Like a crown

I've enjoyed throwing out ideas on NLOTH this week, and I want to wind up this series of posts with thoughts about some of the songs that are not as obviously "character" pieces. I've talked a few times about this vibe of "settledness"; part of that was on the very large scale of the Sound ("God is, period"), but these songs tend to show us settledness in a more domestic, pragmatic, incarnate setting.

The propulsive sunburst of "Magnificent" is retrospective in tone, as the narrator looks back over his life and names it as having been claimed by God from "my first cry," while also commiting to continue a life of service and adoration "till we die." (The "living sacrifice" line "I give you back my voice" is quite poignant, even more so if it happens to conjure for you another close-to-the-bone promise from 28 years ago: "If I had anything, anything at all, I'd give it to you.")

The middle of the album features a three-song pop/domestic set, which comes off to me as picturing a couple at ease with each other in a long relationship. In "Crazy," they're mature enough to have accepted that the sudden victories we dream of in youth nearly always "come slow" and are still far from complete, but they're reminding each other that their quest to get "all the way to the light" is assured of success, and vow to keep generating "sparks" as they go. They look back down the "mountain" from partway up to offer reassurance to those daunted by early stages of the climb, and encouragement to the rest of us to value those "boys and girls" too. (Here's another way to say what I mean about "settledness" here: If this song had been written by U2 in the 80s, it probably would have treated the quest and the climb as demanding uncompromising urgency: tonight! tomorrow's too late! -- yet now the actual topic of record is taking a fun break from it with your lover.)

"Boots" is that break, the "fun fair" at which the reliability of "love and community" proves its ability to "cast out all fear" and overcome the nervous environment; what's actually eternal is not "a bomb scare" but the "laughter" of "[real] joy," which to quote a recent Bono interview is "the spilling over of a life well-lived" (back to "Crazy" and forward to "Comedy" and "Breathe" to see what a well-lived life looks like.)

I've said elsewhere that I spoke on "spiritual health for social justice workers" the day before first hearing "Stand Up Comedy," and one of my initial thoughts was that I could have just played it for the audience, and said "If you sound like this after 33 years, you're doing fine." Bringing that filter to it, you could say that all the standard spiritual pitfalls for people passionate about justice are handily disposed of in this song. The call to take action is undiminished from earlier U2 work motivated by outrage, but now it is pictured as empowered by an unassailable joy (again) that, not being dependent on seeing achieved outcomes, is far more sustainable than anger. Action is also set in the context of non-anxious perspective on one's own flaws, hapless "small child"/"high heels" ego, and hypocrisies. Another part of sustainability is "getting over certainty" (in favor of a more spacious assurance that the Divine is not so feeble and fragile that everything depends on how hard we "help God" get us what we think is right.)

And then there's "Breathe." While the verses are an onslaught of distractions and chaos, everything else radiates spacious ease. It's hard not to just quote the whole thing: "got a love you can't defeat," "there's nothing you have that I need," "I found grace, it's all I found, and I can breathe." Not to mention that culminating "wear them like a crown" line you could cite about a hundred Bible verses for. But all this is not just easy triumphalism; it's rooted in the "every day" task of getting up and doing what needs to be done in a world that is as crazy as those verses. It all adds up to a song -- and an album -- which almost makes me want to say, "If U2 were to quit after this, it would be all right."

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