10 Thoughts on the New U2 Album

For 30 years I’ve been actively listening to U2. But even before that the videos for “New Years Day” and “Pride” were capturing my attention. So when a new U2 album is released, it’s an event. In fact, since Rattle and Hum I can recall the events surrounding every one of their releases.

But I’ve been anxious about the new album. The pre-release reviews have been positive. Multiple said it was their best since Achtung Baby, which is my favorite U2 album. But I’m always worried. Do I love all their albums? Yes. But there is in all of us U2 fans the desire to be blown away. I want U2 albums that make me feel like I did when I skipped school to be the first in line to get Rattle and Hum and then listened to it over and over for weeks on end.

This past Friday we got Songs Of Experience, the long-awaited follow up to Songs of Innocence. The following are my thoughts after about 20-25 listens.

1. After two complete listens, I texted my two best friends and told them I thought it was better than anything since Achtung Baby. They were nonplussed. After more than 25 complete listens, I not only still stand by that assessment, I am more convinced of its truth. It will go down as one of the great U2 albums.

2. The refrain with the chorus at the end of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is one of the most powerful musical moments I’ve ever encountered. I cannot get it out of my head. Those lines are rolling around in my head constantly.

3. This album starts with a hymn and ends with a psalm. And everything in between feels like something out of the Psalms: injustice, mortality, repentance, confession, joy, hope, and thanksgiving.

4. Bono’s voice has never sounded better. Hard to believe, but it really is true. The space age auto-tuning used in the first song is not because he needs help. It’s for effect, almost as if he is looking back at the world from space.

5. At the end of “American Soul” Bono sings “For Refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus. It’s a play on words, of course, that most people will find a little hokey. But the more I’ve thought it, the more I’ve appreciated that last word. Who is he referring to here? Is this a reference to America as a Savior to refugees and they are Refu-Jesus? Or at least, should be? Or is this a reference to the refugees as Jesus? “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Regardless, it deepens the entirety of the song’s message.

6. I joked the other day, that Songs of Experience is my favorite Christmas album. But maybe, I made more sense than I even knew. This is a dark album in many ways. The music and the lyrics deal with a darkness that pervades our culture and even worse lurks in our hearts. But it’s awfully hopeful too.

Darkness is the natural habitat for hope. I’m showing my students the movie, The Nativity Story in class right now. The movie makes clear the cultural and political world in which Christ was born. Their hope of his coming was always on their lips because the darkness was ever present in the specters of Rome, poverty, and a culture of death.

This album has no cynicism. No irony. All hope for the darkest of nights. But what it does that is a little different from the international situation we have now, is add ourselves into the mix of the guilty. The problem is not merely “out there.” Which, of course, is why he came.

7. “The Little Things That Give You Away” is as good as any song U2 has ever done. It’s “One” good.

8. “Red Flag Day” reminds me of War in the best possible way. It’s a perfect pop/rock song. And because it is a response to this, it’s just that much more of a great song.

9. The fact that my kids love these songs is important. Listening to U2 as a family is something we’ve enjoyed for a number of years now and if they didn’t like it or if we didn’t, there’d be trouble.

10. U2 albums are personal for me and have been for a long time. I’m not the kind of fan that dreams of meeting them. I don’t figure out how to see them on every tour. But they have shaped the way I think about myself and the world. And they’ve been doing that for 30 years. That’s no small thing.

Christmas Is for Those Who Hate It Most

tangled-christmas-lights

Who is Christmas for?

We are now accustomed to hearing how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his problems with the season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe this has always been the case. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy. Not too long ago, I heard from one of these people. They told me how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was hopelessness and devastation in her voice. She was sure Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of the pain. It’s been a story hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense. Christmas is a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year for one is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year for another. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

All the hurt and pain and disappointment with the expectation of joy and excitement make it hard for people to love Christmas. In fact, some hate it.

But I’d like to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss.  And we imagine how they can easily enjoy the holidays. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen, drinking perfectly mixed hot cocoa. Admit it, we live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshipers were not of the beautiful privileged class. They were poor and most-likely ugly shepherds, beat down by life and labor.

But Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when the son wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for all those who have squandered the family name and fortune, prodigals who want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray. Christmas is for every family with an empty seat at the table.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for those who need it. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it the most.