So, we continue on with this series of posts. (BTW, readers, thanks for having the courtesy to hat-tip when you borrow material from here.) My theory about why a less apophatic and more immersive sacred "sound" comes to the fore on NLOTH is that in part, it may have to do with the album's initial birthing during the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez. Comments about that history from critics have focused on how the songs don't sound North African, but I think they're missing the point. What if the real influence was not particular musical gestures, but something much closer to the mission of the Festival?
A little background: Along with formal concerts from sacred musicians of many religions, this article talks about how the "real draw" in Fez is the opportunity to experience nightly Sufi dhikr ("remembrance of God"), ecstatic musical worship in various styles. (Here's a clip of one of those sessions from Fez 2007 when U2 were in town; more can be found by clicking around.) This Muslim mystical tradition has a developed understanding of sound itself as a medium of direct contact with God (as well as, incidentally, a long history of something U2 also have a long history of: using romantic metaphors for the experience of that contact).
Musicians from the Sufi brotherhoods were invited into the studio with U2 along with Gnawa players (by the way, I do think the bass on "Moment of Surrender" has a fairly Gnawa sound.) More recently both Bono and Larry Mullen have invoked "Sufi singing" in interviews (and you could argue that the Sufi use of unison chorus, which you can hear above, turns up all over the place on NLOTH, as do Sufi-esque melismas.) So I wonder if NLOTH doesn't actually bear many traces of Fez, in the form of fruit from a broader, cross-cultural experience of shared sound as a vehicle for the Divine in the midst of a songwriting residency.
That's some of what I think is behind this sacred "sound" you don't just hear, but can immersively go "inside." So in view of that, I'm turning over the notion that NLOTH may be the beginning of a subtle shift away from U2's dazzled wordless foretaste mode, the wellspring of which I've always assumed lay in the band's early charismatic formation (let the reader understand). I'm not saying wordless vowels are absent; in fact, there are probably more "oh"s on NLOTH than usual! What I mean is more like this: 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. This embodied confidence is quite distinct from intellectual, abstract "certainty," which we are instead supposed to be "getting over."
NLOTH's evocations of God's vibrant presence (and that's where we're going in the next post, I think) seem to me not to be framed so much as the awe of one who is suddenly undone by a gift of inbreaking grace even "under the trash" or "when there's all kinds of chaos." They're still every bit as celebratory and broadly inviting, but now they rest on an unsurprised, grateful security, in a spaciousness that allows us to "breathe": This is how it is.