The Comedy of U2’s ‘No Line on the Horizon’: a theological reading of U2’s new CD

Well… the wait is over and now the critics have been released from their respective silences and casting their lasers of this latest outing from Bono and Co. Just to throw my hat into the ring, I will say that after a few listens, the new CD – No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH)- is a very “good” album with some great songs both sonically and lyrically. Yes, I am making the distinction between “good” to “great” in the manner of Jim Collins’ best seller which argues that “good” is the enemy of greatness in our time – whether be in relation to social systems or measuring rock albums. I tend to agree with his summation on this point in respect to NLOTH – in short, NLOTH is a darn good album in respect to current releases and within the U2 canon. That said, taken with the entirety of the U2 canon to this point – I will say that NLOTH hits the mark spot on as U2 continues to flesh out its overture. I have ceased to look at bands with the history of U2 (think: REM, Bruce Springsteen, etc) as isolated moments anymore, but rather as plot points on a long graph. To wit: the three decades that currently frame U2’s career plots like a flatteded version of Gustav Freytag’s Die Technik des Dramas where dramatic movement can be broken into five movements: exposition; rising action; climax, or turning point; falling action; and resolves in a ‘denouement’ or a catastrophe depending on whether we are talking about a comedy or tragedy. For Freytag, how the protagonist (those we are called to identify in the song) ends up tells us whether we have been watching a comedy or tragedy – a comedy is a drama in which the protagonist, or main character, is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning; a tragedy is the opposite. Ultimately, as with life, we don’t know whether we are in a comedy or tragedy until the story is completed and the curtin falls (you can think of the checklist Will Ferrell’s character Harold Crick was keeping in the Marc Forster film Stranger than Fiction to get a sense of this).

Using Freytag’s typology, I see U2’s newest album, No Line on the Horizon, as part movement of drama where Boy and October represent exposition; Unforgettable Fire and War are the rising action that moves into the climax of Joshua Tree, with the Rattle and Hum film as the visual extension and in some respects falling action of Joshua Tree. And then the falling action of U2, which is not a fall in the sense of failure but in the sense of an unmistakable movement that pushes us into resolution, can be seen in their embrace of experimental new forms in Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop.But what kind of resolution is suggested by All The You Can’t Leave Behind, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and now No Line on the Horizon? Is this denouement or catastrophe? Comedy or tragedy?

Freytag explains that comedies are characterized by protagonists who are better off at the end of the story (or song) than they were at the beginning, whereas tragedies are characterized by protagonists who are worse off at the end of the story. So using Freytag’s rubric for reading the conclusion, what is the end game for the protagonists that make up the drama of U2’s canon—are we better off at the end or are we worst off?
Now, we haven’t reached the end of U2, especially given their announcement that another album is in the works for 2009, but I argue that No Line’s thematic position on faith, beauty, and love suggests that we are headed toward a comedy.
The first way in which the album (and yes, in the era of digital singles, U2 is one of the few bands still working on a large canvas, telling an albumesque story) appears to reflect a movement toward comedy is its message that liberty is found in faith in God rather than in a certainty about God. From Bono’s call to “get over certainty” in “Stand Up Comedy” to the acknowledgment in “Moment of Surrender” that we are “too smart to be / In the realm of certainty,” the role that faith should play is clearly contrasted to the modernist (and ultimately failing) search after certainty. In this reminder, which frames much of the album, the fact that we find our fulfillment as human beings in a relationship of faith rather than intractable certainty means that we find our hope not in our limited selves, but in the God who created us.The logical place to begin arguing this point in No Line is track six, “Stand Up Comedy,” which with track seven, “FEZ—Being Born,” could be said to represent the climax of the dramatic movement for the album itself. In “Stand Up Comedy,” we are thrust out of “Get on Your Boots” with its pounding refrain, where Bono is seeking mystical union with sound, purgation from this life and union with the ineffable (“Let me in the sound, let me in the sound, let me in the sound”), into a Beatlesque riff drawn from “Helter Skelter” that is a call to get “out from under your beds / C’mon ye people / Stand up for your love.” U2 first covered “Helter Skelter” as the lead in to the film Rattle and Hum, with Bono throwing his arms Christologically wide to the audience. And with the sonic return to the “Helter Skelter” riff in “Stand Up Comedy,” the Edge takes the core of “Helter Skelter” from its cynical minor chords, its tragedy about life’s dead end, to a major resolve as it is reimagined in “Stand Up Comedy.” In the introduction to “Helter Skelter” in Rattle and Hum, U2 declared that “Charles Manson stole this song; we are stealing it back,” and here in “Stand Up Comedy,” they have transformed this riff and the song that surrounds it from tragedy to comedy.
Another pointer that lyrically acknowledges that we are called to a “comedy of life” is that for U2, life is not meant to be lived purely on an imminent sphere. In “Stand Up Comedy,” Bono notes that while winning the “DNA lottery may have left [us] smart,” it doesn’t necessarily affirm our ultimate purpose. This lyrical riff on the “DNA lottery” is a fun spin on the current New Atheism and so-called intelligent-design debates. Bono undercuts all this rhetoric with an acknowledgment that even though we have “won” the planet’s “DNA lottery,” whether by chance or by design, that doesn’t get us to the heart of the matter; Bono sings that we “can stand up for hope, faith and love” as the grand Christian virtues, but perhaps there is more to life than this. As Bono continues the verse, he decries choosing knowledge and will power over faith when he sings, “While I’m getting over certainty / Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.” This double challenge—(1) dropping the search for certainty in favor of faith amid the intelligent design debates and (2) allowing God to, well, be God—becomes the liberating truth for the protagonist of the song. True, we can objectively affirm “hope, faith and love,” but until we actually “stand up” and do something about it—faith in action—we fall back to a “helter skelter” life.
No Line’s focus on beauty and truth represents another sign that U2 is calling us to comedy. In “Get on Your Boots,” U2 indicates that humanity needs to realize our beauty (“You don’t know how beautiful / You don’t know how beautiful you are / You don’t know, and you don’t get it, do you? / You don’t know how beautiful you are”), and in “Stand Up Comedy,” we hear that beauty is the true “dictator of the heart.” Here Bono is echoing a John Keats sentiment from his 1820 “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” which proclaims “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In true beauty, we are led to the truth of things, and in many respects, we are led to the divine. As a people made “beautiful” (“You don’t know how beautiful you are”), we are also called back to true/truth nature as made in the Imago Dei, the “dictator of the heart.” This is a liminal beauty, something that is not merely of the earth nor fixed in a way that will decay with time. Bono draws this point home by linking this beauty not to an earthen vessel (the grecian urn of Keat’s lament), but to an artistic medium better suited for the comedy that is the human condition: music. In short, Bono calls the listener throughout No Line to see, as in the lyrics from the penultimate track, “Breathe,” that:
We are people borne of sound
The songs are in our eyes
Gonna wear them like a crown
Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found
And I can breathe
Breathe now
By framing the human condition musically (“We are people borne of sound”) rather than imminently (winners of “the DNA lottery”), and by embodying hope, faith, and love rather than purveying some objective doctrine that merely affirms those traits, U2 is calling humanity to a comedic revolution par excellence. As music, we embrace a kenotic release from the fixation of self and are freed from isolation and estrangement. As song, we see ourselves as imminent and transcendent, neither bound to this world nor the world that is yet to come. The protagonist in “Get on Your Boots” kicks at the door of the music (“Let me in the sound”), and this refrain is repeated as a sample in the musical prelude for “FEZ—Being Born,” but as the album begins to close, “Breathe” reminds us that this “sound,” this liminal mystical union with that which never fades and is sustained on the voices of generations, is what we are to the very core. We are beautiful, we are sound, and ultimately, we are loved.
This third truth that underscores the comedy of No Line—that love is the key, both as a musical key and as the turnkey to unlock deep meaning in our lives—is nothing new, nor is it surprising in the context of the U2 canon. And the fact that at one moment Bono sings of the eroticism of lovers and at another moment yearns for the divine agape love that is both ubiquitous and eternal is not to diminish its potency and challenge. For a generation of fans brought up on irony and cynicism, such a claim and profession smacks of a rock star who just doesn’t understand the pain and suffering of the world. That criticism would strike the bull’s-eye if it weren’t aimed at the man who has given a voice and face (with sunglasses, mind you) to poverty in a way that has not been paralleled in recent history. In short, if Bono thinks that love can change the world, who are we to argue? Rather, like his rock-star doppelgänger for social change, John Lennon, Bono is an admirable agent for giving “peace a chance” and remembering that “love is all you need.” To this end, “FEZ—Being Born” and “Breathe” articulate that we must die and be reborn in order to be transformed, in order to love:
Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat
Neither down nor out
There’s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
Breathe now
This freedom to love requires daily death and rebirth, and it requires a willingness to walk into the world with arms “out” and announce “a love you can’t defeat.” If we are released from the tragedy of the self and embrace the knowledge kenotically with God, we are a song worth singing and a chorus that others can join, and in this key of love, life moves from tragedy to comedy.
As we close the first decade of the twenty-first century, we live in a time of economic uncertainty, interminable war, unstable governments, and a faith that has been shattered by a trust in science and institutions above flesh-and-blood relationships. No Line continues the drama that U2 has been singing about for the last three decades; the album is an elucidation of the prophetic call to life as a comedy that bends back to the days of Boy and War, broke forth into the deserts and stadiums of Joshua Tree, took music into the very heart of technology and consumerism through Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, and is now pointing us to a life that is found in faith in God rather than certainty about God, telling us that we are beautiful in a way that speaks of a Truth that transcends our current situation, and telling us that we are formed for a “love you can’t defeat.”This life is truly a divine comedy, my friends, and as the lyrics of “Get on your boots” declare:
Here’s where we gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity
If joy is real

4 Comments

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  1. Great piece, Jeff. I’m not in a linking phase over at U2 Sermons this week because I’m in the middle of some personal writing on “the sound” as mystical union (planning to head to Fez and the Sufis with that next)and some other broader stuff on NLOTH over at U2 Sermons, but will definitely link you when I get done. Look forward to meeting you at the U2 Conference when it gets rescheduled (hope our papers aren’t put in conflicting sessions….)

  2. Beth – really looking forward to your Sufism piece. I will keep checking your blog to see when it goes live. Sounds great.

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