Tuesday, December 14, 2010

U2: The Thin Line Between Rapture & Corn

No band in the universe is as big as U2. U2 is so big -- the joke goes -- that when Bono wants to change a light bulb all he has to do is hold it and the world revolves around him. At their bombastic worst, few bands blur the line between rapture and corn quite as effectively as the Sonic Leprechaun and his Irish Soul Men.

But at their best, U2 achieves what very few artists in any genre can: they create work with a sustained intensity that transforms the particular into the universal. U2 has that rare ability to communicate what Federico Garcia Lorca called "duende"; that "mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains."

Popularly associated with flamenco, the concept of duende was imported into the south of Spain centuries ago by the Roma people, and has since migrated over to English. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as "the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm," but it's much more than that. In 1933, Lorca gave his famous lecture, "La Teoria y Juego del Duende" ("The Play and Theory of the Duende") in Buenos Aires detailing his notion of duende:
"I have heard an old master guitarist say: 'Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.' Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action."
My own relationship to music is based on this concept. It has to move me on some level, be alive, visceral and not about what's cool or popular.

This has led to some bruising clashes with certain aficionados when I proclaim, for example, that Bob Dylan's so-called "gospel" period beginning in the late 70s cuts far deeper than his fabled mid-60s output. The "Bobbynazis" roil and flail, but I refuse to surrender. That's the beauty of art -- its impact lies in the heart of the beholder.

So it is with U2. Sometimes the band's earnest intentions can seem as uncool as Napoleon Dynamite's retro-geek is cool. But as Miles Davis once so elegantly riffed, "So what?" -- my gut tells me a different story.In the wasted aftermath of the late 70s punk and post-punk explosions, U2 shifted the paradigm; it was cool enough to care, to believe that music could do more than just inspire gobs of hot neon or tinted highlights and actually change the world. My interest was sparked when I walked into A&B Sound on Seymour Street in Vancouver and caught a glimpse of their first video for War. As I watched the peculiar spectacle of four figures galloping on horseback across the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle, the ricocheting chords and slithering bass of "New Years Day" filled the store:
And so we are told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
It was the antithesis of the times. Boy George, Madonna, and Michael Jackson all exemplified glossy pop; Duran Duran the pursuit of glamour, singing "Rio" in pastel suits aboard a yacht in the sun-kissed tropics. But here was something different -- a band confronting harsher elements, brilliantly fusing bombast with conviction in a song inspired, we were told, in part by the Polish independent union Solidarity.

Throughout 1982 when much of War was written, Solidarity and its leader, Lech Walesa, were in headlines around the world challenging the communist authorities in both Warsaw and Moscow. For a pubescent kid looking for something to believe in, this was a group that inspired faith. I didn't know it at the time, but I was responding to the exuberance of what could be, the limitless possibilities inherent in what Lorca called "newly created things."

Fast forward to 2004 and "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. The band connects with an emotional power, one that "surges up from the soles of the feet" with the velocity of an accelerating rocket. Written for Bono's late father Bob Hewson, (the "atomic bomb" of the album's title) who died in 2001, the song manages to uncover a condensed kernel of human pathos recognizable to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one:
And it's you when I look in the mirror
And it's you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can't make it on your own
A few years ago, while I was trying to make sense of the song's emotional impact, a student of mine was suddenly murdered by a triad gang in Hong Kong. His father, a police officer, was beginning to cause some very dangerous people enough anxiety for them to unleash their wrath on his one and only son. That loss was devastating and it opened me up to the song's raw power. As Bono says on the album's accompanying DVD, "a song can change the world...it can change the temperature in the room." I kept listening to it again and again, feeling my heart leap into my throat with the force of a Molotov cocktail. I was overtaken with rapture, a caesura captured in time.

As with other U2 songs like "Bad," "Without Or Without You," or "One," "Sometimes" is a smoldering ballad that gradually intensifies until finally breaking into a transcendent crescendo:
You're the reason I sing
You're the reason why
The opera is in me
It's an explosive confession that raises the room temperature and for Bono's father who apparently loved opera, it's a fitting tribute.

U2 - Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own

Producer Chris Thomas, who has worked with everyone from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, doesn't intrude or impose any formulas on what is essentially the song's mournful tone. But it's not a tome of despair. As with gospel-blues, the raw passion of Bono's voice elevates the music above grief and into the realm of catharsis. "Keening" is how the Irish dramatist J.M. Synge once referred to it, and Lorca identified it in the "deep song" of his country's folk music:
"It is truly deep, deeper than all the wells and seas in the world, much deeper than the present heart that creates it or the voice that sings it, because it is almost infinite...It comes from the first sob and the first kiss."
Few other bands come close to these dizzy heights. "Sometimes" is pure duende. Music of this caliber and class feels as primal as shelter and food. It's in this realization that "Sometimes" crosses from the particular to the universal, cutting deep into the heart's core to pull out an emotional response that has nothing to do with Bono's father, but everything to do with our shared vulnerability as fragile living beings.

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