There’s a surprising amount of the natural world on Songs of Innocence, just as there was in fact in No Line on the Horizon (the title kind of gives that away, I suppose). Nature has always provided poetic inspiration, but perhaps it’s not the most common imagery for rock ‘n roll. (Though having said that, you can no doubt think of countless counter-examples. Please don’t all write at once.)
So here’s just a quick thumbnail sketch of some of the key nature metaphors: Read more
U2 can be pretty shocking. If you’ve followed social media recently, you’ll know they’ve caused global offence by giving away their Songs of Innocence album for free (oh, and a nice tidy cheque from Apple for $100 million). I do think that the sum is pretty obnoxious. There’s no way that anyone needs that kind of cash, least of all the world’s most successful band in history (more or less). I’d say it represents, at the very least, a rather grim error of judgment. I have enjoyed some of the memes that this has provoked, though (esp Who is U2 anyway?). But even though that all now seems rather an inadvertent PR disaster, the album contains some genuine shocks which are clearly more artfully deliberate.
So I’ve been pondering a lot on the fact that Bono has called Songs of Innocence a personal album. Here he is in Rolling Stone last week:
“We wanted to make a very personal album,” Bono told Rolling Stone‘s Gus Wenner the day before the press conference in an exclusive interview. “Let’s try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys — first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”
To be opaque is to be beguiling, provocative. You need to be hooked, of course. But once I’m hooked, I never want everything on a plate. I want to be made to work a little. It is one of the most compelling things about U2’s songs. Read more
I guess being a U2 devotee is a bit like supporting a top-flight football team. You can’t wait for their next match, and yet there’s always a sense of dread that it won’t come to much. The rumours about a new album(s) have been circulating for years. And then suddenly, there it was. Already in iTunes playlists, without any warning. How bizarre is that?! Nothing if not bold, and perhaps mildly megalomaniacal. The Bono-haters will certainly think so. Read more
Dan at Redeeming Sound asked me to write something for his blog. So naturally, I decided to write on U2… They’ve had a new album coming out any minute for years – latest is that it will be sometime this year… but they recorded a song for the soundtrack to the new Mandela movie starring Idris Elba: Ordinary Love Read more
Just back from doing the All Souls week away in Bath – my first major thing for work since I was off from 1st Jan. All seemed to go smoothly and happily, which was rather a relief for all concerned. The focus this year was the grace-freedom we have in Christ – which Paul expounds so superbly through Galatians Read more
It is not uncommon for Bono deliberately to blur distinctions in his lyrics and, especially, in his performances. A classic example comes in the song, Mysterious Ways – it sounds like a song about a girl. Mainly because it is a song about a girl. However, as I’ve explained elsewhere, there are clear theological allusions to God (not least because of its derivation from William Cowper’s great hymn). Read more
I’m sorry for being so rubbish at posting recently. There’s been lots in my head that I’d love to speak on but it’s been manic, what with Christmas and all (quite apart from recently Langham jollies in Athens and Sarajevo). But after getting back from Bosnia on Saturday, we started the annual decoration rituals… with a difference. Bonkers, I concede, but we decided to throw together a rather rough and ready stop-motion animation of the tree going up. Read more
Travelling somewhere always gives time for catching up on one of my favourite pastimes, New Yorker reading. A month ago there was a fascinating article about the neuroscientist, David Eagleman by Burkhard Bilger. Eagleman is the author Sum, one of most weirdly compelling books I’ve ever read. Read more
Having been asked to write a list of questions for reading novels (I ended up with a not very succinct 20), Lars Dahle asked me to do the same thing for albums. Actually, to be fair to him, he asked me to do both at the same time, but I’ve been slack and not got round to doing the latter until now. Hopeless, really. But anyway, here goes. This time, I managed to be a bit more disciplined, and came up with 12 questions to ask.
As I say in the introduction, one of the problems these days is that the idea of an album is becoming looser and looser – in fact, over the last 100 years or so, the way we listen to music has changed radically every couple of decades (give or take) – and with the invention of a new medium for transmitting, broadcasting and selling music, the form has had a considerable impact on the contact (whether through timing constraints, sound quality and ease of listening).
So now that we have file-sharing (legal or otherwise), mp3 purchases and thus the ability to create one’s own playlists, many see ‘the album’ as decreasing in importance. Still, it is clearly the case that artists are currently sticking to this format – a collection of songs lasting anything between 35 and 70 minutes. I’m interested in trying to discern what thinking brought these songs together in the particular order they are presented. I suppose you could call this a canonical approach!
Of course, most of the time, the vast majority of people listen, and listen again, to music because of its mood, energy, resonances and associated memories. And that is totally reasonable and fair – there’s absolutely no point in downplaying the sheer enjoyment of music. But I can remember when I first started listening to the words of songs – I think I can even remember the song! I’m pretty sure it was Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland (from the 1975 Born to Run), a song on an epic scale that demands more than superficial engagement. I remember one of my teachers (a latin teacher, no less!) even comparing it favourably (while acknowledging it to be on a far lower intellectual plain) to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. That may well be a contentious opinion, but it certainly woke me up (as an innocent teenager, some years before my conversion) to the serious intent of a huge swath of what can too easily be dismissed as pop-culture. It was not long after this that I started listening to both the music AND lyrics of U2 – but therein lies a whole other story!
So my purpose in writing these 12 questions is to help people to foster what we might call joined-up listening – taking an album’s form, music, lyrics and construction as an integrated whole where possible. For serious artists certainly appreciate it when people take their art seriously, especially when they go beyond the simple ‘nice tune’ response (although most would give their right arms to write ‘nice tunes’!).
A good friend of mine, Drew Wolff, has recently got back from a trip with his family to help on a Habitat building programme in Tijuana, Mexico. He sent these great pics. You’ll see at the centre of the first is a rather interesting biblical reference – which will be well known to U2 fans the world over.
Jeremiah 33:3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.
For it superimposed onto the Gate number at CdeG Airport Paris on the cover of their 2001 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And it also gets a nod in one of the best songs of the last album (IMHO), No Line on the Horizon, Unknown Caller. It is particularly fitting for the latter because of the title (though note that the numbers are fiddled around a bit because obviously, there’s no 33 o’clock!).
I thought this one was pretty poignant, too. I struggle for ways to stretch my imagination but it seems to describe the Christian life. The bleakness of what is in the foreground is not changed. However, behind it all is the bright light that dominates the picture. It helped in trying to imagine the light that illuminates everything in the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation. And also in the foreground, is a group of believers helping build a house. A good metaphor for God’s answer to everything
And as I was doing a bit of rejigging and final prep on it, I realised it was absolutely appropriate to include Miss Sarajevo at the end of the set list. (This (right) is the view from my desk as I was adding words to the song’s video).
During the talk there had been quite a bit of interaction and discussion – some sceptical of the general points I was making (inevitably!), some amazed by some of the content of songs they thought were familiar but which they’d never listened to closely.
But when we closed with the Miss Sarajevo video, there was stunned silence. Most knew the song. Few had seen the video. And as you can see if you watch it below (especially the last minute or so), it is agonising to watch. There was stunned silence and reflection, having been forced to reflect on the horrors of the siege. It was almost too painful.
For the unfamiliar, the song is about a Beauty Pageant that took place in 1993, while the shells and bombs fell all around. It is thus a potent symbol of the semblance of normal, peaceful life in the midst of war. Worst of all was the image of the girls lined up in the parade holding up a sign in English for all the world to see:
Don’t Let Them Kill Us
It’s a very simple song, essentially a series of questions. And interestingly, of all the songs he’s written, Bono says this is his favourite…
Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away?
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day?
Is there a time for kohl and lipstick?
Is there time for cutting hair?
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear?
Here she comes, heads turn around
Here she comes, to take her crown.
Is there a time to run for cover
A time for kiss and tell.
A time for different colours
Different names you find hard to spell.
Is there a time for first communion
A time for East 17
Is there time to turn to Mecca
Is there time to be a beauty queen.
Here she comes, beauty plays the clown
Here she comes, surreal in her crown.
[Pavarotti's Italian bit]
Dici che il fiume // Trova la via al mare (You say that the river finds the way to the sea)
E come il fiume // Giungerai a me (and like the river you will come to me)
Oltre i confini // E le terre assetate (beyond the borders and the dry lands)
Dici che come il fiume // Come il fiume…
L’amore giunger // L’amore… (You say that like a river the love will come)
E non so pi pregare (And i don’t know how to pray anymore)
E nell’amore non so pi sperare (and in love i don’t know how to hope anymore)
E quell’amore non so pi aspettare (and for that love i don’t know how to wait anymore)
Is there a time for tying ribbons
A time for Christmas trees?
Is there a time for laying tables
When the night is set to freeze?
- I only heard about this talk this week but listened to it immediately – Tim Keller on The Significance of JRR Tolkien – it’s fascinating. (It’s free but suggests making a donation to the great work of IAM).
- Texts are musical – Peter Leithart brilliantly unpacks the need to understand melodic lines and motifs in texts.
- Thought provoking stuff about men’s ministry
- A rarely appreciated fact: How Bible translation protects indigenous languages.
- Some stunning photographs of the Northern Lights.
- In case you missed it, here is Russell Brand on sparkling, provocative and surprisingly thoughtful form when interviewed by Paxman.
- Teens just one click away from internet porn…
- 10 Countries that Censor the Internet
- Not only is everyone borrowing from everyone in this post-credit-crunch-world, it seems that everyone is suing each other too – check out this insanity in the Telecoms world.
- Stunning photographs from Easter Island.
- The problem with Baby-Boomers – interesting insights from the BBC (HT Alex W-P)
- Check this out – an online course in the history of rock music (and yes, U2 features in chapter 11)
- Is this the tackiest house in Britain?
- Rainbow windscreens?
- I love this – a patented rowing bike… er, with no brakes.
- If you’re bored with your national flag, check this out: flags redesigned on Las Fg (geddit??)
- You can now use Google Translate to translate into Latin. Excellent. (HT 22 Words)
- Rather wonderful anecdote about the origins of one of my favourite images, Turner’s epic Rain, Steam & Speed.
- Now I’d love to be able to do this in my home…. a walk in the clouds.
Here’s an ingenious ad from Billboard magazine – it’s part of a range of ads, each one taking a different music star and using colour print technology to point to his/her sources of inspiration. The one on Bono is quite funny really – and says a lot in one image…
(HT one of my favourite RSS feeds: Ads of the World)
Another list. Just felt the urge I suppose. In no particular order, here are some African musicians whose stuff I can’t get enough of (in no particular order). Not exhaustive, not exclusive, not definitive. Just for a laugh.
- Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) – South African – Mama Africa, lived much of her working life in enforced exile from apartheid era SA. Was, for many, one of the voices of protest outside. Her voice has soul, soul, sweet soul. Somehow evokes a whole generation and era. Nuff said.
- Ayub Ogada (?- )- Kenyan – was given his epic En Mana Kuoyo some time before we moved to Uganda by bro-in-law Jez – but it is now firmly embedded in my mind as the soundtrack of Kampala evenings. Mellow and yet completely compelling, this is trad Luo music given a western mix. Just wonderful. You’ll recognise some of it if you’ve seen the film The Constant Gardener.
- Vusi Mahlasela (1965- ) – South African – has a unique and extraordinary voice and is wonderful guitarist in South African folk style. His voice just has it all – pierces the heart and captures the agony, fury, life, hope, joy and reality of Africa. Just listen to Song for Thandi, or the raw Africa is Dying; or more positive, Everytime. Also, check out his cover (with Josh Groban) of Weeping, and of U2’s Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.
- Johnny Clegg (1953- ) – South African & Zimbabwean (originally English, born in Rochdale bizarrely enough, but moved to Africa as a child) – he is known as the White Zulu, and formed the first racially mixed South African band in the late 70s. Often sings in Zulu, English and even French. Some great stuff – esp the popular Asimbonanga, and one of my favourites The Crossing.
- Youssou N’Dour (1959- ) – Senegalese – draws on all kinds of different musical heritages, but clearly rooted in trad Senegal folk music (called mbalax). Hugely popular globally, and justly so… He played key abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. Sometimes, his voice sometimes evokes Imam’s call to prayer, piercing and resounding above the band. Many will know his duet with Neneh Cherry, 7 Seconds – but check out Chimes of Freedom or the joy of Set and you’re transported to an African minibus taxi.
- Abdullah Ibrahim (1935- ) – South African – a jazz pianist, originally called Adolph Johannes Brand. Does big band stuff, and close-up stuff, all in all, a great and unique sound. As a random pick, I just love his District Six, evoking apartheid’s infamous clearing of Cape Town’s most vibrant community (see previous post) or the exuberance of African Marketplace.
Honourable Mentions: Soweto String Quartet (aka SSQ – exactly what it says on the tin, a string quartet formed by 3 brothers and a mate from Soweto – doing classical-pop-african crossover stuff) and Oumou Sangare (from Mali).
I’ve had the joy of seeing 4 out of these 8 acts live – true joy. But all of these folks have stuff on SPOTIFY (which you must use if you don’t already) – so check them out.
I posted a number of spots soon after the U2’s recent album, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON, came out. Then the opportunity to do a more formal review for Damaris’ CultureWatch came up, but it has taken a while – both a combination of time pressures and the fact that i needed to live with it for a bit longer to get more of a sense of it. It’s definitely a less accessible album than some – and like it’s awesome predecessor Achtung Baby, it takes a bit more effort and careful listening to get into it. But it is all the more spirited and ultimately overwhelming for that.
So here is the result – just out today: GRACE BREAKS INTO A SOUND. I know lots of bods have done this, and it feels rather late in the day (esp since things are evolving all the time with the songs on tour) – but that’s life. What particularly struck me was the album’s structure, which is not something people often think about. But the most profound thing about the album is the theological oxygen that it breathes (and breathing is wonderful central metaphor of the album). There are lots of things about it that i wondered about saying on the musical side – but this is primarily but not exclusively an engagement with it lyrically.
Oh and while we’re on matters cultural, Ally Gordon has done a fine piece for EA’s Slipstream on ART FOR THE GLORY OF GOD – he even manages to find an excuse to give a nod to Bono’s intro to the Psalms!
Well, we’re back – and my brain is positively bulging with potential posts. I can sense the excitement you’re feeling from here.
Anyway, before getting onto some more worthy stuff, I’ve been photographically struck by a wide range of natural wonders this summer. And so reproduce a few here for your viewing pleasure.
West Dale Beach, Pembrokeshire
St Didier, Provence
Ancient Caves, Le Thon, Provence
To put this all into perspective, each stalactite takes 100 years to grow just 1 cm.
And of course, last but not least…
The U2 gig at Wembley
Ok, not natural as such, but certainly (thanks to Willie Williams incredible light show) lots of abstracts… A breathtaking experience…
They have won a number of prizes, it seems, and it is easy to see why. They graphically convey the terrifying consequences of meddling with other countries’ politics and conflicts. For ‘what goes around really does come around’. A case in point recently is of course the CIA’s involvement in training and arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during their conflict against the Soviet Union – only to find that this group transmogrifying into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
I’m afraid I couldn’t help but be reminded of some U2 lyrics:
First this lyric from the latest album (No Line On The Horizon), on a song called (appropriately enough) Cedars of Lebanon
Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you
Make them interesting ‘cos in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.
Then there’s this from All that you can’t leave behind (2000), from the song Peace on Earth:
Where I grew up there weren’t many trees
Where there was we’d tear them down
And use them on our enemies
They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you
And it’s already gone too far
You say that if you go in hard
You won’t get hurt
Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
Pacifism is regarded by many as an easy copout. And there are of course impossible dilemmas and complexities. But it is hard to fault the logic evoked by these adverts and lyrics. And this second excerpt evokes the minefields inherent – e.g. how do you beat terrorists? By water-boarding? You become a ‘monster’ in order to defend yourself against the ‘monster’. It’s an impossible battle. Which is why the appeal of the chorus is so crucial: only He can break the cycle of cause and effect by His infusion and invasion of grace.
For some reason, the Theology Network gang wanted me to write up my ELF talk on U2 for their site. So I obliged. It was actually quite a good discipline for me, because it meant that I had to revisit and hone it a bit. You can download the pdf direct from their site below.