Having already conquered Europe, U2 is about to take on North America with their “360 Tour.” With a new set of songs to deliver, and a massive space-inspired stage (known affectionately as “The Claw”) to perform them on, it seems a good time to check in on the Irish supergroup’s latest musical direction, No Line on the Horizon, and see how it might resonate with those listening with ears of faith.
Let’s start with the first single “Get On Your Boots” (GOYB), released a month before the album No Line On The Horizon (NLOTH). While panned by some critics, GOYB served the role that U2 seems to look for in a first single—revealing the band’s new musical and thematic direction (and getting folks excited that “U2 is back!”). GOYB offers a different sound from previous albums, but the lyrics also deserve some attention. Bono singing of “love and community” how “the future needs a big kiss”, and not wanting “to talk about wars between nations” makes one thing clear—on this album U2 won’t be dealing with the familiar issue of social injustice (in concert is another story though). GOYB’s repeating phrase “let me in the sound” is also intriguing. Is it frivolous or does it have some meaning? We’ll return to that point shortly. What is clear is that something new is afoot for U2 on this album.
No Line on the Horizon, the album, begins in an unusual spot for U2. While the band’s past few albums start in a broken world but lead the listener to spiritual safety (see album-closing songs like “Grace” and “Yahweh”), NLOTH turns this approach upside down. The title track bursts open the album with a mix of heavy guitar, drums and Dr. Who-like sonic effects that conjure a sense of racing over a body of water—fitting, given the album’s cover art of merging sea and sky. Bono’s wavering vocals express how “infinity is a great place to start” and “time is irrelevant, not linear.” Bono has described “No Line on the Horizon” as that place where the earth meets the sky, and possibilities seem infinite. U2 drew near to this space in songs like “Gloria” (from the album October) and “Where the Streets Have No Name” (from The Joshua Tree), but here they’ve gone deeper, crossed a line (no pun intended) and reached an altogether different place.
Hints of that somewhere different can be found in Bono’s recent comparison of NLOTH to The Beatles’ White Album. With closer inspection, the comparison is fitting. While The Beatles went to India on pilgrimage to meet the Maharishi and write music for the White Album, U2 went to Fez, Morocco, to attend the World Festival of Sacred Music and work on NLOTH. While there, members of U2 seem to have taken inspiration from the faith expression of Sufism, a sect of Islam found in North Africa, whose members seek ecstatic communion with God through physical, emotional, and vocal expression—a form of faith that three members of U2 are familiar with from their early days as members of a charismatic Christian group named “Shalom.” While The Beatles’ White Album was a double album, and “No Line on the Horizon” a single CD, U2 have recently mentioned a “companion disc.” Scheduled for release in late 2009 or early 2010, the new disc is to be named “Songs of Ascent” and is described by Bono as a “ghost album of hymns and Sufi singing . . . a kind of heartbreaker, a meditative, reflexive piece of work”.
One need not wait for the next album to ascend though. The heavenly direction of NLOTH continues with “Magnificent,” a song carried by a powerful drum rhythm that will no doubt shake stadium audiences and rally them to singing. Lyrics about making “a joyful noise,” being “justified until we die,” and “you and I will magnify, oh, the magnificent,” take the album deeper into the unusual territory of unbridled expression of faith and hope, unhindered by the earthly challenges previously encountered in U2’s music. What U2 has been reaching for throughout their career seems finally within reach here. Bono told Rolling Stone magazine that “The Magnificent” was inspired by “The Magnificat,” the gospel passage where Mary expresses joy at being chosen to be the mother of Jesus. By choosing the term “The Magnificent,” one of Islam’s 99 names of God, and shooting a creatively spiritual music video for the song in Fez, Morocco, U2 also extend an olive branch and find common ground with Muslims.
“Moment of Surrender” is a slow gospel tune that stands out with its moving vocals and evocative imagery. The line about “love believing in me” may ring a bit over the top for some, particularly Christians familiar with such language, but the lines, “I did not notice the passers-by, and they did not notice me,” and “a vision over visibility,” describe a scene of spiritual conversion or renewal at its most tender and intimate.
Opening with an exquisite “sunshine” harmony, “Unknown Caller” picks up the pace while carrying on the theme of renewal found in “Moment of Surrender.” U2 guitarist The Edge described the song’s narrator as being “in an altered state, and his phone starts talking to him.” The lyrics “cease to speak, that I may speak” echo Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God.” While the language of entering passwords and rebooting yourself initially sound awkward, the power of `this song grows and will no doubt stir stadiums to sing along. Observant fans will note how “Unknown Caller” uses a reference to 3:33 on a clock, which U2 also used as an airport gate (J33-3) on the cover art of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. During press for that album, Bono told Rolling Stone that it refers to Jeremiah 33:3 (“Call to me and I will answer you”) and described it as “God’s phone number.
Bono speeds up his phrasing and applies his falsetto skills in “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” While the lyrics in “Crazy” seem random at times, lines such as, “Is it true that perfect love drives out all fear” and “a change of heart comes slowly,” are intriguing, if not familiar. When added to others such as “it’s not a hill it’s a mountain” and “we’re going to make it, all the way to the light,” one can hear echoes of Martin Luther King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. It is tempting to wonder if Obama’s historic election inspired Bono to write this song, one of the album’s stronger tracks.
While the US reference may be subtle, there are Canadian connections to NLOTH worth mentioning. First, there is Daniel Lanois, the musician and producer who, along with English artist and producer Brian Eno, worked on this and many other U2 albums. Then there is Lori Anna Reid, a talented Canadian singer who receives a mention in the CD liner notes. Daniel Lanois explained to the National Post (March 11th 2009) how U2 were looking for hymns to draw inspiration from while they attempted to create “future spirituals.” One of the ones Lori Anna suggested was “O Come, O Come Emanuel,” which U2 ended up working with when writing “White As Snow”. Finally, there is a connection to Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn. The line “shouting to the darkness, squeeze out sparks of light” from “I’ll Go Crazy” is a paraphrase of Cockburn’s lyrics on “Lovers in A Dangerous Time.” U2 referenced those lyrics more directly twenty years ago in the song “God Part II” from the album Rattle & Hum (“I heard a singer on the radio…say he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”). “Cedars of Lebanon” also has a very Cockburn-style travel monologue that his fans will recognize and appreciate.
Let’s return now to that phrase “let me in the sound”. Bono sings it repeatedly in “Get On Your Boots”, and it echoes quietly at the start of “Fez Being Born”. It appears a third time on “Breathe” near the end of the album. Anything repeated on a U2 album is a concept with real currency. So what is this about? The answer may again lie in U2’s “pilgrimage” to Morocco. This repeating concept of entering the sound echoes the Sufi approach to finding union with God through music and dance. To this end we hear Bono calling out “meet me in the sound” in “Get On Your Boots”. Later in the song “Breathe,” Bono sings of being “people born of sound” and finding “grace inside a sound”. Who is being met here? U2 often leave much open to interpretation in their music, but the source of grace in this context rings most true when understood as God.
If the trajectory of recent U2 albums was an arc of challenge and adversity ending in hope, that journey is reversed on “No Line”. In fact Bono has said that you could call this album, “The Pilgrim and His Lack of Progress.” It bears true, for while U2 start out elevated, magnifying “The Magnificent,” they descend into the earth’s atmosphere from that place in the heavens. Along the way they teach over-sensitive Christians a thing or two on “Stand Up Comedy” (“Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady”) while rallying them to live their faith in a “dizzy world.” Midway through the album songs deal with rebirth, and by the end, it lands in the middle of life’s challenges with “Cedars of Lebanon”, where a war journalist struggles with a “shitty world” that “sometimes produces a rose.”
It is fair to say that U2 have been seeking “grace inside a sound” their entire career. Bruce Springsteen may have described U2 best when inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, calling them “a band that wanted to lay claim to not only this world, but had their eyes on the next one as well.” U2 prove Springsteen true on No Line on the Horizon. Grabbing hold of the sky right from the start, U2 refuse to let go, pulling the power of heaven down into the heart of earth’s challenges. Bridging divisions and erasing boundaries, whether between the stage and audience, between east and west, or between heaven and earth, is what U2 has been all about for some 30 years now. With this new tour, concertgoers have the chance to join them in that journey, and find grace inside a sound. Many will lose themselves for the evening in U2’s fantastic light and sound show. Some will be found in the sound as well.
Henry is also author of Faith, hope and U2: the language of love in the music of U2 a booklet in the Institute of Evangelism’s Dare series.