Tuesday, August 01, 2006

U2's Most Spiritual Album

It is a relatively recent but dependable trend. Whenever U2 puts out a new album, you can bet that within a few months the Internet will be flooded with articles and essays by preachers and other interested parties about how spiritual the album is. Although some people will hearken back to The Joshua Tree album as an example of early spirituality in the music of U2, most of these discussions fixate on the recent works All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Many of these writers act as though they are putting their readers onto something new, as though their careful ears are the first to have detected these spiritual nuances.

The fact is, though, that the most overtly spiritual album U2 has made is one of their earliest, created when they were barely out of high school. The album is called October. It is an album that, frankly, few people are aware of and even fewer listen to. The band has yet to find their musical voice and Bono is clearly struggling with figuring out how to write a song. Many of the lyrics feel scattered and unfinished. For those who came late to the U2 party, it would not meet the expectations they would have of a U2 album.

Yet for sheer spirituality, it ranks at the top. Written during a period when most of the band members were embracing Christianity with evangelical fervor, the album makes no attempt to hide or shade their devotion. In later times, they learned to present their spirituality in more nuanced and subtle ways. Here it is more raw and open. Consider, for instance, the words to With A Shout (Jerusalem):

I wanna go
To the foot of the messiah
To the foot of he who made me see
To the side of a hill
Where we were still
We were filled
With a love
We're gonna be there again
Jerusalem, Jerusalem

This theme of spiritual longing also finds expression in Tomorrow, a song about the death of Bono's mother. When Bono sings, Who healed the wounds, Who heals the scars, he goes on to answer his own question:

Open up, open up
To the Lamb of God
To the love of he who made me
The light to see you
He's coming back . . .
I believe it
Jesus coming

Praise is a major theme on this album. From the simple song Scarlet whose only lyrics are the repeated refrain "Rejoice, rejoice" to the song titled Rejoice, which sees praise as the appropriate response to God in the world.

I can't change the world
But I can change the world in me
If I rejoice . . . rejoice

The best known song off of the album is Gloria. The casual listener could be forgiven for thinking this is a song about a woman. The fact is that U2 stinks at writing traditional love songs and they know it. U2 employs "Gloria" here as the Latin term for "Glory." It is an unabashed praise song to God, as the largely Latin chorus makes clear.

Only in you I'm complete
Gloria . . . in te domine
Gloria . . . exultate
Gloria . . . Gloria
Oh Lord, loosen my lips

Bono concludes "Gloria" by singing "Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all, I'd give it to you." And yet he does have something to give: his music. As the subsequent career of U2 shows, culminating in the most recent albums, Bono has continued to give God that which he has to give: praise through music.


At 1:13 PM, Blogger Beth said...

"Many of these writers act as though they are putting their readers onto something new" -- ain't it the truth? And isn't such writers' apparent assumption that all their predecessors were too dense to understand the band's work -- or maybe it's an assumption that the prior literature about pop culture isn't worth researching historically before you publish on the topic -- cringeworthy? And hasn't it all become wearying?

Anyway, whining aside ;-) ...I think I might argue that "Pop" is richer in religious themes than "October," actually, although "October" is certainly more overt and more, let's say, via positiva about things. One of the aspects I love most about "October" is the way the band let two realities stand un-harmonized next to each other: "Jesus is real and reliable" and "We as U2 are a mess and in a desparate panic."

I find that ending line of "Gloria" extremely poignant in light of all the band and Bono have done over the intervening 25 years:

Bono: Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all, I'd give it to you.
God: OK.

At 3:30 PM, Blogger Jim MacKenzie said...

Still one of my favorite concerts in Toronto in 1981. They weren't big yet; small venue; The modern-day equivalent would be a worship concert by Third Day or something. The weird thing was that it was in a nightclub and they were singing songs about God, redemption, heaven... People didn't know what to make of it but I loved it!

Some of my favorite lyrics come on Rattle and Hum where they added a 3rd verse to I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For:

"He will lift you
higher and higher
He will pick you up
when you fall
He'll be your shelter
from the storm"

At 2:00 AM, Blogger Chip said...

First-time visitor, Greg, and I'm going to have to disagree with you. (Sorry about that.) I love October (and I came late to the U2 party if you count the late 1980s as "late"), but is it their most "spiritual" album? Not at all, although you could easily make a case for it being their most OBVIOUSLY spiritual album. For sheer spirituality, October is matched beat for beat by War, Zooropa, and Pop.

October and War are two sides of the same coin: October is Christianity turned inward, with an emphasis on a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ," and War is essentially Christianity focused outward. In every single song on the album, and not just "'40,'" Bono demonstrates a Christian worldview being applied to the issues around him. From the revealing closing lines of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to the "thief in the night" imagery that can take the mind in a million directions in "Seconds," from the apocalyptic eucatastrophe of "New Year's Day" to the plea to God for a new heart in "Like a Song," and on an on through each song to the climatic call to surrender to God in, well, "Surrender," this is one heck of a "spiritual" album. It may be less obviously so than October, but it is no less so in fact.

Zooropa and Pop display the opposite concerns of October and War. These two albums provide detailed studies of humanity's fallenness, only rarely (and then not so obviously) pointing to a solution. But as intense studies of original sin's effects upon humanity, I've never seen them equaled in pop music. Again, they are not nearly as obviously spiritual as October -- but they are just as spiritual, nonetheless.


At 2:58 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Beth, Jim and Chip,
Thanks for the comments. I have long toyed with the idea of writing a book someday that would be a theological analysis of U2's music. Don't know if I'll ever get around to it, but if I do, your comments will come in handy in terms of giving me some things to think about.

At 12:54 PM, Blogger David U said...

Count me in as being a big Bono fan!


At 1:03 PM, Blogger nhe said...

Hi Greg....I'm new here too.

I'm trying to think of a U2 song that isn't spiritual in some way, and I can't really think of one.

If the question is "what is their most overtly Christian Album?" I'd say "October", or either of their 2 latest album.

If the question is "what is their most spiritually significant album?" - I'd say "Joshua Tree" because of the impact that "Where the Streets Have no Name" and "Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For" have had on non-Christian seekers.

Most Spiritually significant U2 song? - ask 100 people and likely get 75+ different answers.......for me, "Grace" - hands down.

At 7:25 PM, Blogger Greg said...

That is the distinction I was making. October is the most overtly Christian album they have made, but not the most spiritually significant. I personally think that many of their later songs that take a more subtle approach to spirituality are some of the most powerful.

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

Weighing in by way of Beth's U2 Sermons blog:

October is a brilliant album, and not just for the spiritual tone of the tracks. The band really started to gel on this one. Boy was spiritual but immature, and not "tight." But October laid the groundwork for War, which is still, IMHO, U2's greatest and most spiritually significant album.

I have to agree with Chip regarding War as a more outward-focused representation of the band's Christian influences.

AC @ bloggedy blog

P.S. - From the blatant self-promotion department: I'm doing a countdown of albums that most affected my life, and October is listed in today's post.

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Greg said...

My brother sent me a link he came across to the National Review magazine which gave their list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock songs and they put U2's "Gloria" as number 6. Very interesting, especially since some of the groups that had songs higher on the list were The Who, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Beatles.

At 1:30 AM, Blogger KMiV said...

I would have to say that I love How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Miracle Drug really seems to hit home with me about Jesus calling us to social justice.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Interestingly the Buffalo News has a column on successful meldings of spirituality and rock today (written by someone who is not very versed theologically I hasten to add) and it picks "Pop" and "October" to represent U2. I've blogged on it as well:

At 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally I think Bono is more important than Jesus in this day and age. Not to say that Christ ISNT the Son of God, just rather Bono is slightly "bigger" (and one could argue "better") in our modern times.


Post a Comment

<< Home