That Melody above the Herd: Pilgrims, Punk Rock, and Love in U2’s Songs of Innocence

Most of us probably remember U2’s Songs of Innocence as the album that eight years ago every iPhone owner got for free. Yes, whether you—the iPhone user—wanted it or not, on September 14, 2014, U2’s 11-track rock album made its way into your car, your house, and your office. You may also remember, if you follow music or tech news, that this caused quite a rumble among Apple folks. U2 and Apple had hoped to be thanked for their generosity, but instead the Irish rock band and global tech company received angry complaints. Stephen Silver from Apple Insider clearly chronicles the media’s reaction to the album: “Rather than a gift, many Apple customers saw the free album as something of an intrusion of the sacred privacy of their iTunes account. Putting an album in the account of a user—much less all of them—was a step that Apple had never taken before, and it was seen by a lot of users as an affront.” Major pop culture magazines Wired and Salon described U2 and Apple’s marketing strategy as appalling, Salon harshly stating that the ploy had turned them into “the most hated band in America.”

In Songs of Innocence . . . love takes on a sacred nature.

In response to the vitriol, Bono announced to ABC that U2 was sorry: “Artists are prone to that kind of thing,” Bono said, “Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.” 

U2’s marketing strategy did hinder the album’s success, and though I am a U2 fan, I don’t condone their hubris—their belief that everyone should appreciate their rock ’n’ roll. It’s really quite a shame that U2 sabotaged one of their most thought provoking albums. During an interview with RTE, Bono said Songs of Innocence is not an “experimental” record filled with “sonic blasts” but an album of “songs” or thoughtfully crafted poems. Songs is meditative and based on Bono’s early years growing up in Ireland and the formation of U2 in Dublin during the late 1970s. “If you know the album,” said Bono, “you’ll see the themes . . . how ‘holding on to your own innocence is a lot harder than holding on to someone else’s.” Songs is a poignant record which doesn’t shy away from challenging themes for rock ’n’ roll artists: faith, vulnerability, and sacrificial love. “To sing ‘In the Name of Love’ was as uncool in 1984 as it is now” Bono told the RTE, and “to sing about your faith–your mother in rock ’n’ roll–really [many would tell you] to shut up.” And yet U2’s determination to create music that engages the soul and not just the senses, is the reason why, though initially lampooned, Songs of Innocence is worthy of attention. Songs of Innocence tells the story of an artist’s journey back to prelapsarian harmony. The artist’s return to divine joy begins and ends with music, highlighting music’s curious quality to help men and women discover what it means to be human and to love in a world fraught with fear and loneliness. Songs boldly asserts that love is not a cliche, or simply sensual pleasure, but the essence of reality—the blood and bones of heaven and earth. The artist can participate in this reality of love, but only if he can first humbly admit the poverty of his own soul.

“I was chasing down the days of fear / Chasing down a dream before it disappeared,” says the narrator-artist on the first track titled “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” Bono told the RTE that “The Miracle” is about how he and his friends when they were teenagers went to their first Ramones concert in Dublin and were inspired to keep their fledgling band together. At the concert, they became completely enraptured by the punk rockers from New York City, as the third and fifth stanzas of the first track state:

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
The most beautiful song I ever heard.

These lines give us an intense and perhaps desperate picture of our songwriter. He begins as an angsty teenager, a kid who has grown up in a war-torn Ireland, “haunted by the spectors that we had to see.” He hates the violence on the streets and is worried that his dreams to be a musician could be cut short. The punk rock in the concert halls is alluring because somehow the angry rockers on the stage mirrors the anger that the young artist has inside of him. The punk rocker’s song is “beautiful” because it’s cathartic and inspires him fearlessly to “be the melody / Above the noise, above the herd.” The writer and his friends are “pilgrims on . . . [their] way” to becoming musicians who want to discover a true melody that will stop the chaos around them, but they aren’t quite there yet. The writer has his “religion so . . .[he] can love and hate,” so that he can know what is good and what is evil, but the music that he and his friends are enamored by is simply there to “exaggerate . . . [their] pain.” The artist and his friends are good-hearted but angry pilgrims “wishing to be blinded” by the music around them which allows them to express their rage at the violence in the world. 

How the artist is able to say at the end of the album that he finds the “punk rock party in a suburban home” empty comes about because the artist learns through his music that love guided by true religion brings redemption and restoration. He learns that if he really wants to make a difference in the world and move beyond just expressing his pain in music, he’s going to need to make sense out of the human heart which longs for love but is too often a slave to fear, fame, and rage.

Love is such a general word in the English language. A woman can love a hotdog and her cat and her child—all in the same sentence. A rock singer can shout that he loves his girlfriend while only meaning he hopes she’ll sleep with him after the concert. In Songs of Innocence, though, love takes on a sacred nature. In “Song for Someone,” a track about the artist’s first romantic relationship, the artist reflects upon the difficulty of vulnerability and how love, defined as willing the good of the other, brings true joy—joy which finds its source in God as expressed through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. “I have some scars from where I’ve been,” says the narrator to his beloved, “and You’ve got eyes that can see right through me” but “You’re not afraid of anything they’ve seen.” Saint John writes “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love,” and in “Song for Someone” we see the theme of love as courage repeated: “I don’t know how these cuts heal / But in you, I’ve found a right.” Yes, to be vulnerable means to risk being hurt. Showing another your wounds and your victories opens up the possibility of rejection, but without vulnerability, you keep yourself from experiencing relationships built on compassion and generosity. The artist notes in the final stanza of “Song for Someone” that “I’m a long way / From your hill of Calvary” and that he is “a long way / From where I was, where I need to be.” The artist recognizes what perfect love looks like; he knows that the deepest love will require sacrifice and suffering, and he knows that he is frail and certainly not in the place to love his lady with such purity. Nevertheless, though the bar is set high, this doesn’t tempt the narrator to water down what love actually is. 

 In “Song for Someone” the angry, rash boy from “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” has become more thoughtful; rage does not inspire his song, love does. His music has begun to look upward. He is hopeful that “there is a light” and that one mustn’t “let it go out.” This is the song that he wants to share with everyone; it is the song that is the antidote to the pain and anger that he experiences at the beginning of the album. “The most beautiful sound he’s ever heard” is found in sacrificial relationships. Expressing one’s wrath and grief is part of being human, and in some contexts, a legitimate response to evil like the Dublin Bombing of 1973, yet it cannot be one’s ultimate response to men and women’s spiritual poverty. Divine love must finally water the broken soul.

On the track “Iris,” the artist reflects upon his past and recognizes that love is the essence of reality; he remembers his mother—who died when he was still a young teenager—and how she nurtured him and encouraged him to “free” himself so that he could become his true self. And what is the artist’s true self? The answer can be found in the third stanza of the song. The artist’s true self loves his neighbor as he loves himself. “Once we are born / We begin to forget / The very reason we came,” says the artist in “Iris.” He then begins to explain how the chaos or “darkness” around him doesn’t stop the soul of his mother, “the star that gives us light,” from shining her love down upon him and his family. His mother was born to love; love was her purpose in life— that was what made her beautiful. Kallistos Ware writes in The Orthodox Way, “To say to another, with all our heart, ‘I love you,’ is to say, ‘You will never die.’ At such moments of personal sharing we know, not through arguments but by immediate conviction, that there is life beyond death.” According to Ware, love is eternal goodness willing the everlasting joy of another; to believe in love is to believe in eternity, and to a certain degree this is what our artist means when he compares his dead mother to a star who faithfully passes her light—or love—onto others. Her life lives on in him, urging him to remember why he is here on earth; she calls him back to the age when wolves ate grass and when men and women loved without fear. 

“Holding on to your own innocence is a lot harder than holding on to someone else’s,” commented Bono when asked about the message of Songs of Innocence, and this is exactly what the artist throughout the album discovers. Yes, he gets a glimpse of love when he reflects upon his relationship with Christ and his lady in “Song for Someone”; yes, in “Iris” he is strengthened when he remembers that his mother’s love is rooted in eternity, but completely stamping out that fearful rage that our artist feels in “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” so that he can truly live the law of love that his mother instilled in him, is a far greater task as a number of the songs on the album attest. “Every Breaking Wave” illustrates how fear cripples the intimacy between him and his beloved. “California” reveals how fame brings isolation. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” demonstrates the apathetic cruelty of a person who, content with her status and wealth, ignores the poor and destitute. “Volcano,” shows how great grief can tempt a man to forget virtue. And “Crystal Ballroom” paints a vivid image of the plight of the pilgrim-artist.

To be human means to love, and to love means to seek the good of the other.

Burdened by grief and vice, yet wanting to rise above the violence around him and make music that will inspire compassion and joy, the artist feels helpless. Like a ghost he is unable to participate in the music of love which brings life and merriment to the people around him. “In the crystal ballroom underneath the chandelier,” the artist laments, “We punish our hearts ’til the heart bells ring / Cos’ where we come from we’re not always kind / The human soul is what love leaves behind.” And so, the loveless soul and his fellows are “the ghosts of love” who “haunt this place,” here “in the ballroom of the crystal light.” Similar to the spirits in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce who visit heaven but find themselves numb to its beauty, the artist in “Crystal Ballroom” finds himself cut off from that which he was created to find purpose in: community and love adorned by music. 

Hope remains, though, for our pilgrim-artist. The journey back to love or prelapsarian harmony is perilous but not impossible, for our artist thankfully knows that the doorkeeper to the House of Love is humility. In “Cedarwood Road,” a reflective song about the trials of growing up, the narrator concludes that “A heart that is broken / Is a heart that is open,” to healing from “the hurt” a person “hide[s],” and one’s “foolish pride.” Joy awaits the musician who is brave enough to admit his folly, and on the final track of Songs of Innocence, titled “Lucifer’s Hand,” our artist bravely gives up his rage and loneliness, symbolized by the “punk rock party,” in place of “the spirit… moving through a seaside town,” that spirit being “St. John the Divine,” who will replace the musicians of pride and rage. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, who boldly made God’s love the theme of his gospel and letters, is now the narrator’s hero. “I’m out of Lucifer’s hands,” the artist cries out for joy, “You no longer got a hold on me / You’re no longer in control of me.” Mother Maria of Paris said, “However hard I try, I find it impossible to construct anything greater than these three words, ‘Love one another’—only to the end, and without exceptions: then all is justified and life is illumined, whereas otherwise it is an abomination and a burden.” To be human means to love, and to love means to seek the good of the other. “Love is a temple, love a higher law,” says Bono in “One,” from the album Achtung Baby, and I think our pilgrim-artist from Songs of Innocence would agree. With St. John as his guide, our artist now knows that love is the “light” that mustn’t “go out” and that the finest music is the music that reflects divine joy.

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