U2: The Journey Toward Ascension

Three Chords and the Truth

By  Nikki Vanasse

Blackstone, MA


As I write this, I’m enjoying every second of the entire U2 library.  It was time to take a look back and listen again because these songs, for many people, are worth visiting over and over again throughout time.  The timeline is clear, you get a real feeling for the evolution, and sometimes revolution, of this band.  Don’t misunderstand them.  The biggest secret is really how vulnerable they are, particularly Bono.  And just because they write about struggles doesn’t mean they have all the answers.  The Edge has said that they’re just as confused as any of us.  So essentially we are all on this journey with them.  Bono makes that possible in the way he writes lyrics.  Metaphors abound and songs take on multiple meanings.  That’s on purpose.  Bono picks apart the specifics, throws in metaphor and before you know it, by golly, that song is about YOU!

Post-punk revival + Christian rock = U2.  Although it’s evolved into a more spiritual belief system as opposed to those of an organized Christian religion.  But know this too: there are several Christian beliefs and themes within the process of Spirituality.  The journey toward ascension.  It’s largely based on morals, compassion, charity: the words of the Bible outside any organized influences.  If you’ve read the books on the band then you know how serious and important that was to half them.  

What was discovered however, which resonates significantly with me at the present time, interestingly enough, is that it’s not about the organized religion where you have to go somewhere to be heard by God, it’s about how you connect with everyone in the world, a “oneness”, the God connection.  For Bono, it’s always been about compassion and charity, so we see that result outright these days.  He believes songs are like prayers (Rolling Stone; Issue 986 Nov. 3, 2005).

You could grab a song off each album and it will deliver a spiritual journey to, from, or with God.  After all, it hasn’t all been a bed of roses with the Man Upstairs.  Let’s give it a whirl:

Boy largely the coming-of-age album that dealt more with boy trying to be man, loss of innocence and sex.  And more sex.  They were, after all, 18 years old at this time, so factor that.  There was also a lot of anger present on the record, particularly “The Electric Co.”  Otherwise, I was hard-pressed to really find any Christian overtones yet, as the Shalom Fellowship (a Christian sect in Ireland) wasn’t introduced into their lives until 1980, just after this record.  They were certainly exposed to it, but not in the way they would experience soon.

October - “Gloria” is an outright song of confusion in finding the way in the world.  “I try, I try to stand up/but I can’t find my feet/I try, I try to speak up/but only in you I’m complete”.  That record above all represents not only the moment in time, but also the degree of which God influences the band.  October was really the album with the story.  It wasn’t the hit that Boy was, but contained in it is all the confusion and religion any band could muster up in one release.  

Four naive young men set out on the adventure of a lifetime:  to become the world’s biggest rock band. Suddenly, there IS no band.  Guilt wracked 3/4 of the band who were torn between being true spiritually as well as being true to themselves and musically on their quest towards being the best rock and roll band they could be.  However, they learned that the two could NOT coexist under any circumstances as far as the Shalom Fellowship was concerned.  

Larry states in U2 by U2, that there was tremendous pressure from the Shalom Fellowship to attend all prayer meetings and to give up the band to pursue a more spiritual avenue.  The pressure was great enough that The Edge left the band.  Bono followed because as he stated in U2 by U2, he wasn’t interested in being in the band if Edge wasn’t.

There was enormous negativity coming from the people who were their friends, about being in a rock band.  While Bono and Edge exited the band, Larry gave up the Fellowship.  As this turmoil is going on, so should the work of October.  So the band did break up for about 6 months during those sessions.  

October is a fascinating work in that the band comes together to finish work on their second album.  Adam remarks that he wasn’t too convinced that a New Wave band could get away with all the God lyrics.  The band’s new manager, Paul McGuinness, finally posed the question out loud.  “Was this really what they wanted?”  With some insight from McGuinness, they resolved their issues and pressed forward.  The rest, as they say, is history.

War - By the time War came around, everyone had come to terms with where the energy would be spent and felt that God wasn’t going to condemn them for continuing their life’s work.  In the words of Steve Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, “The God that they met and have pilgrimaged with down the amazing road is a God who is bigger then church or religious boundaries.” (Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2).  

They had started to dial in at this time.  The album is electrically charged with the politics that hurt them, their families, their people, people all over the world.  These songs became something different for me after 9/11.  After hearing “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” in Boston in Nov. 2001, I finally understood those lyrics like no way I had before.  And these guys lived with this kind of terrorism on a daily basis!  

It hit me like a ton of bricks.  But I digress.  Let’s look at “40”. And maybe you guessed it, yes, the lyrics were restyled from the Bible’s 40th Psalm.  “I waited patiently for the Lord/he inclined and heard my cry/he brought me up out of the pit/out of the mirey clay”.  It’s very calming; spiritual.  It brought the chaos of the album to a close.  It’s no wonder why this song brought the shows to a close for so many years.  That was exactly the idea!

The Unforgettable Fire - This is where the wearing of the feelings on the sleeve becomes less apparent.  Enter Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.  The spirituality that is born on this album is more reflective of the spirituality or Christianity that the band felt right with.  It dealt with some major spiritual themes: “Desperation, desolation, separation, condemnation, revelation, in temptation, isolation, desolation” (“Bad”), as any individual would face in a lifetime.  

Pick your issue, pick your song…it’s all in here.  Now writing and creating for a larger audience, you’ll fine issues from addiction (“Bad”) to the fight for civil rights, to channeling the spirits of Indian people who were massacred in Toronto (“Indian Summer Sky”).  It strikes a chord of a more metaphysical nature, more universal.  The focus on creating atmosphere a la Eno took the nakedness right out of the experience and made it more like experiencing aura.

Next up: the holy grail of U2, The Joshua Tree

(Editor Note: We will be posting the four parts over the next few day, we invite you to sign up via facebook, twitter or our website to be updated as we post)