A few comments on U2's Songs of Innocence

I expect anyone who reads this blog has seen a few other pieces dealing with U2's newest release by Christian reviewers already, and I'll try just to say a few words about my own reaction without rehashing what's already out there. I've been struck how many of the comments on Songs of Innocence by theologically-minded reviewers could have been written about any U2 album. And I suppose it is a truism that yes, of course, there are layers to any U2 song; YOU is often God juts as much as a woman; the eschatological horizon is ever-present. Who can argue?

But I have to say that my first impressions - and that's all these are - after a few listens to Songs of Innocence is of how specific and rooted and local this material is. I think on this album, far more than on any other I could name, a song about Joey Ramone is about Joey Ramone, and a song about meeting Ali Stewart is about meeting Ali Stewart. Is there a background, an overall outlook and vocabulary, shaped by the Christian narrative? Of course there is. But these songs strike me as being fairly far from vehicles for U2's traditional longing for the ultimate (or lament over its absence.) Sure, there are some stadium hooks that will provide wonderful group singalongs -- but is there anything with which 30,000 people can (consciously or unconsciously) cry out primal desire for God? I'm not hearing it.

It seems to me that before, U2's style has been to craft a specific shape that has its own style and message, but behind which we primarily read their general thirst for God and justice -- words and sounds that, whatever else they may mean, make the most sense when addressed to Jesus. That is not so with Songs of Innocence, to my mind. The words and sounds here make the most sense when addressed to the specific circumstances of 1970s Dublin on which they explicitly claim to reflect. They are shaped by a familiarity with the Biblical narrative, yes, and people will point that out endlessly as if it were news (which, honestly, it isn't by now, is it?)

So as one would expect, there are moments, phrases, that probably could not have been written other than by a mature Christian: "where there's no daylight there's no healing," "complete surrender: the only weapon we know," "crushed under the weight of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate" along with the persistent theodicy questions in "Raised by Wolves,"  and so on.  And there are the usual Biblical turns of phrase: "I'm naked and I'm not afraid,"  "I've got your life inside of me," "a long long way from your Hill of Calvary." But my strongest impression is that more than ever before these moments are not at all the main point; these are just the kind of phrases that are in U2's collective brain as they really write about something else entirely, something very personal and very specific. {Edit: I strongly suggest reading Camassia's comment below, which expands interestingly on this line of thought.}

I think the poetry is wonderful and the sounds are wonderful. I am very intrigued by the idea that there may be another album, or even two, on the way as part of this project. There is a part of me that still wishes they'd stopped with No Line, which far more encapsulates what I personally am looking for with U2. But does Songs of Innocence have integrity and beauty? Sure it does.


Camassia said...

I totally agree. What most struck me about the Christian content of the album was its absence. And it makes sense, because it's a visit back to the world of Boy, i.e. Bono's pre-conversion world. To my mind it relates to the inconspicuousness of the word "love" in the wordle you linked the other day. "Love", of course, is Bono's favorite code word for God. In Songs of Innocence, God's love hasn't been discovered yet; He still belongs to organized religion, which is associated mainly with violence and corruption.

It will be interesting to see how "Songs of Experience" contrasts to this. I wouldn't be surprised if the contrast is a major theme.

Anonymous said...

REALLY interesting point, Camassia

Chip said...

I'll partially go along with Casmassia, but perhaps a bit further and with some differences. To me, it's very significant that the album starts with the inception of a pilgrimage (in "The Miracle") and ends with the only time when God is directly mentioned (in "The Troubles"). Sure, we have several indirect references beforehand (perhaps most notably in "Song for Someone"), but the only direct one comes at the end.

I think this is very intentional on Bono's part, but not because religion is only seen as organized rather than personal on SOI. (After all, he could have included songs about the Shalom days on this album.) Here I find Bono's intentions for NLOTH important. That album, it seems to me, was partially a pastoral attempt to help people struggling with serious depression or who otherwise were "just barely holding on to life" (as Bono says in one of the released recordings of MOS live -- rough paraphrase) to come to see God in their situations. Bono said in at least one interview that each song on NLOTH revolved around an epiphany of God. At least some of the band members thought the album would be big. As we all know, it wasn't by U2 standards. As a result, Songs of Ascent got shelved.

I'm guessing that Bono is still trying to get listeners to the same place as on NLOTH -- and beyond that -- but has decided to start over. So we now start on a pilgrimage instigated by a Joey Ramone song -- something that might be more relatable to a secular audience. At the end of the album, we're finally at the point of mentioning God by name. The forthcoming Songs of Experience is reportedly much more experimental musically, and it's typically on their more experimental albums that U2 deliver their more complicated faith statements. And Bono now says we might be getting Songs of Ascent to conclude the trilogy. If at first you don't succeed, try again by assuming less of your audience and taking the longer route to get to the same place. (I also find it interesting that just as Bono described NLOTH as being about "first loves," SOI is about first experiences, and is "sacramental" to boot.)

I don't mean to paint the picture of Bono as a fervent evangelist. Rather, he's a different type of worship leader, getting masses of believers and non-believers to sing to God even if they don't know that's what they are doing. (Cue Beth's liturgy ideas here.)And he likes to give people puzzles to figure out; that's how he described "Discotheque" (as "a riddle about love")in a Washington Post interview back in May 1997. So the idea of stretching a voyage of discovery about God out over several albums is pretty par for the course for Bono, it seems to me.