2020 was a hell of year, wasn’t it?

I don’t think I need to go into great detail here; we’ve all lived through it: the closing of restaurants, schools, and places of worship; the Orwellian slogans (“Together Apart,” “Alone Together,” etc.); a tumultuous presidential election here in the U. S.; racial unrest; etc. A hell of a year indeed.

During these last ten months I have often found myself confused, frustrated, and upset. I am a pessimist by nature, but I never would have expected a year like the one we just left behind. I find satisfaction in teaching my students face to face: but I had to settle for Zoom and Google Meet classes. I find solace in attending church: but for months I was prohibited from doing so. I find joy in conversing with friends face to face: but we stared at screens, instead. 

So I turned to books and music, as I usually do, to give me perspective. One of my greatest faults, I am willing to admit, is my inability (at times) to recognize the goodness in the world—I suppose that’s primarily a result of my pessimistic nature. But as a high school history teacher, I also understand that humanity has endured far worse. For the past few months I have delved deeply into Wiesel, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, and a variety of firsthand accounts from the survivors of the concentration camps and the Gulags. I understand this sounds a bit dramatic: I’m blessed to have been born in the USA, and in order to gain perspective on the current state of the world I’m reading stories of men and women who survived hell. But “suffering” is very much a relative term, isn’t it? And, for better or worse, I needed to be reminded of just how comparatively benign this pandemic has been compared to what others have endured in the past.

But it was music, and one song in particular, that provided me with the message I needed to hear above all others. This past fall I discovered U2’s second album, October. According to Bono, the effort to complete October nearly broke up the band: three of the four members are Christian, and they were concerned that the rock n’ roll lifestyle was incompatible with their faith. And yet they chose to make this album—what Bono called “the difficult second album”—about God. Talk about a risk.

There are several superb songs on this underrated album—“Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” are just three that come to mind—but the one that inspired my recent change of attitude was “Rejoice.” These lyrics in particular come to mind:

And what am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say?
I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me
If I rejoice

That was what I needed to hear (repeatedly) in 2020: “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me / If I rejoice.” The pandemic is out of my hands. So are the lockdowns. So is any election. What matters most is changing who I am first—getting my own house in order, so to speak.  

So I choose to rejoice in 2021. I know I’ll have my moments in the dark, but at the end of the day, things could always be worse.

I wish everyone here in our Progarchy community a joyful new year. Stay healthy, stay sane, and stay hopeful.

U2’s sad descent into self-pastiche

John Waters pens a scathing indictment of U2’s sad decline over at First Things:

U2 were not natural-born rock ’n’ rollers. Raised in middle-class estates in an area of Dublin where the rivers had been concreted over to build houses, they went in search of the roots of this music that entranced them, scrambling in the mud of the Mississippi for the blue notes that would resonate with the ineffable parts of themselves. They had no particular skills, just raw instinct, street smarts, and five loaves and two fishes’ worth of inchoate talent. They couldn’t play other people’s songs, so they wrote their own, strange lolloping tunes that sounded like they had been made by teenagers from outer space.

They were gauche and naïve. The British rock press hated them, so they went to America, read their way into the spirits of the originals, finding tones and harmonies to match their hearts’ desire and writing songs around them that were like the missing links of the rock ’n’ roll story. Within a few years, they fetched up on the cover of Time as the Greatest Rock ’n’ roll Band in the World. The four Dublin neophytes became the darlings of the dinosaurs, like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King. And they really had broken the code, producing two of the greatest albums to grace the pantheon, The Joshua Tree in 1987 and Achtung Baby four years later.

In the beginning, three of them had been born-again Christians. The exception was Adam, at the time the band’s Dionysian token, now the saintly one abed with his cocoa while Bono burns the candle down the dens of Bacchanalia, his arm around Noel Gallagher.

It’s hard to say where they stand with Jesus these days. He’s still there in (some of) the lyrics, but sometimes you get to thinking that the U2 trajectory looks more and more like a belated discovery of the delights they eschewed in youth, a front-loading of the piety of age followed by an eruption into delayed adolescence.

In the beginning they wore their hearts on their album sleeves, unabashedly proclaiming their faith in songs like “Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” and “40.” After their third album, War, the Christian element became more subtle, and remained so. With Achtung Baby, they went ironic, adapting the Berlin industrial harmonic clangor developed by Bowie and Eno for Low, Heroes, and Iggy Pop’s masterpieces The Idiot and Lust for Life.

But Achtung Baby was the beginning of a Faustian pact, struck at the end of a very tricky tightrope. Next, U2 entered an experimental phase that threw up numerous distinct possibilities. Pop, their 1995 album, was too diverse to be a popular hit, though it contained some of their finest work, and possibly their best song, the psalmsesque blues hymn “Wake Up Dead Man,” a blast of rage at God in the hope He might show Himself in His own defense. And perhaps it was the lukewarn response to that album that caused U2 to steer back into the mainstream in search of the essence of whatever it was that had worked for them in the first place. Panic set in, leading to U2’s creative descent into self-pastiche, while commercially they surged forward in leaps and bounds.

In the end, all you could say is that they settled for less than they promised. Having become themselves by remaining aloof from rock’s narcotics and narcissism, they gradually settled deeper into the embrace of the vacuity they had eschewed. More and more, their public stances seemed to be about attitude, about being cool, about remaining top of the league.

U2 has settled so determinedly into the mainstream of contemporary rock culture that it has now finally waived the role of re-evangelizing the music’s sacred roots, and is accordingly all but redundant. Once a band uniquely capable of standing against the seduction of the material, U2 has become indistinguishable from the herd it has latterly so assiduously courted, volunteering for enslavement to fashion, cool, and emptiness.

The #MDW foreign policy mixtape: #MemorialDay

Here’s a great #MDW reflection by Stephen Kinder on his foreign policy mixtape:

U2 is named after an American spy plane that was at the center of a major Cold War confrontation. That means it belongs on my life list.

I follow bands whose names evoke the history of American foreign policy. This hobby gives me a window into modern music, assuring that my tastes don’t stagnate. When I attend a concert by one of these bands, I rarely know whether I’m going to hear reggae, folk-rock, or something frightfully new. It doesn’t matter. Staring at my ticket, I reflect on the band’s name and what it means. After the concert, I add that band to my life list.

America’s 120-year adventure in the wider world is a fascinating narrative, but few Americans know it. Reminders of our past conflicts crop up in odd places. Bands that name themselves after historic events keep those events in our consciousness. They summon us to reflect in ways that mass media rarely does. It is a wonderful example — intentional or not — of pop culture evolving to fill a political void.

Read the article for historical reflections on The Maine, The Boxer Rebellion, Berlin Airlift, U2, Cold War Kids, La Sandinista, The B-52s, Napalm Death, Agent Orange, Desaparecidos, War on Drugs, and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.

Keep the memory alive…

soundstreamsunday: “The Three Sunrises” by U2

U2_ThreeSunrisesThe principles of exclusion, constraint, and limitation are drivers of art as much as what ends up on the canvas, and more than anything explain how U2’s “The Three Sunrises” did not make the cut of their seminal 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire.  That album, their fourth, changed the band’s trajectory by broadening their palette (thus ultimately guaranteeing their longevity).  Subduing the band’s onward-Christian-soldier martial airs without dulling its passion, producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois — who the previous year had created, along with Roger Eno, one of the great ambient masterworks in Apollo — worked at applying creative filters to make a music that was moody, introspective, less deliberate but also more whole.  The Unforgettable Fire feels more like an album with a sonic narrative than any of its predecessors.  Still, no one, not even Eno, could contain U2’s spirit or strong self-identity, and the recording sessions yielded some work with one foot still grounded in the energetic brightness characterizing their previous catalog.

In 1985, U2 stopped the show at Live Aid with a stunning, impassioned performance of the song “Bad” from The Unforgettable Fire.  In packaging the performance for release — and here it’s important to understand the impact that Live Aid had on popular music at the time, as it was simulcast on radio and TV worldwide — the band put it on the Wide Awake in America EP along with another live track (“A Sort of Homecoming”) and two studio outtakes from The Unforgettable Fire sessions. “Love Comes Tumbling” shares the twilit moodiness of the album it didn’t end up on, but “The Three Sunrises”  is both farewell and greeting, a simple effusion of a youthful love song wrapped in a gleeful guitar riff, its title bearing a suggestion of trinity that so bound the group, especially in its early days, to a strong Christian following.  More than this, or perhaps because of their beliefs and willingness to be moved by the Spirit, U2 was a post-punk band able to express joy like few other “serious” groups of the time, and in “The Three Sunrises” their ability to strike at the heart remained innocently undiminished.

*Above image is a detail of Larry Mullen, Jr., Adam Clayton, and Bono listening to Edge perform the riff to “The Three Sunrises,” from the documentary of the making of The Unforgettable Fire.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

On the Edge of 30: U2’s THE JOSHUA TREE

Originally released March 9, 1987

Thirty years ago this month and next, U2, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois were putting the finishing touches on what is arguably one of the greatest rock albums ever written, THE JOSHUA TREE.  That “the album wears well,” even three decades later, would be a tragic understatement.  Frankly, though I have listened to it repeatedly over the past 29 years, THE JOSHUA TREE sounds as fresh at the end of 2016 as it did in the spring of 1987.  It’s possible that nostalgia—“the rust of memory,” as the great sociologist Robert Nisbet once proclaimed it—clouds my judgment, but I don’t think so.  Other albums from that time that meant almost as much to me then sound dreadfully tinny and dated now.

So, my continuing and continuous awestruck response to THE JOSHUA TREE can’t be complete nostalgia.

Continue reading “On the Edge of 30: U2’s THE JOSHUA TREE”

The Edge — Live at the Sistine Chapel

On May 1, U2’s The Edge made history by rocking the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel with Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” as well as U2 songs “Yahweh,” “Ordinary Love,” and “Walk on.”

Some grouches are upset that The Edge broke the rules by singing “Yahweh” (a name you’re not supposed to say out loud).

Hey, dudes, if so, still, maybe it was God’s will?

Continue reading “The Edge — Live at the Sistine Chapel”