Thursday, March 19, 2009


Entering the final movement of the album, things turn kind of cinematic ... Word-pictures blend vivid snapshots with hard reflections on the trajectory of one’s life. I’ve heard that White As Snow is destined for use in a film about a soldier in Afghanistan. I try to avoid such information in advance of hearing a song, but this is one of those cases where it really does enhance what is already powerful in it.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, for starters – the melody on which this lovely, painful song is based. U2 has never done such a thing -- borrowed a traditional tune, or been so direct in Christian references. You can't help but think of The First Time, an equally audacious gospel reflection on … well, cynicism, really; plainspoken and purely sung in an era of irony and overkill, I know that The First Time is a touchstone for many Christians among U2’s fanbase. White as Snow takes on a third-person voice – clearly, as Bono describes a childhood landscape that is nothing like Ireland – of someone far from home … and far from the certainty he once knew. If only a heart could be as white as snow…

Many years ago through a dark night of the soul, I heard Amazing Grace in the most unlikely, incongruous setting. Having run off to a strange town where I knew no one, I attended a dinner theatre for a one-woman show about the life and music of Janis Joplin. I like Janis for all kinds of reasons, and I certainly needed the input of a ballsy artist at that point in my life. But when out of the blue (or out of Janis’ own dark night), the singer-actress offered up Amazing Grace … I was so overcome I sobbed through the last 20 minutes of the show. Way back then, I had no idea what a hold the Holy Spirit had on me. I only knew that the song touched a very raw and defenseless place in my soul.

I’m a little more self-aware now … but just the same, when Bono the carefully nonsectarian activist poet sings Who can forgive…?/Only the lamb as white as snow, to an ancient devotional tune, I’m unprepared. Like Amazing Grace that night – when somebody else, especially a distant stranger, reaches into the intimacy that Christ shares with me (as with each of us) there is no covering my nakedness. There is no other response but to weep. This song tells the truth about the pain of distance from our faith ... or more to the point, about our loneliness for God. Bono's measured, unaffected performance is a gift (if he'll indulge me) of faithful confession.
The road refuses strangers
The land, the seeds we sow
Where might we find the lamb as white as snow?

The nearly-final song makes the big noise that we're more accustomed to from U2: guitar and keyboard capturing the world's teetering, flailing off-balance me-mania -- I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo…Would you?? -- And then flooding it with the light of our choice to love.
Breathe – I know the title’s been used elsewhere, but no other song sounds like this. It truly came alive when I caught the band’s appearances on Letterman, to introduce this material. It was spectacular – Bono was working to reach those new notes, but throwing his body from a jaded sneer into this gospel shout:
Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn/Every day I have to find the courage to walk out into the street with arms out/Got a love you can’t defeat, Neither down nor out…

Countercultural in all the best senses, the song careens through a tour of a slippery, slimy, frantic world that tries to tell you who to be, and what to buy to get there. It takes work, brothers and sisters, to be in the world but not of it, you have to think about it, you need courage, like he says, and in the end you’ll remember --There’s nothing you have that I need/I can breathe, breathe now…What a defiant, fireworks finish to an extraordinary ride.

How scary is the world, anyway? What’s it gonna do to you? Choose the finest risk of all, choose love – as loud as you can.
Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found


…Let me in the sound: I found grace, it’s all that I found…
He actually said that. And I thrill every time I hear him shout it, every time I recall the sheer size of the performance I saw on TV… they are as thrilled with this music as I am, I think. They should be. It feels like vision has broken open, and the Light is getting in. The ghosts aren’t real.
I’ve found grace inside a sound…
And I can breathe
Breathe now


But unexpectedly, the album ends on a coda, the evocative Cedars of Lebanon. On first hearing, I wasn’t so sure I liked the abrupt turn away from the road we’d just travelled. It didn’t take long for the song’s hard-bitten ironies and pensive insights to hook me, though. Bono’s deadpan talk-singing wrapped in silky, undulating layers of sound – and punctuated by that same floating “Sunshine…” chorus from Unknown Caller. As an alienated reporter ponders the spiritual contribution of his enemies, voices from above implore, Return the call to home…
This story’s not over yet.

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