"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll."
-- Bono, on playing chess
U2's new album is truly gospel
Bono and his band spreading the good news of God's love and grace
March 06, 2009
Without a line on the horizon, we may feel like there is no limit to how far we can go. But it also makes the seas difficult to navigate.
That is, in many ways, where we find ourselves today. It's as infinitely terrifying as it is exciting. Where do we go from here and how do we find our way?
U2's 12th studio album, No Line on the Horizon, gives a few great answers, if you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see them. (I hope you do.)
More than 25 years ago, when I dropped the needle on a U2 album for the first time, I heard the words of a familiar liturgy -- "Gloria in te domine, Gloria exultate!" -- punctuated by the keening sound of The Edge's guitar and followed by Bono's gnarly tenor shout-singing, "O Lord, loosen my lips!"
My soul did a backflip and kept on tumbling. ...
Earlier this week, while listening to No Line on the Horizon, I felt that familiar movement in my spirit over and over again. First with the sacred anthem, "Magnificent," which tossed me into the air and sent me soaring. Listen to the words:
I was born to sing for you I didn't have a choice But to lift you up And sing whatever song you wanted me to I give you back my voice From the womb my first cry It was a joyful noise... Justified until we die You and I will magnify Magnificent
Some misled critics have booed Bono for that song, misinterpreting "I was born to sing for you" as a boast to his audience, rather than the prayer to his Maker that it is. (Mind you, this is the same lyricist who later on the album seemingly refers to himself as a "Napoleon" and cautions, "be careful of small men with big ideas.")
There is plenty of rock 'n' roll levity and grandeur on No Line on the Horizon, but it is eclipsed by the heart and soul of this album -- perhaps the most dynamic gospel music I've ever heard.
With The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton, Bono began the odyssey that became No Line on the Horizon at a rented riad in Fez, Morocco, in June 2007 during the international festival of sacred music.
"[Bono] thought that our job was to create contemporary gospel music...that we are essentially soul musicians that look for soul in what we do," Daniel Lanois, one of several producers on the new album, told Rolling Stone magazine recently.
Fez is "a holy city for music and musicians," said Bono, and the band was on a pilgrimage -- to listen and to learn -- to go wherever the music (and the Spirit) took them.
As he has for years, but not as explicitly so since 1991's Achtung Baby, Bono, the band's chief lyricist, has laced No Line on the Horizon with the language and images of his humble Christian faith.
The result, however, is a work of gospel music -- "gospel" in its literal sense as "good news" -- for people of all faiths and none. The ecstatic language and imagery Bono evokes throughout could have been penned by the Hebrew King David or Sufi Muslim poets Rumi or Hafez, as much as by a latter-day Christ-follower from Dublin.
One of the most eloquent examples is "Moment of Surrender," which says in part:
My body's now a begging bowl That's begging to get back Begging to get back to my heart To the rhythm of my soul To the rhythm of my unconsciousness To the rhythm that yearns To be released from control
Faced with a horizon-less journey, isn't that what so many of us want right now -- to have someone else steer the ship? To lose control and surrender?
The Spirit feels like the unnamed fifth member of the band on this album more than any other. Its presence is subtle, but powerful.
Whether it's as an unknown caller (or perhaps the one the unknown caller is dialing), a comforting father who frees us "from the dark dream" and hands us "candy floss" and "ice cream," to the one who challenges us to walk into the frightening world with open arms (and hearts), God's love and grace are present.
"God is love, and love is evolution's very best day," Bono sings in "Stand Up Comedy." "I've found grace inside a sound, I found grace, it's all that I found," he sings on "Breathe."
In a beautifully confessional song (with a tune based on the 16th century hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"), Bono seems to say that even when it feels like we've lost sight of what matters, what's real and enduring, it's right there. "White as Snow," which Bono says was written about a dying soldier's last moments in Afghanistan, says:
Once I knew there was a love divine Then came a time I thought it knew me not Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not Only the lamb as white as snow
U2 intends to release another album by year's end, one tentatively called, Songs of Ascent. Bono has said it will be "a more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage."
I'd guess it'll be for a place that has to be believed to be seen.
My bags are packed.
© Chicago Sun-Times, 2009.