Saturday, April 11, 2009

Gospel Music For The Horizon

"I don't write finger-pointing songs because I usually count myself among the accused." -Bono

It's Palm Sunday. I am sitting beside strangers in an old pew in Boston's Old South Church. I'm surrounded by people in bright Easter colors- a playful snub to puritanism inside the capital of Puritanical New England.

The site for worship dates back to the mid 1600s; the architecture is from the late 19th century. The pastor's words rising into the cathedral ceiling are straight from the headlines of the 21st century. One line in particular seems to rattles the walls of my still half-asleep mind and lowers my guard- something about extending hands to the downhearted and the "high" addict around the corner.

This command sends refreshing chills down my back. I usually avoid church religiously expecting exclusion over inclusion. Addicts have long been demonized instead of aided. Twenty years ago the ones who contracted AIDS were branded as deserving of what they got.

In the moments that follow the pastor's words the warm organ sounds and the choral arrangements fill the space above the palms in the patrons' hands. But it is U2's "Moment Of Surrender" playing in my head that is making my foot tap against the marble floor.

"Moment of Surrender" is off their latest album, No Line On The Horizon, a spectacular collections of songs about losing one's sense of self within thoughts, visions, seascapes, vices, and dreams of the 21st century. Producer Daniel Lanois calls it contemporary gospel.

"Soul music is about abandonment," says Bono.

Soul music. Those beautiful and atmospheric sounds of joy. It is the vocalist's fall from pride, an easily-abused and addicting substance. It is some sort of faith amidst uncertainty.

It is something like staring at a horizon.

You can hear exactly what Bono is talking about in Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." You can hear it in the exuberance of James Brown. You can hear it in Mahalia Jackson's gospel, her vocal releases from constraint.

You can hear it in many U2 songs from their entire canon. "Moment Of Surrender" demonstrates what U2 have always done so well. Their songs don't just tell stories, they create environments for conversations on war, love, doubt, faith and yes, the addictions we all might carry.

Enter "Moment Of Surrender" in 2009. Born in studio sessions in the medieval holy city of Fez, Morrocco, it is a seven-minute masterpiece recorded in a single take. Bono's high and imperfect, cracking vocals have been intentionally left in; they illustrate the extreme despair felt by the spiritually-lost narrator, a junkie in need of the same spiritual hand the pastor that shook my Palm Sunday was describing.

It is not U2's first song about heroin. 1984's "Bad," described by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder as one of the greatest songs about addiction ever, was a desperate plea for the strength to help a friend succumbing to the release offered by a needle and and an opiate

"If I could, through myself, set your spirit free I'd lead your heart astray to see you break, break away".

"Running To Stand Still" was another breathtaking track that seemed to take place in a type of wasteland where Bono follows a girl with a "storm blowing up in her eyes" who will "suffer the needle chill." These two songs conveyed the nonuser's acceptance of his own inner demons.

"Moment of Surrender" features Bono, a high statesmen of rock n' roll and global politics, as the make-believe and all too believable addict and opens with an atmospheric electronic sweep that gives way to a swerving bass line. A soul-shaking rattle from Larry Mullen's drum kit and a towering organ piece accompany the Edge's lovingly restrained and subtle, silver-tinged guitar line.

Then the unrestrained, soulful crack. It is a type of confession from the middle of a desert:

"I tied myself with wire,
To let the horses run free/
Playing with the fire 'till the fire played with me."

Bono's mournful story of two young lovers, "two souls too smart to be in the realm of certainty" searching for a spiritual embrace they can only find in heroin continues with a vocal performance that is so heartful, so sympathetic and so honest that it as if Bono is, in part, talking about himself. There is empathy in there too, from someone who is not himself an addict. But he is, at times, just as constrained as one.

Refreshing. It touches a truth in the same way Lou Reed so beautifully bared his troubles in The Velvet Underground's "Heroin."

The narrator "folds to his knees" during the first chorus at the prophesied "moment of surrender" that holds truth for sinners, saints, capitalists, criminals, and junkies alike. It is a deep look into the humanness and fallibility of a man ironically derided for an overly-righteous stage persona.

"I've been in every black hole,
At the altar of a dark star/
My body's now a begging bowl,
It's begging to get back,
Begging to get back to my heart/
To the rhythm of my soul/
To the rhythm of my consciousness/
To the rhythm that yearns to be released from control."

And then, a salvation of sorts. Mercy comes in the form of a credit card, the road opening to a much-needed fix that comes at the cost of losing one's God-given sense of self.

It is the haunting and transcendental gospel sound that makes this song ring so true.

"I was punching in the numbers
At the ATM machine/
I could see in the reflection
A face starting back at me.

At the moment of surrender/
Of vision over visibility/
I did not notice the passers-by and they did not notice me."

What is the discovery here- God or a path towards self-destruction? Perhaps the answer lies in what is perhaps the most beautiful line in the song. "Vision over visibility"- the forsaking of judgment and pride to accept the mysteries of faith.

It is choosing the intangible over the reality within our field of vision. It is a surrender.

"I was speeding on the subway
Through the stations of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down till the pain would stop."

And thus the journey of the addict continues off into Edge's blues-singed foray into the horizon. He echoes Bono's fading gospel vocals that culminate in heart-wrenchingly simple vowels in space: "Oh, Oh Ooooh..."

At the beginning of the 1990s, the start of U2's second decade, Bono put on a pair of large black sunglasses that looked more at home on Roy Orbison and stepped into an onstage alter-ego called The Fly. It made The Edge and drummer Larry Mullen nervous until they realized that people would finally discover what "a great bunch of guys" Bono actually was.

One part Elvis circa '68, one part Kafkian characteur, and one part a demonic figure from C.S. Lewis fitted for the age of television, The Fly was Bono's first attempt to escape the public persona of a pious pilgrim that fans and enemies of the band alike bestowed on him. He had been canned into a preacher for the underground- a saintly Joe Strummer.

One can read Bob Dylan's Chronicles and recognize the strange trend in popular culture that attaches great artists to easily-digested morality until complicated people are blown-up to be perfect messiah figures. It's why Dylan had to escape his audience for a while. It's why Lennon wrote those wonderfully surreal lyrics for "I Am The Walrus."

These songs fed into the myth that U2 was only interested in being viewed as rock n' roll's saviors and had nothing to offer. This was an oversimplification. Bono wasn't just putting the moral standards of the age in the light in those songs; he was simulataneously searching his own heart for any traces of a true believer.

The honesty of U2's lyrics lie in their 2000 hymn-like radio hit "Beautiful Day." It wasn't an invitation to hear Bono preach. It, and all U2 shows, are an seat at a musical congregation led by a lead-singer trying to figure out the same things we non-celebrities are. "Beautiful Day" is a plea to God to "teach me love" for "I know I'm not a hopeless case." It is empathy. It his own difficulty with appreciating the gift of life as he kneels to stare at the wonderment above him.

Granted, on the surface it's hard to imagine how any rock star with wrap-around sunglasses can empathize, let alone sympathize, with anyone, especially publicly. "Moment Of Surrender" shows us a deeper collection of people behind the colored shades that create a believer with a voice Springsteen described as "shot through with self-doubt." It is a wonderful confession for the ears of anyone charting the distance between a "faithful" churchgoer and a junkie down on their luck in God's gutters.

The distance, it turns out, may never be all that wide.