[*] 20-year-old Beef (skimpy main course)

OK – I still have the loose end of complaining about Brian Mattson’s review of U2’s last CD, and after all the hoopla I’m not going to make too big a deal out of this. My opinion is that I covered the nuts-and-bolts of Bono’s use of words when I briefly reviewed his conversation with Michka Assayas.

Here’s my upside of this CD: it really does rock. If that’s all you care about, rock on.

But Mattson takes too much for granted. He summarizes Part One of his review by saying:
In part one of this review, I rehearsed some of the background of U2's life and music, particularly the evidence of a spiritual journey over the course of their many albums. I pointed out that they seem to have traversed the territory between a cynical approach to suffering, characterized by accusing God of screwing up the world, to an approach of faith and hope, characterized by humility and "bended knees."
Ironically, I would agree with about 81% of this assessment, but the rub lies in equating “a spiritual journey” with “faith, hope, … humility and bended knee”, particularly in the matter of faith. Not all “spiritual journeys” are ones which lead to saving faith, unfortunately, and it is in the best case it is not determinate what the results of Bono’s spiritual journey is.

In taking too much for granted, Mattson gives Bono all the benefit of the doubt. For example, in listening to “Vertigo”, Mattson says
The source of satisfaction, the antidote to "Vertigo," is God teaching one how to kneel.
Let’s remember that Bono is not a careless person when it comes to choosing his words, so in calling this song “Vertigo”, we have to believe that he knew that “vertigo” means “An illusion of movement, a sensation as if the external world were revolving around the subject”. (an interesting note is that a common error to believe that vertigo is merely any kind of dizziness) Thus when Mattson offers the conclusion that this song is about an antidote to personal vertigo, he seems to overlook that the majority of the song is actually about the whirling about of the world – and that the last words of the song are “die young”.

Maybe Bono was careless in naming the song, and this song really does hinge on the phrase, “I can feel your love teaching me how / Your love is teaching me how, how to kneel, kneel”. I find it difficult to get to Mattson’s conclusions, however, because like the rest of Bono’s vocabulary the terms are all ambiguous. Some people may say that this is the definition of poetry, the heart of artistic work in literature, but that is simply an uninformed view. You cannot find this kind of ambiguity in great poetry (cf. Williams, Stevens, Whitman, Elliot), but you can certainly find it in pop music.

Let’s consider, however, that I am still holding a grudge against Bono and that this song ought to be read in the context that the song “Yahweh” on this same CD – which is obviously using the covenant name of God for some purpose. In defense of Mattson’s view of this particular song, the first half certainly is, as he says, evidence that Bono has read the book of Psalms – and perhaps a little Isaiah as well. The whole matter of taking our ashes and turning them into something beautiful – to the very end, where Bono pleads “Take this heart/And make it break” – is classically biblical.

Yet here is the centerpiece of the song:
Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I'm waiting for the dawn

Still waiting for the dawn... sun is coming up
Sun is coming up on the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn?
Even Mattson can admit that the phrase “always pain before a child is born” is a reference to the pain of this world – he goes to identify it as the matter of original sin. I will gladly accept that view – if it can be reconciled with what the ocean is in the bridge. The singer is “still waiting for the dawn” in spite of the “pain before a child is born” – so the dawn is something better, yes? And the sun is coming up “on the ocean”. We can hop ahead a little and try to say that “the ocean” is all of God’s love, and that the love that Bono knows/feels is “like a drop” in that ocean.

But if we hop ahead and do that, we have a problem: the dawn is already “something better”. So is “something better” coming than God’s love? Or is God’s love in need of something more? This is question is amplified by the singer’s question “tell me now/why the dark before the dawn?” The easy way out is to say, “all of it is God’s love, cent. The dawn, the drop, the ocean.” And anyone is welcome to say that – but find a way to make the passage make sense if that is true. The singer is waiting for the dawn, and here comes the dawn, and the dawn is on the ocean, and the ocean is God’s love, so God’s love is enlightening God’s love ... ?

It seems to me that this bridge is instead saying, “I can see the dawn coming up on the ocean, but this love (the dawn) is like a drop in the ocean – that is, the problem looks bigger than the solution.” That makes sense especially in the context that the idiom “that’s just a drop in the ocean” is not an idiom which expresses surplus but one which expresses insignificance or inadequancy –- consider the Michelle branch lyric “Drop in the Ocean” or Mother Theresa’s classic quote, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but if that drop were not in the ocean,… the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

As I listen to this song, I want to hear what Mattson has expounded – but I hear something different, which is the confusion Bono has over the work of God and the role of man. Sure: he has this idea, as demonstrated in the book review post, that love came down in a humble way in the dung and the straw. But it is confused by a lot of things – like failing to connect suffering in this life to man’s actual guilt and also to Christ’s redemptive suffering (which are two different classes of suffering, to be sure).

In that way, to extol this song as a modern psalm (aside from the hubris of saying such a thing) is to overlook the shortcomings in its view of God’s relationship to man.

So, in the end, I think Mattson’s review is confused. And that’s a shame because I think he’s a bright guy. So if you’re looking for rock and roll, go ahead and buy U2’s last CD – but let’s not confuse it with something that deserves a theological 4-star rating.

Other entries in this series: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |