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"As a soloist, I'm average at best. But with the band? There's nothing better, I promise you." — Bono

Review: Rock and Romanticism

Blake, Wordsworth and Rock from Dylan to U2

As the end of the 18th century drew to a close, an artistic movement emerged that responded to the conservative ideology preceding it. The focus shifted from order and balance to creativity and transcendence — manifesting in some of the most profound literature, architecture, music and criticism in history. This movement, known as Romanticism, yielded works so passionate that they’re still in essence being responded to now. In Rock And Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, And Rock From Dylan To U2, editor James Rovira shapes the comparisons to modern day rock ’n’ roll not as reactions, but as conversations between artists across centuries. 

Though the anthology covers everyone from Mick Jagger reading Percy Shelley to the revolutions of The Beatles and William Wordsworth, for the purpose of this review, I’ll focus exclusively on the chapter by Lisa Crafton titled “Tangle of Matter and Ghost: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism.” 

Crafton draws immediate parallels between the Irish foursome and author William Blake based on their “shared use of poetic narrative techniques” in addition to spiritual themes. Though U2’s direct homages to Blake can be traced back to the ‘80s, with their experimental “Beautiful Ghost/Introduction To Songs Of Experience,” she argues that there is an even deeper connection formed when the works of Canadian artist Cohen are added to the equation. While I agree with this assessment, the same conclusions could be drawn through connecting almost any of the artists in this book, as many of them have admittedly influenced one another. That said, her comparisons are indeed valid.

Treating the subjects as an artistic triangle, Crafton explores the specific intersections of thought and topic. Identifying radical views on sexuality, politics and religion, she first assesses U2’s prolific hits “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet The Blue Sky,” and points out the way the tunes continue to evolve in the live setting, rousing audiences with their passionate delivery. Concert fans will likely agree that it’s hard not to respond when witnessing either performance in person. Alternately Crafton shows that Cohen’s songs “Story Of Issac” and “First We Take Manhattan,” while also undeniably political, take on the tone of a monologue vs. instigator for action. She ties the three artists together in this context by claiming their social commentary stems from “a conflation of erotic/divine love.”

This Christian thread of love is shown through the yearning in U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (holding the hand of the devil) and “With Or Without You” (citing the “bed of nails” imagery), as well as Cohen’s “Sisters Of Mercy,” which references two Catholic girls he spent the night with during a snowstorm, without sin. It should be noted that the author acknowledges Cohen’s Judaism as well.

Furthermore, Crafton explores how both musical acts play with the points of view in their works to achieve poetic ambiguity. An example of this speaker switcheroo comes in U2’s “Wake Up Dead Man,” where the narrator yells at God, then in the bridge, God chants back with the advice, “Listen to your words.” As an example for Cohen, she cites his song “Who By Fire,” which is essentially a prayer of the Jewish New Year that flips the sentiment by asking “Who shall I say is calling?” This for me was the most compelling portion of the essay — as it immediately had me calculating how often U2 uses that technique in their lyrics (my mind immediately went to “Surrender”) and made me want to investigate further, to see if I personally (subconsciously) respond more or less to this approach. 

Building on this idea of contradictions, I would have liked for Crafton to take a deeper dive into Blake’s duality in writing vs. real life. For example, Blake was very progressive in his commentary about fighting slavery and racism, yet there’s no record of him taking an active role in the abolitionist movement in Great Britain. It’s not to say that his art didn’t inspire others to act in that regard, but that type of contradiction calls into question the very core of the art. If there was great sentiment, why was there no action? Cohen donated proceeds from concerts to causes he sang about (which the author does note), and the activism of U2 has been prevalent since the ‘80s. Perhaps that’s the greatest distinction between the past and present greats examined here?

Crafton ends the piece by mentioning Nirvana lyrics, where frontman Kurt Cobain pays tribute to Leonard Cohen, then quotes Cohen, who lamented he never got the chance to speak to the “young man” before his tragic demise. She also notes the “contrary states” of both Cohen and U2, as evidenced in “Hallelujah” and “Fu**” and Songs Of Innocence/Songs of Experience, respectively, but doesn’t offer a theory as to why they exist. 

All in all, the piece was well-researched and sincere; I only wish the author had focused less on specific songs and expanded more on the themes she drew out so well. 

In her closing paragraph, Crafton calls all three artists “prophets of imagination,” and that, of course, we can agree on.


(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2018.