The last time I felt like this, I was sitting in a car on a romantic lookout with a [platonic] soulmate, each in respectful silence while the other absorbed the spiritual journey we had just shared … It was the spring of 1987, and my friend had come by my place and said, “You have to hear this.” He had the new U2 cassette in his car, so I piled in for a long drive and he put on The Joshua Tree.
I think I listened to that album every single day for 2 years … Prior to that, I had spent most of 1983 with War, U2’s third album, while trying to learn how to be an adult in the world. The hook in that addictively listenable album was those defiant, unlikely references to scripture… I scarcely acknowledged it at the time, but their Top Ten hit, Sunday Bloody Sunday, along with those other lyrics scattered through the album, were a huge affirmation of the Sacred in the world … in my world. The real battle just begun to claim the victory Jesus won …
And they had already scored a hit a couple years earlier with Gloria -- not a song about a girl, but a Latin liturgical prayer! Gloria, in te Domine [in you, Lord]...
Who says that on MTV??
Hold on, hold on tightly
Rise up, rise up
With wings like eagles
You'll run, you'll run
You'll run and not grow weary …from Drowning Man;
If I want to live
I've got to die to myself someday … from Surrender ( -- surrender! That’s not very rock’n’roll, now is it??)
And of course, War's closing track, ‘40,’ U2’s rock’n’roll paraphrase of Psalm 40. Clearly, here was a young band who made music not only with a pelvic thrust, but also with a big heart and a restless intellect. So I was primed for The Joshua Tree when it arrived a couple albums later … but I wasn’t prepared for it. It is no overstatement to say: it changed me.
The great thing about not being 25 years old anymore, is that you get the rich benefits of your own history … Like Springsteen, U2 has been a companion on my journey since I was barely out of high school. Bruce is a generation older than me; the guys in U2 are my contemporaries. Makes for an interesting relationship with an artist [collective], who continue to produce relevant work. I have been watching their movie for more than 25 years, and they have been participating in mine. That longevity is meaningful, it weights everything I hear from them. I will never pretend to hear their new music “objectively,” because it is inevitably a new chapter in an ongoing saga – theirs and mine. That is as it should be.
Now it's 22 years and 7 albums after The Joshua Tree altered my world, and we've come to expect the unexpected from U2. They shocked us in 1991 with Achtung! Baby. They scandalized the rock world in ’97 with a so-called “dance” album, Pop (it wasn’t), and a costly, over-conceptualized tour. They “came back” in 2001 with a sweet rockin’ soul album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, forever bound to us all for its healing powers right after 9/11.
In the years since, Bono turned in earnest to his political advocacy for Africa, and the band released How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. That album was as close to a conventional rock record as U2 had ever made, tight on structure, low on irony, and more explicitly theological than we’d heard before, thanks to the prayerful power-hit Vertigo, the Top 40 worship song, All Because of You, and the unequivocal Yahweh. Every single song on it knocked standard rock songwriting off its ass, but the album as a whole never did completely capture my heart.
With a new album, maybe I was expecting some more intelligent, kick-ass, spiritually literate rock’n’roll, a sort of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Part III. I hoped to like it, because I trust them, wherever they might take me.
I presumed too much, presumed to know them too well. No Line On the Horizon is not a record that pleases me.
It’s a record that breaks me apart. And then offers up all the pieces in prayer.
I wasn't prepared for this.