CCM magazine, May 1997
U2 Moves In Mysterious Ways.
From its earliest days, these Irish rockers have been a band that worked Christian spiritual themes into its ambitious blend of post-punk and classic guitar rock anthems. Whether it was proclaiming "I Will Follow" or working parts of the Latin Mass into "Gloria" or writing a modern musical context for Psalm "40," Bono was not afraid "to claim the victory Jesus won" in "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Paradoxically, U2 has also been vocally critical of the American religious scene, specifically the collusion of materialistic mall culture and the prosperity doctrines and pleading for money of our televangelists. The only successful Pop phenomenon that has managed to keep so many ironies alive in the fire, U2 has allowed its art to live in mainstream culture, yet affirm an eternal longing. Entrenched as they were in the dichotomies of secular reality, some Christians were encouraged while others were perplexed that Bono wouldn't just sing churchly hymns, but admitted "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
If suspicious Christians hadn't given up on the band yet, the provocative sexual imagery and cultural decadence the band explored on its most recent albums (given life on the extravagant "Zoo TV" tour) and photos of Bono wearing devil's horns and a used-car salesman smile may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. So, it'll be surprising to many that on Pop, an album aimed at reclaiming their world-wide commercial appeal, the band seems urgent to discuss spiritual realities.
U2's members again seem more comfortable with the person of Jesus and the mercy of God than they are with the representation of the gospel message in American Pop culture. "Jesus never let me down," Bono sings in "If God Will Send His Angels," before suggesting "Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it's hard to get in the door."
Elsewhere, they find God distant and unaccessible ("God is good, but will He listen?"), a question not unlike those in the laments of the Psalter, yet discomforting for a more churched audience. More discomforting still will be the four-letter word in the closing track, "Wake Up Dead Man," where Bono sings "Jesus help me/ I'm alone in the world/And a [messed] up world it is too." While this mix of spiritual longing and profane disgust is not unlike words from the Epistles of Peter, there are many in the conservative camp who will find U2 on the compromise side of the "in the world but not of it" equation.
As for me, U2 walks a fine line. A compelling mix of gospel confessions and worldly confusion that, given our times, makes sensible art of a less-sensible cultural reality. This is not the bold trip-hop new world music we were told to expect, even though "Discotheque" and "Mofo" dabble in disco and industrial, and the band noodles around with samples throughout. Familiar musical ground and traditional U2 songwriting dominates Pop, more so than on either Achtung, Baby or Zooropa. The paradox and humor at Pop culture's foibles and American eagerness to confuse success with blessing in "The Playboy Mansion" is humorous, and the metaphors that define faith as "Staring at the Sun" and "Gone" provide both comfort and insight.
Certainly, the Christian audience will have some trouble digesting U2's Pop, and at least part of that is justified; after all, the joke is partially on us. However, this ride began with an affirmation of faith, and we are warned about judging too quickly. So far this long, strange ride has been one with many more ups-musically and spiritually speaking-than downs, and I'll not stop listening and hoping any time soon. U2 still rocks my world and teases my mind.
-Brian Q. Newcomb
Copyright Â© 1997, CCM Communications. All rights reserved.