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October 2, 2014

1

U2’s Songs of Innocence (4): No longer alone with tectonic forces? VOLCANO

by quaesitor
U2-6-Volcano-banner

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:

  • 1. The Miracle: …I was shaking from a storm in me…
  • 2. Every Breaking Wave: the song’s title (obviously!)… Summer… every falling leaf on the breeze… winter… helpless against the tide… sea knows where are the rocks
  • 3. California: we fell into shining sea… out on Zuma [beach]… at the dawn… blood orange sunset brings you to your knees…
  • 5. Iris: long before the night the stars went out… the stars are bright but… the universe is beautiful but cold
  • 7. Raised by Wolves: again, the title is a potent image, evoking feral kids on Dublin streets
  • 8. Cedarwood Road: that cherry blossom tree was a gateway to the sun… Blossoms falling from a tree they cover you and cover me… [though presumably, this was a specific tree on Cedarwood Rd, the street on which Bono and his friends grew up]
  • 9. Sleep like a baby: tomorrow dawns like a suicide… like a bird, your dreams take flight

U2--6-VolcanoBut, for me, the album’s standout nature word-picture is the 6th song’s title: Volcano.

Teenage Troubles

Bono yet again returns to his troubled teens, after his mother’s death (see Iris post). But instead of addressing friends or family, the ‘you’ is almost certainly his younger, immature but brazen self “in a spinning world”. The strong jangling bass line and pared-back, heavyish rock sound is certainly fitting – I can just see a Clash-inspired school band letting their hair down with this. But of course, there’s more to it than teenage high-jinks.

Just with his mother’s eyes, so with his own – they’re ‘like landing lights, they used to be the clearest blue, now you don’t see so well.” That is clearly self-referential – he’s called himself the “Imelda Marcos of sunglasses” because he has so many – but it’s not just an affectation. He has genuine sensitivity to light, such that “If somebody takes my photograph, I will see the flash for the rest of the day. My right eye swells up. I’ve a blockage there, so that my eyes go red a lot. So it’s part vanity, it’s part privacy and part sensitivity.” (Wenner, Rolling Stone interview 2005)

But as so often, this too ripe for metaphor to resist – so he seamlessly shifts to ‘the future’ that he can’t see so well. Teenage certainties as well as rages – are they really worth clinging to? After all, “you can hurt yourself trying to hold on to what you used to be.” Nevertheless, there’s still some doubt about that: “I’m so glad the past is all gone?”

This is where the volcano comes in – that irresistible force of nature which is the visible manifestation of hidden surges and tectonics. And the teenager’s hell is so often derived from the isolation – without his mother, and surrounded by repressed family grief, there’s nothing for it but to explode from time to time. Something in you wants to blow.

But since this album is in some ways a bunch of songs about songs, this is Bono’s anthem of praise to the rock and roll which channelled his emotional lava flow into something creative, constructive. Music was a place to take the grief and rage – and discover that he wasn’t alone. This resonates with the first song too. In The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), he sings of getting  “Music so I can exaggerate my pain, and give it a name”

In this innocence song, then, he recognises his ignorance too – searching for connections and hope amidst his pain. And music does that.

Mt Etna smoking (taken on a family holiday in 2011)

Mt Etna smoking (taken on our family holiday in 2011)

Inescapable Troubles

But I couldn’t help be reminded of another, more theological echo – well I would, wouldn’t I? For Bono is by no means the only one to equate the inner turmoil of a person’s heart with a volcano. And while it’s not fleshed out particularly in this song in the way George Herbert once used it, the imagery does chime with the album’s last song, The Troubles. For the surprise of that song is that it is not political at all (even though one would naturally assume from the title that it would be an elegy or rampage about the bad times in Northern Ireland). It’s about his own heart too…

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you

That song is probably the subject of a future post – but I’ll finish now with an exquisitely real treatment of this ‘trouble’. Don’t be put off by the ‘sin’ word. This is wordsmithing at its most eloquent, subtle and simple. And of course, the Sicilian hill is none other than the volcano Mt Etna.

George Herbert - by Robert WhiteSin’s Round

by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.

My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill.
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do join to finish the inventions.

My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissentions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.

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