The Common Good
March-April 2001

Beauty out of Ugly Things

by Kimberly Burge | March-April 2001

There are two unrelated things that people learn quickly about me. The first is that
you probably shouldn't talk to me early in the morning. And the second is that I love
U2.

There are two unrelated things that people learn quickly about me. The first is that you probably shouldn't talk to me early in the morning. And the second is that I love U2.

I've been an unabashed U2 fan for two-thirds of my life. I'm convinced that I'd be in a different career today if I'd made other musical choices in the '80s. U2 played music that you could sing or shout or dance to, but that also identified injustices in the world and asked, "So what do we do about it?" They didn't always answer the question, which wasn't their job, anyway. But I heard it asked. As a teenager, I could claim faith in music easier than I could profess faith in Christ. Now I'm grateful for the dual influences.

Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. have been writing and playing music together since they were teen-agers in Dublin more than 20 years ago. Their debut album, released in the United States in 1980, was appropriately titled Boy. On All That You Can't Leave Behind, their 10th studio album released last fall, Bono sings, "I'm a man, I'm not a child." Passion, belief, struggle, and determined, hard-won optimism-all the things that make for great grown-up music-are in abundance in these 11 well-crafted songs.

"Beautiful Day" opens the album with initially subdued tones and lyrics depicting anything but a beautiful day. No room to rent, the traffic is stuck, a friend has let you down ("someone you could lend a hand in return for grace"). Ah, well. Mullen's drums, Edge's recognizable guitar, and Clayton's bass kick in the rousing chorus anyway, and Bono wails joyfully, "The sky falls and you feel like it's a beautiful day…don't let it get away." Some days all you can do is turn the music up really loud.

U2 has always played soul music, even if you wouldn't classify the group that way. This time, its melodies actually come closest to that sound. With a Philly soul beat, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is a song of encouragement from someone who's been down there himself, face to the ground with a foot on his neck, but who fought his way back. You can believe him when he sings, "It's just a moment/This time will pass."

THE WORLD'S injustices haven't disappeared, and so again U2 confronts those as well. "Walk On" begins with a defiant acknowledgement: "Love is not the easy thing/The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can't leave behind." Dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest in Burma since 1989, the song is an exhortation to strength and faithfulness in the face of everything trying its best to cripple you: "And if your glass heart should crack/And for a second you turn back/Oh no, be strong…Walk on/What you got, they can't steal it/No, they can't even feel it." The song soars; I can't wait to hear it live.

In the 1983 song "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," U2 sang about the Irish "troubles" for the first time. Fifteen years later, just as the long-awaited peace agreement brought renewed hope, hearts and lives were shattered again with the bombing in Omagh, where 29 people were killed. In "Peace on Earth," Bono sounds weary more than anything: "I'm sick of the sorrow/ I'm sick of the pain/I'm sick of hearing again and again/That there's gonna be peace on earth." But he refuses to let despair win, and the chorus becomes a pleading prayer: "Jesus could you take the time to throw a drowning man a line/Peace on earth."

U2 always finds a way to balance concerns of the world with affairs of the heart. Love songs make their way onto the album with the bluesy "In A Little While" and the acoustic "Wild Honey." Before the album's release, it was being heralded as a return of the "classic" U2 sound. With Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (who previously worked with U2 on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree) returning as producers, there is a sense of continuity from their earlier music, but it never sounds dated.

The album closes gently with a return to "Grace." "Grace, it's the name for a girl/It's also a thought that changed the world." Grace doesn't make sense, it "travels outside of karma." That's something that the world doesn't always understand, but U2 seem to know: "Grace makes beauty out of ugly things."

Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, is writer and editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.

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