By Steven Harmon
I’d told myself I wouldn’t do it this time.
Writing a theological review of the latest U2 album has been de rigueur for me since offering my two cents on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. With increasingly credible rumors pointing to the release of the next album this fall (while I’m deep in the midst of a writing project about the “pilgrim church” character of the Baptist ecclesiological vision in relation to the ecumenical future), I’d decided to enjoy listening to whatever the band released but excuse myself from the self-imposed expectation to publish something about it.
Then I made the mistake of intermittently watching the live stream of Apple’s Sept. 9 product launch for its iPhone 6 and Apple Watch to see how the rumored U2 involvement in that event would unfold. After my son’s annual well-child appointment with his pediatrician that day, I checked back just in time to hear Bono sing “… and we were pilgrims on our way ….”
Here I go again, the morning after Bono announced that I and a half-billion other iTunes account holders had freely received U2’s 13th studio album Songs of Innocence among our recent “purchases.”
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” the opening track and the single U2 debuted at the Apple product launch, segues thematically from the previous album’s integrative motif of the divine song. Grace is still to be found inside a sound on Songs of Innocence, but stylistically there’s a lot more loose electricity running around this time.
And that’s a good thing. Given the nature of the album release and the band’s expressions of disappointment that the previous album’s songs hadn’t gained much traction on the charts and airwaves, I was worried that the new songs might sacrifice creativity to the constraints of commercially successful pop. Halfway through the second track I did remark to my wife that so far this was the most radio-friendly thing they’ve done in a while. But that judgment was premature. The first four songs are obvious candidates for release as singles and service as stadium sing-alongs, but even in those songs there’s a sophisticated complexity well beyond ordinary radio fare.
It’s theologically rich as well, though in some more subtle ways than much of their other work.
This time we still get the occasional overt biblical allusion (e.g., “your Hill of Calvary” in “Song for Someone”). But the Songs of Innocence are more broadly rooted in the presupposed narrative of the Christian story with which the band had a transformative encounter during the volcanic collision of adolescence with adult awareness.
This isn’t new thematic material for the band. U2’s first album Boy (1980) was the firsthand document of those years. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) was the nostalgic, more pop-friendly take on their innocence from the perspective of maturity a quarter-century later. Despite what the title might suggest, Songs of Innocence is actually the nittier, grittier account of its subject matter.
It begins with a multivalent song about this intersection of narratives. At one level, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” recounts the joyous discovery of the music of the Ramones and the life-changing new world it opened up for these Mount Temple Comprehensive School students. Or is it about another sort of miracle? Or both?
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred / Heard a song that made some sense out of the world / Everything I ever lost, now has been returned / In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard
We hear more about that other sort of miracle on “Cedarwood Road,” a reference to the street of Bono’s boyhood home. A cherry blossom tree stood in front of another house on the street belonging to the family of a friend that belonged to a Plymouth Brethren fellowship that attracted Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. to its Bible studies. In the digital liner notes for the album, Bono writes, “In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up these scary black Bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us. … One minute you’re reading it, next minute you’re in it” (HT to Beth Maynard for calling attention to that on day one).
You can’t return to where you’ve never left / Blossoms falling from a tree they cover you and cover me / Symbols clashing, bibles smashing / Paint the world you need to see
The vision of the world this album paints isn’t all sweetness and light. “The Miracle” recognized that the God-given-but-fallen human religious impulse can yield both “love and hate,” and “Raised by Wolves” observes regarding an act of religious terrorism in 1974 Dublin that “the worst things in the world are justified by belief.”
Another song, “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” is directly aimed at ecclesiastical officials responsible for the Irish chapter in the clergy sex abuse scandal (highlighted coincidentally by the recently released Irish film Calvary). Yet the darkness of that song is set within a broader narrative that offers possibilities for redemption:
Hope is where the door is / When the church is where the war is / Where no one can feel no one else’s pain
In other words: when there is openness and transparency instead of secrecy and control, when the church joins God in solidarity with those who suffer the world’s many forms of violence (liberation theology, anyone?), and when the church joins God in sympathetic recognition of victims’ pain (in contrast to an ecclesiastical response of apatheia modeled by an impassible deity), then there is hope for another order of things.
There are many more lyrics that I’m going to pondering for some time to come, like this one from “California”:
There’s no end to grief / That’s how I know … that there is no end to love
Others will discover and write about the theological nuggets scattered throughout the album and will do so more perceptively, completely and eloquently than I have in this quickly-written account of my first impressions. After all, there are at least a half-billion other pilgrims on their way out there who now have the opportunity to hear the same things.