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"We can write sexy songs and spiritual songs — and songs that are both. We can write anything we want — and get away with it." — Bono

Column: off the record..., vol. 13-571


off the record, from @U2

This week we got at least part of the results of U2's visit to Electric Lady Studios. U2 did another one of their rooftop performances, this time choosing a more acoustic version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Adam played keyboards in a live setting for the second time that I'm aware of ("City Of Blinding Lights" on the Vertigo tour being the first); Bono sported his new New Wave hairdo; The Edge reminded us how good his solo performance of the song was during PopMart; and never-changing Larry still made his martial drums move the song.

I've enjoyed the change in the vocal melody Bono has used in the second verse of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" since the U2 360 tour, as it seems that even small changes in old songs from the band can spark a new appreciation in me for them. On the whole, this stripped-down version very well suits a warm evening on a rooftop with drinks and food from the really good Thai place down the street. What a thing to say about a song like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," right? Yet I really enjoyed the performance … but I also really enjoy rooftop eating and drinking on a warm summer evening, so I'm biased.

Bono added these lyrics to the end of the song:

On another broken hill
Red crosses and crescent moon collides
Pilgrims pray to know God's will
Scratching in the dirt
Signing up to die
Scorched earth or a cruel sun
Is this the battle Jesus won on

Bono mentioned in the video that the song is popular in conflict zones. Iran is electing its new president on the day I'm writing this (June 14). For the first time since 2005, Iran will not have to deal with the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a candidate or a leader. Moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani is the early front-runner, but the memory of the 2009 elections, which were largely considered to be fraudulent, and the protests that came afterward have obviously stayed with U2. They were a constant presence in the break between the "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy" remix and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" on the U2 360 tour. Bono specifically mentioned Iran in the introduction to the video, and I doubt very much that it was a coincidence that this protest song was released right before the election.

The Middle East and Africa, specifically North Africa and the Maghreb, seem to be U2's current geographic area of focus. The early 1980s seemed to be focused on their stomping grounds of Ireland and the United Kingdom, the late 1980s the United States, the 1990s Europe, and the early 2000s the world. "Fast Cars" at the end of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb had a Middle Eastern flavor, and that was followed more fully by No Line On The Horizon. Their latest album name-checked locations like Cadiz in Spain, Fez in Morocco and Lebanon. The album was ostensibly about a North African policeman in Paris who decided to leave Europe and return to his ancestral home.

I'm a traffic cop, Rue du Marais
The sirens are wailing
But it's me that wants to get away

Linear, the movie that accompanied the album, featured French-by-way-of-Moroccan-parents actor Saïd Taghmaoui traveling from Paris through Spain to the port city of Cadiz, which is on an extension of land only eight kilometers from Morocco. The video for "Magnificent" was filmed in Fez and portrayed the city as a revelation, with the buildings being revealed like new cars at a trade show. "Get On Your Boots" has not-at-all-subtle references to terrorist attacks and wars for oil. The band has been interested in this region for a while.

Why do I bring all this up? I'm coming to the opinion that this area of the world has been the least interesting and inspiring for Bono's lyrics. The lyrics of the early 1980s were about their home, their primary source of inspiration for what had been their entire lives. The late 1980s were about America, that shining land across the pond that produced such amazing music and movies and such screwed-up politics. The 1990s were about chaos that was not at home but right on their back doorstep with the collapse of European communism as a hegemon. They could look across the Channel and see grimy, amazing music coming out of the same continent that included the financial ruins of what was just a couple years prior one of the two world superpowers. This all made for some incredibly analytical and ANGRY music, and Bono's lyrics are always at their best when he's ANGRY.

The early 2000s featured perhaps a more centered Bono and happier lyrics. Instead of displaying his frustration with the process in his music, he became part of the process and actively started to influence what was frustrating him. Evidently, with great power also comes great positivity. The angry songs that made albums like Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop shine largely vanished. There were a few here and there, songs like "Crumbs From Your Table," "Cedars Of Lebanon" and "Disappearing Act," but we got even more hopeful or just plain SAD songs. Think "Wave Of Sorrow" and "White As Snow." They're songs of hardship, of oppression, of the sheer frustration and depression of being in a place that does not seem to want you there. It's music that seems to feel a need to act like a show-and-tell session, kind of like, "Hey, you must see what I just found!" They're not ANGER, not a rage to set things right, not "Silver And Gold." This Bono can't make us believe the line, "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you" the way the previous Bono could. They're songs by a guy who now has the power to set things right.

They're almost songs of pity. In a way that makes me a bit uncomfortable, Bono has decided a region of the world seems to be more deserving of worry than of shoving our faces in it, as he did with Sarajevo. Bono's not bugging us anymore, he's begging us, and this time he means to beg us.

So, as much as I love listening to No Line On The Horizon and remembering the beautiful, brilliant times I had on the U2 360 tour, I'm very pumped to see what new locales this upcoming album takes us to.

(c) @U2, 2013.