May 18, 2013
Psalms present us with cultural linguistic poem-experiences of passion and pleading, praise and pain, love and loss, anticipation and anger, worship and wonder. Rock music also offers religiously relevant encounters in an electronic correlation of guitars and lyrics—a new kind of text for a different context—yet songs similarly saturate us in sonic blasts of poetic pop culture and spirited counterculture to water our souls with a wager that there’s a way out of teenage boredom and middle-aged malaise. We can scream, shout, singalong. We can defy, dance, and devote. Linking the Psalms to U2 songs means all of the above and much more, keeping God in the conversation as we open the door.
The fan-band experience could seem unequal or it could be conversational. The great teacher Walter Brueggemann encourages us to read the Psalms in prayer and thus in dialogue with God, and the fan’s relationship to the U2 catalog could follow a similar tack, not just listening, but talking back. If courageous enough to converse with the Creator in prayer, Brueggemann suggests we could thusly speak truth to earthly power in protest. Naming this subversive, the theologian arms us not only with thorns to poke the sides of empire but to “stand up to rock stars” and embrace a critical fandom that engages U2 without reducing fandom to idolatry.
The Psalter’s “boldness and passion” take us “out beyond our conventional liturgical and devotional practices.” Headphone devotions take the same trip through the wires past traditional worship towards transformation, to “nothing less than resurrection,” as Brueggemann puts it, “the gift of new life that the God praised and summoned intends us to have.”
Rock music as a daily devotional tool surely gets practiced by runners, walkers, weight-lifters, and coffee-sipping hipsters on the daily, but to theorize such in a theological-liturgical manner means new terrain. Like with the songs “Bad” or “Drowning Man,” like “Vertigo” or “Wake Up Dead Man,” the psalms have an aching rock-bottom blues disposition that’s not pretty or pious. Even ever popular and too readily categorized U2, rock music itself remains a renegade force in culture, still largely undomesticated in its musicological meme. Brueggemann begs us to see past what he calls “equilibrium” to that queasy and uneasy place that the Psalter takes us, liminal “experiences of dislocation and relocation” because it “is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and surprisingly given life that empower us to pray and sing.”
Brueggemann names the valleys and plateaus as “the edge of humanness” or as limit-experiences and peak experiences. U2’s career-spanning sonic song catalog relishes in the underbelly: sparring with war and addiction; flirting with celebrity cults and trashcan messiahs; tempting our ears and eyes with sparkly technological-meets-existential dread and drama.
While it would be fun to try to pinpoint an album, song, or trilogy where Bono was lyrically at his most junkyard sacred, he allows us no such epiphany, for there is no such line on the horizon. The Psalms get mashed-up in a clever and almost sinister blender with American modernist writers like Ginsberg and Bukowski to fuel Hewson’s lyrics with flourishing hooks, flamboyant hope, and flamethrower holiness.
Like the elusive but enigmatic “Holy One” of the psalter and the gospels, U2 songs give us what Brueggemann describes as the “powerful, dangerous, and joyful rawness of human reality.” Like the Bible, U2 songs take unlikely and unsavory protagonists and turn them into saints. But to render rawness rightly in a late 20th century and early 21st century context, sometimes the poet needs backup, preferably a backing band of ex-surrealist pranksters from the Streets of Dublin. Sometimes we forget that the bloke blithely blessing popes and politicians was once the lark from Lypton Village. It’s no accident on my ledger that when Bono showed up in the Beatles-inspired Across the Universe, he ended up “on the bus” as a west coast hippy priest in suede fringe, a Neal Cassady/Ken Kesey-inspired psychedelic trickster.
The likes of Brueggemann would warn us not to domesticate divinity into irrelevance or sanitize the Psalms into sugary sweetness. We best not do this with the U2 catalog, which in part influenced why the songs I first chose to “pray” include tracks that can sometimes be “abrasive, revolutionary, and dangerous.”
Brueggemann tells us, “The Psalms are an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage.” In light of this, I have chosen to pray first with a lot B-sides and non-album tracks, because sadly, as sacred as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Where The Streets Have No Name,” their jukebox familiarity can breed contempt with curtained seasoned listeners. When I put on the headphones for U2, I take off my scholar’s hat, put down my preacher’s pen, and get as vulnerable and prostrate for their message as the fanboy who first discovered them three decades ago. To pray these songs in private is to rediscover them. They are wild horses to ride, cash to steal, a deep blue sea in which to drown, and lies to transform into truth. – Andrew William Smith, Editor
Check out the Headphone Devotionals project blog where we can pray the U2 songs together: http://headphonedevotionals.blogspot.com/
Quotes from Walter Brueggemann come from the book Praying the Psalms – support his prophetic voice by checking out his work. Photo of Walter Brueggemann from the 2013 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN by Andrew W. Smith.
October 11, 2012
Late September 2012, the headphones blew up with bliss for a new ear-candy kiss. Listening to the new release since before dawn, I prayed over the computer keyboard and wrote on Facebook that I was drinking my Mumfords and listening to my morning coffee. The mixed-up metaphor did not require correction. Mumford and Sons make us all feel connection to a power greater than ourselves. The sophomore album Babel stands out in a season of great albums to sustain community, explain self, and maintain spirit.
That first week of Fall, I couldn’t walk anywhere on the college campus where I work without someone asking me about the new Mumford disc. The students were excited to share these epiphanies with me, knowing I was a veteran of five Mumford shows: two Bonnaroos, one Ryman, a Railroad Revival in New Orleans, and most recently, Gentlemen of the Road in Bristol. Stuck at the top of the charts as the best-selling record of the year, Babel brings the wild news that folk is once again the new pop and that these Brits are the best American band.
Recent drops by native sons Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, or Old Crow Medicine Show no- doubt dial-in to the same Americana revival at the intersection where folk meets rock and pop and country, but in some strange turn that’s similarly brought us Beatles, Stones, and U2, the United States of Listening Sensibility hinges on the rustic banjo sting of how an American idiom gets interpreted by inspired imports. When the pseudo-hobo train-hopping meets the prep-schooler’s chart-topping, the popular culture gets soaked in sepia-tinted photographs and earth-toned authenticity. Not dayglo but khaki, not shimmery sheen but olive green, not sky blue like jazz but Carhartt beige like folk. Plain but filled with platitude, not ashamed of gratitude.
A common conversation on Twitter and Facebook confirms the conviviality and convergence of our Mumford moment. Our ears and spirits reconnect as our souls get drenched in rocking banjos and redemptive blood. The Mumford mania soaks folks in biblical imagery, but an audience doesn’t mind spiking the communion grape juice or spicing the faith journey with ferocious f-bombs. Mumfords make postmodern hymns as dusty as Dylan but as dangerously contemporary as anything hip hop or techno could hope for.
The backlash against Babel has been thankfully confined to the crustiest snarks inside the rock critic intelligentsia whose cries of boring conservatism cannot put a dent in our boisterous sing-alongs, infectious memes circulating and myths percolating from campus dorm shaking to car stereo shouting. The record by no means condones or upholds the ubiquity of Babylon; rather, it humbly confronts the greed and the pride of walls that will either crumble of their own weight or be torn down by hands like ours.
The Mumford formula finds strength in weakness, finds voice in “grace and choice.” This isn’t Top 40 gospel; it’s the gospel gathering enough acoustic confidence to occupy the Top 40 with a holy cup of folkster fury. This isn’t the stuff of superficial sin cities but sinners confessing sins and setting out “to serve the Lord.” These whispers in the dark are screaming at dawn: this isn’t your only chance, but by gosh, the Mumfords suggest, don’t blow it. Forgive but don’t forget. Live and love for today. Don’t burn out or fade away.
For a pop culture perched atop imaginary towers of narcissism, Mumford and Sons offer a vigorous valley of profound patience for the people bred towards impatience and instant gratification.
Kneel. Wait. Touch the ground. Forgive. Tweak your head to touch your heart. This is holistic hootenanny for the fragmented and fractured. Sure, it’s not the return of the 70s “freak folk” as the Brit-crits blithely badger the sons of an evangelical revival, but this summer-camp altar-call is freaking phenomenal. The fans of psychedelic folk may look elsewhere; the mind-altering nature of God always makes the strictly secular cultural guardians uncomfortable.
As we surmise, an instant classic takes us by surprise. The 21st century update to “Freebird” is another “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another arm-waving set from a quartet qualified to sing about Jesus and release cover songs by American 60s greats without them winking or us cringing.
Ghosts and hope, lovers and light, feet and knees, haste and wander: the poetry drips like a waterfall, melts ice after a deep freeze, flips a switch to the turn the lights back on inside a cynical self, rips like a roatrip waiting for a thousand sunrises. Don’t confuse their earnest yearning with clobbering certainty, though, for these are songs for serving and learning, not turning or burning.
Lest people perceive this soaring universalism and spiritual populism as some kind of creepy uptight piety, it seems the band members themselves are hardly as serious as the songs. From a distance, it even looks like they are robust partiers sipping the strong stuff, even though this listener-fan-reviewer loves the fact that even the debut Sigh No More came out after I got sober. Never having heard the Mumfords while drunk serves me forever strong and singing along, a tall glass of cold water or mug of hot coffee for the sunniest of sainted and dry intoxications.
The rock n roll inside this folk revival insists to roll us and persists to save us. No sea of quiet or army of acoustic can hide the arena-worthy aspects, and frankly, the kids fighting to find tickets will find some peace when these gents offer shows in giant venues. Don’t believe any of the negative hype and remain a believer.
This album gives and gives and forgives, nothing shy of the soundtrack to your savory living, a constant reminder of hope’s fire and your heart’s desire. Nothing about Babel can be construed as a step backward, and even for those who claim they’re just treading water, they are treading water in a soul-thrilling river Jordan for the Facebook generation, where our ears get perpetually baptized and our fears have forever capsized. –Andrew William Smith, Editor
March 15, 2012
Before there was the deservedly beloved Achtung Baby, there was The Joshua Tree. Before U2 were reinventing themselves, they were creating everlasting greatness. Before there was post-modern kitsch and contradiction to wrestle with, there was spiritual unrest and personal relationship uncertainty to wrestle with. Before U2 even had a notion of assembling their greatest hits, they were creating that canon with an album of greatest hits.
For those of us that were there, this was a sublime time. This was the Beatles getting off of the plane in the States. Oh sure, U2 wasn’t new to us or to the US at this time, but this U2, this upped the ante. This was a collection of songs and songwriting that was consistently magnificent and transcendent throughout the entire album. This was rock ‘n roll of the highest order. One listen to this album and you knew – this was Revolver for the Beatles, Beggars Banquet for the Stones, Bringing It All Back Home by Dylan, Tommy for The Who, Born to Run, Purple Rain…
Long gone was the naivety and innocence of the band members’ late teen years and the mullets of their early to mid-twenties. Gone was the style and fashion of post-punk and New Wave. Gone was big hair (only to be replaced by all-one-length, shoulder-length hair, sans the hair products).
Once “With or Without You” (the video as well as their first single from this album) hit the airwaves, the pop culture style of such acts as The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Duran Duran and The Smiths was replaced by the ponytail, denim jeans, cool patterned, long-sleeved, untucked, collared shirts with leather vests draped over them and headwear and footwear that looked lived-in and straight out of the Old West.
U2 had steeped themselves in the imagery of the American Southwest during this period and Bono and The Edge in particular looked as indigenous to the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico as much as any native son from those regions. If Achtung Baby was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, The Joshua Tree was the sound of four men burying New Wave.
For those who have felt the excitement of anticipating a new U2 release for a decade or two now, there was nothing like that feeling of anticipation in the Spring of 1987, a quarter of a century ago this month.
I was just a teen, well into my second semester of my junior year in high school and hating the social scene at my school, feeling very detached. Music—U2’s music especially—was my solace, my escape. A classmate and I were big fans of the band and neither of us could wait for this one to be released. I remember that my friend went out and bought the album a day before I did, a day prior than I thought it was to be released. All these years later, I can still recall his first words to me that next day at school.
“Bono is Dylan on this thing. He’s playing harmonica on this album.”
Harmonica? From Boy to now The Joshua Tree, where the hell did the harmonica fit in their music? I had to get this album. Immediately.
I purchased it, and for the next eighteen months or so, this CD took me on a journey unlike any other album before or since. It consumed me and of course I consumed it. Daily. With vigor. And so did the world. U2 was quickly catapulted into the stratosphere. The band that was always arriving had arrived. Pop culture was no longer shaping them, they were shaping it.
They became a household name with this album and no longer just keen dwellers of college charts on back pages of rock magazines. Indoor arenas were no longer large enough for them and their fans.
The harmonica was there, indeed. But the anticipatory refrain of the opening organ on “Streets” set the tone. That was followed by the flickering guitar sound of The Edge which was followed by the pulsating bass line from Adam and the crescendo of drums from Larry, all culminating with the first that we hear of Bono’s voice on this album (fully mature at this point, if it wasn’t already) pronouncing his restlessness and the journey began—a yearning, searching, joyful, raucous, heartwrenching, thrilling, pulsating and, at times, somber journey that wouldn’t end until we heard the haunting, fading sounds of “Mothers of the Disappeared.”
The desert imagery throughout this album was so damn cohesive. There were the desert plains, the desert skies, the howling winds and stinging rains, rivers running and then soon running dry. There was the heat and the dust, the rust and the waterless wells, throats that were dry, sunlight on my face, caverns in the night and desert roses that called out like sirens to you and me.
The imagery was desolate and yet things grew, just like in the desert itself, as Bono has pointed out. And of course there was that damn tree – standing there majestically for the band to pose in front of, remaining there for years for us fans to figuratively, metaphorically (and sometimes literally) bow down to and relish. If Joshua pointed to the promised land, fans of the band were having none of it. This, THIS was the promised land—this album, this tree.
The Edge stated later in life that he dearly recalled how much music meant to him at the age of seventeen, and so he could relate to the feeling that his music gave his teenage fans. I know the feeling. I was weeks away from turning seventeen when this album, one of rock’s greatest, most unified albums of all time, was released.
U2 successfully chopped down The Joshua Tree a few years after its release, and I don’t blame them at all. They had to go dream it all up again and I’m glad that they did. But if you listen closely to the howling wind, in the caverns of the night, through the stinging rain, I believe you can hear her haunting melodies, flickering notes and pulsating rhythms. I can. For like a siren she calls to me. –Greg Melton
November 27, 2011
“And this of course is at the heart of the idea of redemption: to begin again. . . . I wish to begin again on a daily basis. To be born again every day is something that I try to do. And I’m deadly serious about that.” – Bono, in conversation with Michka Assayas
That the album Acthung Baby and the subsequent Zoo TV tour marked epic early-to-mid-career turning points for U2 offers an historic-creative truth that fans and critics still like to ponder and pontificate on. That wrestling with fame, fortune, and their reflections in the media mirror gave U2 a swift kick into the millennial postmodern future remains a recurring meme that’s still larger than life.
As the Rattle And Hum backlash refracted, U2 reacted by getting born again in 1991. And in 2011, fans and critics are once again celebrating and reevaluating on the occasion of multiple Acthung Baby anniversary re-release editions and box sets, the Davis Guggenheim documentary From The Sky Down, and the Ǎhk-toong Bāy-Bi covers album, first released with Q magazine and now available on iTunes as a benefit for the humanitarian charity Concern Worldwide for the East Africa food crisis.
As the story goes, late 1980s shadows of seriousness and sepia-toned savior complexes soured as the decade ended and then seeded the prevailing myths that have reigned since Acthung Baby first dolled U2 up in dayglo and drag. While Guggenheim’s great documentary poignantly widens the lens on the band’s internal crises and creative processes, it breaks no major new ground that the 1990s made-for-TV documentaries weren’t already delving into.
With three decades in the rearview mirror, critical fandom might have a clear enough retrospective vision to rewrite the myth and find even greater meaning in U2’s pivotal moment. U2’s unlikely and meteoric rise to stardom reclaimed the moral integrity of mass-produced rock and roll at a time when the commercial vitality of the medium threatened to implode of its own obsolescent inanity. U2’s simultaneously idealistic and ironic embrace of postmodern technique tantalized millions then and continued all the way through the 360 tour, with the band and its organization functioning as a corporate organism concocting shimmering sonic spectacles with sacred reverberations.
The startling success of 1990s U2 does not come from killing 1980s U2—for this band’s ambition biting the nails of its own success survives on a metaphysical fuel that’s the antithesis of rock’s suicidal tendencies. No trees got chopped down except as a convenient soundbyte to engineer the tactical charade of a total makeover. Interestingly, U2’s religious fervor doesn’t deny its source or make any deals with any devils to survive the end of the last century, even as the band moves away from a white flag waving a Martin Luther King Jr. honoring, and a bullet in the blue sky flying.
The Bono that was “bugging us” in Rattle And Hum channeled the voice of an old testament prophet as he pestered Americans about apartheid in South Africa or war in Central America, about hypocrisy among TV preachers or Irish-Americans. That God isn’t short of cash or that revolutions are not worth killing for—challenging and controversial statements made boldly and bravely from the big screen in the megaplex of middle America—got drowned out by middle-aged critics complaining about U2’s attitude in the movie, insisting that Americans already knew everything there was to know about the blues and Elvis.
What the super-nerdy rock and film critics failed to admit or acknowledge, of course, was that due to pervasive cultural amnesia, some young Americans reared on MTV and commercial radio in the 1980s needed the kind of self-discovery of America’s rich cultural and activist roots that U2 were providing – and we didn’t even resent that U2 “aren’t from here.” As fans, some of us were a few years younger than U2 and craved to be connected to rock’s deeply radical lineage of Hendrix, Beatles, Dylan, and Stones in precisely the ways that this band provided on Rattle And Hum.
Rattle And Hum remains a much better movie than many will admit, and the new tracks that came out on the album are some of the band’s best ever. And late-late 80s Lovetown-era U2 is a charming and wonderful lost period in the band’s history. They lost their innocence, sure, but somehow, they never got swallowed by the beast they created. Acthung Baby didn’t damn the vibrant legacy of classic U2; it merely confronted the critics and slayed the demons of self-doubt.
Whereas 1980s U2 got ransacked in the dailies and the monthlies (this is still before blogs, mind you) for being so pious that they became pompous, 1990s U2 retorted, “You want pompous? We’ll give you pompous.” U2’s resulting over-the-top treatment of themselves in the Zoo and Pop periods only revealed through self-examination and self-parody an even better piety, spirituality, and overall sincerity in the songcraft itself.
In the 2005 booklength interview with Michka Assayas, Bono admits that the Zoo period represented “a crisis of strategy more than a crisis of faith” and “a new way to express old idealism.” This “judo” of “hard juxtapositions” (as Bono would describe it) reveals the band’s debt to the great counterculture art movements of the 20th century—for there would not have been a Zoo TV expression without the radical inroads into the collective psyche pioneered by the likes of the Beats and Merry Pranksters in America or by the Surrealists or Situationists in Europe.
In all the booze, cigarette smoke, and flashing lights affiliated with this period of U2, it would be easy to suggest that they’d turned from the Light. While most would categorize U2 as politically liberal, the band’s passionate embrace of Christianity could easily be seen as evangelical. On one surface, Achtung Baby responds to the Fall of Communism in Berlin, but on another deeper level, it probes the Fall of Man, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane to the urban and suburban gardens in our hearts and minds.
The fire and faith that once stood strong in a stark American desert get tested in a unified Europe, a global soundtrack under the blinking signs of towering technological temptations. It would be easy to suggest that if the medium is the message of Zoo period U2, then the message is wrong, that surreal media masturbation is even better than the real thing of a moral life lived by an ethic of hard work and authentic religious hunger.
But U2 points in one direction in order for us to discover that we need turn away from all that, away from certainty, to go further than surface assumptions about not only this band but about the meaning of life itself. By embracing doubt, the band looks even deeper for the divine. Fame and fashion were more the lepers in the head than faith and God, but only a faith scrutinized under postmodern media microscopes could survive and even get purified by the fire of fame.
1980s U2 tried to walk in the light of the moral patriarchs, in a masculine mood of the mountaintop. The switch that gets flipped for the last decade of the 20th century plumbs a valley of the erotic, hypnotic, and fiercely feminine, where the only light is electrified to illuminate late-night wrestling with the carnal circumstances of bodily limits.
The mysterious way of this record, though, does rip U2 from itself. Strip away the narratives of the documentaries, and we might admit that the old U2 is reborn even more than a new U2 is rebooted. The daily reality behind this catharsis crawls towards maturity; the real thing involves marriage and divorce, parenting and responsibility, addiction and recovery, celebrity and charity. Yet the hard realities of growing up in public never sounded so groovy.
Discovering more and more God in Judas Iscariot, in broken or tested marriages, in the AIDS crisis, in media surrealism, in hyperconsumerism, and in the mysterious ways of women might seem counterintuitive to some, but this visionary judo is exactly what happens with the poetry and music of Achtung Baby, at least one sparkling pinnacle within U2’s overarching artistic, commercial, and mystical triumphs. When Bono’s cosmic heart reconnects with the band’s high-wired brain for twelve tracks of holy wax, all of our hearts and minds are won again, made one again, by waxed eloquence. –Andrew William Smith, Editor
October 26, 2011
Officially tagged “A Decade of Difference: A Concert Celebrating 10 Years of the William J. Clinton Foundation,” the former US President invited the likes of Lady Gaga to perform at this gala event in the Hollywood Bowl back on October 15.
U2’s frontman and guitarist gave this gig their all in a stripped down “Irish busker” mode that included lots of buzzed Bono banter and the live debut of “A Man And A Woman” that, like the rest of the set, included an intoxicated and improvisational vibe and a bleepy backing track courtesy of Edge’s Mac.
The singer’s extended rambles between songs sometimes sounded like stumbles, so when he made some snarky asides or called the newest live song a kind of blue-eyed soul with red eyes, it caused many on the fan forums to speculate that the singer was drunk—or perhaps just a little bit “off” for the performance.
But U2’s relationship with our former president has always involved a mixture of partying and politics. Bill Flannagan’s brilliant band biography U2 At The End of The World chronicles the band’s first meeting with then Governor Clinton—at dawn in a Chicago back in the early 1990s. As the story goes, a bendering Bono almost wakes the sleeping (then candidate for) President in the wee hours, and then, the bright-eyed Clinton wakes the passed out bandmates in the first light.
All that said, Bono balanced the silly speechifying with some serious solemnity, including props to Mrs. Clinton and a prayer for peace in the Middle East preceding a heartfelt and stripped down “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
The passionate and poetic conclusion to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” included alternate lyrics that by vivid implication lifted up the peace prayers of the people of Israel and Palestine:
On another broken hill
red crosses and a crescent moon collide.
Pilgrims pray to know God’s will
Scracthing in the dirt, queuing up to die.
Scorched earth or cruel sun
Is this the battle Jesus won?
Like “A Man And A Woman,” another nugget that didn’t make the standard 360 tour setlist, “Staring At The Sun” really soared into the dark night with a stunning string section. Other tracks included “Desire,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “One.”
Before the closing song of “Miss Sarajevo,” Clinton joined the band on stage and shared quite the fan’s testimony in favor of the band’s commitment to social causes. This speech sums up so much of what people admire (and many people deride) about this band.
Clinton concluded, “I want you to know something. Of all the people who made all the efforts to come here, these guys came the furthest. They have others things going in their lives. They are the greatest touring band in the world; the last thing they needed was another trip on an airplane. But they came.”
“We’ve been friends a long time. I want to say to Bono, thank you for the ONE campaign. Thank you for campaigning against debt. Thank you for trying to save the foreign aid budget of the Secretary of State and the United States. Thank you for campaigning against poverty.”
“And I want to thank Edge for doing something very close to my heart. When Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed the most unique cultural and musical resource in America in New Orleans, this man led an effort to raise money for all those musicians in New Olreans who had no money but are part of America’s cultural history, and I will never forget it. So give them another hand.”
We in the fan community—who have been “giving them a hand” for three decades—concur with President Clinton. –Andrew William Smith, Editor
Photos from the u2.interference.com fan forums.