In Conversation with Beth Maynard: U2’s “No Line on the Horizon”

It is a genuine delight and honor for me to present the first installment in what I hope will become a long-running series of conversations with great critics, bloggers, authors, and thinkers from around the Web, discussing provocative new music and exploring the issues raised therein. For our first conversation, I had the pleasure of talking with Beth Maynard– co-editor of the book Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog, mastermind of the U2 Sermons Blog, and contributor to my U2 celebration from a few weeks back– about the theological perspectives in U2’s astonishing new recording, No Line on the Horizon.

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Josh Hurst: Beth, I remember reading an advance review of No Line on the Horizon that heralded it as “U2’s most complete album,” and I’d have to agree. Contrary to what Bono says in the first song, it almost seems like it IS linear– that the album has a clear arc, maybe not a narrative one, but certainly a thematic one. What’s your take?

Beth Maynard: I hear the album falling into basically three parts — the first 4 epic songs, which has got to be the most blockbuster U2 beginning since Joshua Tree; then the more domestic/pop/personal unit of “Crazy-Boots-Comedy”; and then the last 4 with “Fez” as the entryway into the intimate yet sonically and thematically expansive “White-Breathe-Cedars.”  (In a sense it’s hard to come up with a description for that set that fits “Breathe,” but I do think “Breathe” is more intentional here than just being a change-up between the two slow numbers.  There is something very reflective about it and its collage verses marry with the specificity of the two slower numbers.  Any comments on this?)

I agree that I don’t hear an 11-song story, although I do appreciate what Bono has said about the same character moving from “Moment of Surrender” into “Unknown Caller.”  But this is absolutely an album, and not  a collection of songs (as opposed to HTDAAB).  How would you characterize the thematic arc you perceive?  I’m not sure I have my finger on that quite yet.

JH: I can’t help but hear the album as something of an extension of– or perhaps an answer to– Zooropa. That album, to me, was a collection of “prodigal son” stories, tales of characters who have left home, epitomized, in the final track, by The Wanderer, a character who could really be a stand-in for any other character on the album, or for Bono himself.

But if that album was about leaving home, this one seems to be about returning. Both the title song and “Moment of Surrender” suggest a kind of spiritual intimacy that somehow transcends space and time, and “Breathe” contrasts this place– “grace inside a sound”– with the chaos and noise of our finite world. And then there’s “Unknown Caller,” in which our narrator is, quite literally, called home…

BM: I have to admit I’ve spent less time with Zooropa than with any U2 album, but your prodigal son connection rings true.  I think if I were going to play with the “home” metaphor for NLOTH, I would want two poles to it.

There is a settledness, a rest (in the Hebrews sense) in the atmosphere of some of the tracks that speaks of being unshakably grounded in “home” — in fact, having settled so far in that one is at the point of reminiscing about what one learned over the years. I’m thinking of the liberty and spacious ease of much of “Breathe,” the retrospective tone of “Magnificent,” and the “old married folks” duo of “Crazy” (looking back down the mountain with encouragement for climbers earlier in the journey) and “Boots.”

But there’s also the poignant “come home” thing — “come back to me” from the film clip of the “Fez” sessions didn’t make it onto “Unknown Caller”’s final chorus sheet, but we do get as the near-closing word of NLOTH a choral “return the call to home.” “White as Snow”’s narrator, on his deathbed, wants to recapture his early experience of forgiving love.  I haven’t really found my way into “Moment of Surrender” (and may not; those U2 mini-operas often don’t connect for me) but it also speaks of “begging to get back.”

You mention that sense of transcendence of space and time, and I definitely hear this as well — there have always been evocations of this kind of thing in U2, but it seems more integral, or less conflicted, or something else I can’t put my finger on, here.  I’m still mulling over how it fits in with the settledness you’re calling a “home” theme.  An article I read, when I first became a fan in 1987, contained one phrase that has always stuck with me (I’ve never found the citation); the author said that U2 were characterized by “blood lust for the infinite.”  Yeah.  And yet we’ve arrived in 2009, and what’s the infinite now? “A great place to start.”

JH: And I think that the sense of “settledness” and the sense of “coming home” are connected– that the call to “reboot yourself” and “return the call to home” are closely linked to a sense of discovering one’s purpose– one’s calling, if I can say that. Coming home seems to involve the recognition of what we were born to do, as Bono sings in “Magnificent.” And that, by turn, is connected to the middle three tracks, which are all, on some level, anthems– anthems of change, of movement, of engagement, of doing what we were born to do. Or am I totally missing the point of those three songs? (I DO think– unlike some of the album’s detractors– that they are very much woven into the album’s tapestry, not just random excursions into pop terrain.)

BM: Hmm. This may be a semantics thing, but “discovering one’s purpose” comes off a bit too cognitive for me on this one.  I’m thinking of the call to “get over certainty” on this album, yet wondering about the paradoxical fact that it radiates something very much like certainty in a non-propositional sense (groundedness, spiritual confidence, mature ease).  I’m not sure “I was born to sing for you; I didn’t have a choice” is primarily a statement of having figured out one’s purpose; to me it’s more like lovers’ language.  And I would place the liminal encounter in “Unknown Caller” at a moment before any rational understanding of it forms in the character’s mind.

However, I see where you’re coming from with the middle three songs you mention. It makes me wonder if the vision is that down the road, as we look back and synthesize, we are more able to grasp the big picture and see what it has all been about — while the initial call, the moment of surrender, has to be about something more primal than purpose. Not sure I’m content with that formulation yet, though.

I spoke at a seminar the day before I first heard NLOTH, on “spiritual health for social justice workers.”  Playing “Stand Up Comedy” the next day, I wished I had had it 24 hours earlier, because I felt like I could have just told the audience, “Hey, if you sound like this after 33 years, you’re doing fine.”

JH: “Discovering one’s purpose” may indeed be a bit too simplistic; would it be better to talk about it in terms of self-discovery and self-identity? A song like “Magnificent”– which does indeed employ lovers’ language, as you say– seems to find the singer finding a sense of himself within the context of his lover (who is, I presume, the “Unknown Caller”).

On the subject of “home,” I would be remiss to not mention “Cedars of Lebanon”– which, by the way, sounds to me like it belongs in the class of Great U2 Album Closers, along with “40” and “Love is Blindness.” That song’s call to “return the call home” sounds to me like a clear nod back to “Unknown Caller.”

BM: There is some U2 lyric from a previous album trying to make its way inside my head as I read this, about finding who you are in relationship with someone else. I know a similar image is used negatively in “Always” and perhaps “So Cruel,” but isn’t there a positive version somewhere more recent?

I also immediately associated “Cedars” with “Love is Blindness.”  I’m curious if it will close the live shows as well.

JH: Maybe you’re thinking of “All Because of You,” from the last album? I think that qualifies as an example of Bono finding meaningful identity in the context of a love relationship (a divine one, I think it’s fair to say).

Of course, Bono is singing about love all over this album– when is he ever not?– and one of the recurring themes, it seems to me, is love as an empowering force. It’s what gives the singer his strength in “Magnificent,” and, in “Breathe,” it gives the courage to walk out into the street, with arms open. And of course, it’s what lies at the heart of the call to arms in “Stand Up Comedy.” I don’t mean to oversimplify this, or make these songs too autobiographical, but I’m inclined to say that Bono is rooting his activism, his social justice work, in divine love.

BM: I was so struck by Mark Meynell’s Wordle of the album lyrics with that gigantic LOVE dominating the whole image.

Somewhere in one of Peter Kreeft’s books he comments that when people say “God is love” many of them mean “Love is god.” Although they have explored the dangerous allure of that reversal in some of their work, overall I don’t think U2 have that problem. To me their use of “love” (or the ever-popular ambiguous U2 “you”) as the name for what they’re serving is a major reason that all kinds of people can find a way into the songs. (One example which made me smile: a standard Bono interview soundbite for years has been that it’s not interesting whether we believe in God; what’s interesting is that God believes in us.  That line made it into a lyric this time — but edited….)

The band have been saying that the theme of the album is surrender.  I might be more inclined to say more of it speaks from “having surrendered.”

JH: It’s interesting, I think, that an album so concerned with love would end the way it does; the final lines in “Cedars of Lebanon” are not about friends or lovers, but about “choosing your enemies carefully.” It’s an ominous, almost cautionary note– a far cry from the benedictory songs that closed the last two records. Any thoughts on how those closing lines fit into the album’s vision?

BM: Bono has recently commented how crucial it turned out to be to U2’s career that they “picked enemies that were more internal,” and when I consider the verse in that context, I hear what you might call, if you’ll forgive a classical spirituality term, an ascetical preoccupation — not in the sense of being an ascetic, but in the sense of ascetical theology which studies the praxis of the spiritual life.  I don’t think the verse is so much closing the album with the downer topic of enemies, as it is closing it with a pointer to what kinds of decisions end up shaping where we wind up spiritually.  And that focus does fit with the rest of the album.

Surrounding the whole vibe of NLOTH is a sense of what I’ve been calling “settledness.” And along with that, while yes, there’s this stuff about infinity/possibilities, and getting out from under the bed and standing up for your love and so on, part of me wants to say that the real leverage points on NLOTH are ascetical theology ones:  the radiant moments of transformation, the long, slow journey towards heart-change, and more.

JH: What’s interesting about those closing lines– for me, anyway– is that, for all his political songs and his anthems of activism, Bono generally strikes me as someone who’s less interested in singing about external enemies and more interested in singing about the enemy within– the enemies of our own hypocrisy, apathy, and self-absorption. So it’s interesting that, in the album’s most topical song, he ends what has been a very reflective album with a set of lines that seem at first to address some nameless external foes– but it sounds like you’re saying (and I would agree) that that’s not quite the case, that those closing lines are more about the character in the song reflecting on his own actions than on deflecting onto someone or something else.

BM: Reflecting on his own actions, or perhaps on those which he’s had opportunity to observe while being a war correspondent.  The latter almost seems to work better with the song to me, as if the character steps back and delivers his assessment of where war gets you, which also turns into something like a summary statement for the album – practice soulwork and live your life intentionally; it’s the only source for sustainable joy of the kind these songs have been communicating.

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