.  During the 2013-14 academic year, he will be Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds.  The Interference webzine staff met up with Professor Trost at the recent U2 Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, where he presented a version of this essay. http://u2conference.com/

ONE Campaign Agitates with Agit8 Songs

June 17, 2013

We’re not sure the world needed another special version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but the recent New York acoustic rooftop performance of the song is incredibly moving and claims emotional currency for this week’s moment in history. It’s part of a new musical movement with a timeless and timely theme.

Today and tomorrow, Northern Ireland hosts the 39th annual G8 Summit, a meeting of eight heads of state from the foremost world nations. The meeting provides a forum in which members can come together to discuss world issues, including food security, nutrition, and sexual violence in armed conflict.

Last week, Bono’s anti-poverty campaign ONE announced the launch of agit8, a music-based campaign to raise awareness for extreme poverty, a campaign that is aimed specifically at this year’s G8 Summit and beyond.

Agit8 features dozens of artists from all periods in modern music, such as Mumford & Sons, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, Tom Morello, David Crowder, Lone Bellow, Sting, and of course U2, among many others. The campaign seeks to raise awareness for cases of extreme poverty worldwide through performances of classic protest songs. One.org calls on the public to get involved by watching and sharing videos of performances by artists and learning the history behind protest songs and the music around it.

Quite simply, this particular suitcase full of songs is as musically magical and marvelous as any similar collection of similarly iconic anthems previously released—and they are being shared with fans for free via YouTube and Spotify in hopes that those fans might become activists. Just this past weekend, a ONE booth represented for these songs and the campaign in the dust and heat of Tennessee’s Bonnaroo festival.

ONE has made the aggressive goal of eliminating extreme cases of global poverty by 2030 through the influence of agit8. The fast-approaching G8 Summit is the first step toward the goal of ending poverty worldwide. Agit8 and ONE together are pushing for poverty to take the spotlight at this year’s G8 Summit, particularly in regards to poverty, starvation and malnutrition in Africa, but not excluding other similar developing nations where these issues are also at the forefront.

Agit8 hopes to follow in the footsteps of many groups in history who have created change through powerful songs of protest. Time has shown just how powerful music can be in the right hands, and in this turbulent century, the need for powerful music is greater than ever. Maybe with the support of such a large number of artists and the right anthems, 2030 will actually see the extinction of poverty.

 

http://www.youtube.com/user/TheONECampaign

Trouble Will Find Me: The National’s Simple Beauty

June 10, 2013

The National’s delivers a heavy dose of familiarity with their sixth album Trouble Will Find Me. It’s unusual to encounter bands that have such levels of consistency in musical style, yet The National continues to create music in a style that doesn’t feel overused at this point. Between the slow, deep melodies of Matt Berninger’s voice and the mix of guitar and drums that accompany, it’s a familiar walk in the park, but a pleasant one at that.

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But there’s something kind of different going on here.

The album exhibits that sense of confidence of a group in their second decade of existence. The sound is very controlled, sleek and often powerful in the little moments of rise and fall. In their past works, some of the arguments for the band being boring have seemed understandable on some level, but Trouble Will Find Me has some great kind of simple quality that holds the attention well.

It’s difficult to approach in a lot of ways. The lyrics are multilayered, bearing the familiar marks of Berninger’s darkness, along with questions of fame, fortune, and hope. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a song that deals with images of depression and perhaps suicide, delivers lines like ‘When they ask what do I see, I say bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me’ somehow come across hopeful and defiant against the crush of sadness found in other lines.

Being The National, there are going to be tracks that deal with heavy, dark tones and images. Songs like “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons” focus on the pain of loss, though it is unclear to whom this sense of loss is directed at, whether it’s lost love or otherwise. Others like “This Is The Last Time” focus on images of unbalanced love, expertly worked into low swinging strings that leave the listener feeling listless and a sense of longing.

It often feels like Berninger is attempting to give explanations for his actions throughout the album, almost as though the album is his confessional. He admits his insecurities and fears in “Graceless”, one of the more powerful and comparatively upbeat songs of the album.

The National creates a better level of listenability with Trouble Will Find Me. Perhaps not on a level that will make fans of critics, but it does have a way of drawing the listener in, leaving you with a sense of understanding, even if it really doesn’t make sense straightaway. It’s easy on the ears, sounds pretty, and it’s a little bit complicated, just like we’re all used to with The National. – Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor @jordanbfrye

http://www.myspace.com/thenational

Bonnaroo: Adventure in Our Own Backyard

June 7, 2013

Click here to hear the playlist: http://snack.to/atisr3ij

It’s past time to plan and almost time to roll from the annual axis of anxiety and anticipation, past preparation and into celebration. It’s the sensational and sweaty secular summer holiday of the midsouth. It’s the perennial June jubilee known as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

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Featuring a tantalizing top bill of Tom Petty, Mumford & Sons, and Paul McCartney, Bonnaroo doesn’t stop with big gigs, as those with the most name-recognition are matched by the mass diversity of talent down the poster from there. Each spring, curious and determined fans can study the schedule and its array of stages to discover nuggets they didn’t expect and new acts that could change their listening experiences for the better and forever.

The linked playlist contains all my favorites from the upcoming festival, from people I have been excited about seeing since the lineup dropped, from artists who are rock-solid pop pillars to those recently-discovered rising thrillers. The songs coincide with the chronology of the weekend, synced to a hypothetical itinerary, granted that no fan could see this many shows easily and that some must-see sets are inevitably booked against other must-see sets. After a brief intro from me, tap the buttons to play and kick back with two hours about an upcoming adventure in our own backyard. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

[Photo of Jim James from the Nashville show at the Cannery Ballroom. Post originally shared at teacherontheradio.blogspot.com]

Nicki Bluhm – Jetplane (Thursday 6.13.13, 3-4pm That Tent)
Milo Greene – Don’t You Give Up On Me (Thursday 6.13.13, 430-530pm That Tent)
JD McPherson – Signs & Signifiers (Thursday 6.13.13, 6-7pm That Tent)
Maps & Atlases – Fever (Thursday 6.13.13, 1130pm -1230am NMOT Lounge)
Allen Stone – Celebrate Tonight (Thursday 6.13.13, 12-1am That Tent)
Trixie Whitley – Pieces (Friday 6.14.13, 12-1pm Which Stage)
Calexico – Splitter (Friday 6.14.13, 1:45pm This Tent)
Glen Hansard – Races (Friday 6.14.13, 330-445 This Tent)
Of Monsters and Men – King And Lionheart (Friday 6.14.13, 330-445 Which Stage)
Passion Pit – Where We Belong (Friday 6.14.13, 430-530 What Stage)
Wilco – What Light (Friday 6.14.13, 630-8 What Stage)
Jim James – Dear One (Friday 6.14.13, 7-830 This Tent)
The Beatles – The Long and Winding Road (Paul McCartney-Friday 6.14.13, 9-1130pm What Stage)
Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard (Saturday 6.15.13, This Tent 1230-130pm)
Lord Huron – We Went Wild (Saturday 6.15.13, 2-3pm This Tent)
The Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now (Saturday 6.15.13, 330-445pm This Tent)
Frank Turner – The Way I Tend To Be (Saturday 6.15.13, 330-445 That Tent)
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors – Good Light (Saturday 6.15.13, 515-630 That Tent)
Beach House – Holy Dances (Saturday 6.15.13, 7-830pm This Tent)
The Lumineers – Morning Song (Saturday 6.15.13, 815-930 Which Stage)
Mumford & Sons – Hopeless Wanderer (Saturday 6.15.13, 930-1130pm What Stage)
Delta Rae – Hey, Hey, Hey (Sunday 6.15.13, 145-245pm Which Stage)
Macklemore – Neon Cathedral (feat. Allen Stone) (Sunday 6.15.13, 230-330pm What Stage)
Black Prairie – What You Gave (Sunday 6.15.13, 245-345pm That Tent)
The Sheepdogs – How Late, How Long (Sunday 6.15.13, 330-445pm Which Stage)
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Mayla (Sunday 6.15.13, 530-645pm Which Stage)
The National – I Should Live in Salt (Sunday 6.15.13, 630-8pm What Stage)
Tom Petty – House In The Woods (Sunday 6.15.13, 9-11pm What Stage)

Click here to hear the playlist: http://snack.to/atisr3ij

U2 Begins Mixing on New Album with Danger Mouse

June 3, 2013

U2 have completed recording for their latest album, with reports of all four members having been sighted in New York City at Electric Lady Studios, where Danger Mouse, who began working with the band in 2010, has been mixing the album. This info follows multiple sightings of band members in NYC, with Bono walking the streets and stopping for photo ops with fans.

Reports also place Coldplay front-man Chris Martin at the scene on Friday, though this claim is denied by Martin.

According to most sources, it appears that U2 is finished recording what will be the first album released since 2009’s No Line On The Horizon. Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records, recently tweeted “Listened to some new music at Electric Lady Land studios earlier with U2 and Danger Mouse #betterthanever”. The tweet has since been deleted.

News of the recent developments have caused quite a stir, made only more exciting by a tweet from Globe’s Brad Wheeler, in which he quoted Daniel Lanois, producer for The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Though Lanois has opted not to be involved with production for the new album, he has apparently had a listen to the new material. Wheeler tweeted “Lanois tells me Bono dropped by his house in LA and that the new U2 album sounds ‘amazing’ and ‘big’, with some Achtung Baby adventurism.”

U2 took part in shooting for a video on the roof of Electric Lady Studios later on Friday with an acoustic version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” While the shoot apparently isn’t related to the album itself, instead being done with the Inside Out art project, it still signals what may be the beginnings of more activity from the band.

The expectations for the new album are high at this point, with many questions left unanswered, considering Chris Martin’s unexplained presence and what his involvement means. The only thing that’s for sure at this point is that an album is in the mixing phase.

This is good news for U2 fans everywhere, with four years already between now and the release of No Line On The Horizon, but with U2’s tendency to continue working on songs during the mixing process it may be a little while longer before the album will see the light of day.