The new U2 album – Songs of Innocence – is gorgeous. It’s instantly familiar, obviously U2 and deeply Christian. This last description, which I claim holds true for every U2 album, has in the past resulted in a barrage of complaints. How can they be Christians? They don’t seem to live like Christians. They don’t sound like Christians. They swear, smoke, drink. Sure, they get involved in caring for the poor, but isn’t their theology all wishy-washy? Bah, humbug.
Our problem often is that as a culture we have either forgotten, or never knew, where our bread was buttered. U2 don’t suffer from this problem. Bono names time and again his debt to God, to the Scriptures and to those ‘saints’ who have gone before him.
On this album, this debt is in the album’s bloodstream, rather than tattooed boldly on the skin. The band that gave us songs with titles such as Yahweh, Grace and 40 (for Psalm 40) now nestles its spirit in less obvious words: Song for Someone and The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).
The Miracle is the opening track. An unabashedly introspective and nostalgic track, Bono reaches back to his teenage encounter with genuine Christianity, and the way it has shaped his life. “Your voice was all I heard/I was shaking from a storm in me”. The ‘you’ in U2 is usually at some level referring to the capital Y- You, God addressed as Father.
Bono sings, “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/ Heard a song that made some sense of the world”. We are not told what the miracle is, but there are plenty to choose from: the incarnation, the gospel proclamation to an angry young man, or his encounter with a God whose story makes some sense of the world. Whatever it is, this miracle is the shaping concept for the album that unfolds.
There are some obvious allusions (“I’m a long, long way from your Hill of Calvary”; “Seeing a light you can’t always see, and a world we can’t always be.”), but overall this is an album imbued with biblical spirit rather than obvious references.
The name of this first track — The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) — sounds odd until you know the backstory. Bono found out that a U2 song called In a Little While was the last thing the famous front man from The Ramones heard before he died. This song yearns for home: “In a little while/This hurt will hurt no more/I’ll be home, love”. In the same way, “The Miracle” longs for the time of restoration, the final peace, the time when justice will be done and all will be well.
The line, “Everything I ever lost, now has been returned” has definite echoes of not just Amazing Grace’s “I once was lost”, but more importantly, Luke 18:29. In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about the way in which God will keep and restore the relationships of all who have prioritised the kingdom of God. The things and the people you have lost, will be returned to you. It is a most moving idea, especially for pilgrim souls who take risks for their beliefs in the way Bono has always done.
The song Iris (Hold Me Close) is ostensibly about Bono’s mother, who died suddenly when he was fourteen years old. It makes more sense if you know a little about that event (as U2 tragics tend to!). But it makes most sense if you also pick that the ‘light’ and ‘star’ imagery of the song invokes Jesus, the “light of the world”, the light that was with us and will return, the “morning star” who will rise in our hearts (2 Peter 1:19). This biblical imagination shapes Bono’s experience of life, and I’m saddened that most listeners don’t get to enjoy the richness of his work. Bible illiteracy is a cruel thing!
In U2 we find a deep faith in God’s goodness and the direction of history: despite darkness and doubts, in the end God’s love will conquer all, justice will be done, and things lost will be found and restored. “There’s no end to grief,” Bono sings, “That’s how I know/And why I need to know that there is no end to love” (from California).
Whether Bono tips us over into some form of universalism, I can’t say. Personally, I’m happy to let these songs communicate emotionally the enduring love of God rather than devolve into some Rob-Bellish debate about how and whether and for whom love wins.
What U2 do well is to naturalise their Christianity. They make it normal to sing about childhood, politics, family and even California, with God in the frame. Their faith is embedded in their lives, not stuck on like a badge. I like this confidence – not always having to bleat shrilly about their beliefs, but be happy to let their songwriting be about everything under the sun, with God and his mercy the base assumption and the easy, if culturally awkward, reference point. It seems to me authentic.
I’m not overly qualified to comment on the album musically, but that won’t stop me offering a few thoughts. I feel this is Adam Clayton’s album, with the driving bass lines holding together and underwriting the emotion of Bono’s songwriting. Edge’s guitar is less central, and Larry does what he always does behind the drum kit. It’s hardly an experimental work, more an enjoyably accomplished expression of what it has always meant musically to be in U2.
I do sense that something is missing in terms of production. There’s a simplicity and straightforwardness to the sound that marks a move away from the intense mood-management of albums where Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite were in charge. It adds to the authenticity, but can also make the album seem underwhelming. And yet, lines from the songs are already skipping through my head.
In the southern hemisphere spring has sprung. Sydney sun shines brighter than bright; green shoots point skyward, there’s hope for tomorrow bursting out of the cold soil of winter. That’s what this new U2 album offers: a confident, warm, Christian eschatology wrapped around the complex memories of childhood and the heartaches of a world “we can’t always be”. Songs that make some sense of the world, and a Story that makes sense of all the stories we are all writing.
Greg Clarke is author of the 2014 Australian Christian Book of the Year, The Great Bible Swindle, and Chief Executive of Bible Society Australia.