U2 at the US Superbowl, February 2002
No band in the universe is as big as U2. U2 is so big, the joke goes, that when Bono wants to change a light bulb all he has to do is hold it and the world revolves around him. Indeed, few bands blur the line between rapture and corn quite like the Sonic Leprechaun and his Irish Soul Men. At their worst, U2 comes off with bombastic pretension. At their best, they achieve what very few artists in any genre can: they create work with a sustained intensity that transforms the particular into the universal. U2 has that rare ability to communicate what the late Spanish writer, Frederico Garcia Lorca called ‘duende’; that “mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains” (In Search of Duende, 1998, New Directions.)
Popularly associated with flamenco dancing, the concept of duende originated in the south of Spain centuries ago and has since migrated over to the English language. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives its meaning as “the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm”, but it’s much more than that. In 1933, Lorca gave his famous lecture, La Teoria y Juego del Duende (The Play and Theory of the Duende) in Buenos Aires detailing his conception of duende:
“I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”
Searching for the duende in the music of U2 may seem like the ultimate form of sycophancy or pretension, but as Miles Davis once so elegantly riffed, so what? No other band from the past two decades has so consistently given listeners reason to believe in the transcendental power of rock ‘n’ roll. U2 has the primacy of duende’s “creative action” to thank for it.
The seeds of duende have been present from the beginning of U2’s career over 25 years ago. With limited success, U2’s first two albums, 1980’s Boy and ‘81’s October, toyed with religious themes of innocence and experience while the band’s reverb-charged musical assaults broke new ground for the time. “Out of Control” and “Into the Heart”, both from Boy, contain the elements of power and grace that would eventually be fused together on future releases to a greater effect.
War (1983), U2’s commercial breakthrough, heralded a new sense of social purpose and a heightened dramatic tension. The elements of power and grace, present in earlier work, attained full maturity on the opening track, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the hymn-like closer, “40”.
My interest in the band started when I walked into A&B Sound on Seymour Street in Vancouver and caught a glimpse of their first video for the album. As I watched the peculiar spectacle of four figures galloping on horseback across the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle, the ricocheting chords and slithering bass of “New Years Day” filled the store:
And so we are told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
It was the antithesis of the times. Boy George, Madonna, and Michael Jackson all exemplified glossy pop. Duran Duran, the big band of the day, embodied the pursuit of glamour, singing “Rio” in pastel suits aboard a yacht in the sun-kissed tropics. But here was something different—a band confronting harsher elements, brilliantly fusing bombast with conviction in a song, according to U2’s authorized biographer, Bill Flanagan, that was partly inspired by the Polish independent union Solidarity. Throughout 1982 when much of War was written, Solidarity and its leader, Lech Walesa, were in headlines around the world challenging the communist authorities in both Warsaw and Moscow. For a pubescent kid looking for something to believe in, this was a group that inspired faith. With War, U2 shifted the paradigm; it was cool enough to care, to believe that music could change the world. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was responding to the exuberance of what could be, the limitless possibilities inherent in what Lorca called “newly created things” that duende conveys and U2 embodied.
After three albums with producer Steve Lillywhite, the band opted for change. New producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were invited in to shape the murky contours of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire and ‘87’s The Joshua Tree. The raw intensity U2 had cultivated with Lillywhite wasn’t lost, but rather, this collaboration helped refine tracks such as “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming”. Through the latter part of the ‘80s Eno and Lanois helped catapult U2 into the stratosphere of global rock domination on the strength of such singles as “With Or Without You” and “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
By the end of the ‘80s, however, after the release of the semi-live album and concert film Rattle And Hum, the band’s earnest bombast had begun to betray the sincerity of their convictions. As Lorca knew, duende couldn’t be faked. A novelty band based in Dublin, The Joshua Trio, began performing mocking renditions of their songs and other parodies emerged, most notoriously Negativland’s 1991 crushing version of “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Negativland remixed the song with outtakes from the program, “American Top 40”, containing avuncular keener host, Casey Kasem spewing expletives at his staff. As band member Mark Hosler explained:
“At one level, U2 is just these four guys making some music. But they’re also not that at all. They’re so huge that it becomes something else entirely. They’re like Coca-Cola. As a commodity, as a corporately manufactured and distributed entertainment commodity, they to me become totally legitimate targets and you don’t have to worry about what their feelings are or ask permission or anything.” ( “Suits, Lawsuits, and Art: Negativland Takes On The Man” by Deuce of Clubs )
Not surprisingly, U2’s label, Island, saw matters differently and sued. This caused resentment among those who saw the move as blatantly hypocritical considering that U2 would itself be guilty of the same sort of sampling/cultural appropriation during its forthcoming Zoo TV tour. While the band claimed to know nothing of the lawsuit, for the first time in U2’s career a backlash was gathering speed.
In response, U2 disappeared to a newly liberated Berlin and while there, reinvented themselves. If a mysterious allure defined their previous studio efforts, 1991’s Achtung Baby unveiled a new preoccupation with death and sensuality. ‘MacPhisto’, a demonic combination of Goethe’s Mephistopheles and a Vegas-era Liberace, became Bono’s new persona for the following Zoo TV Tour. The getup seemed to be a post-modern smirk—the band’s answer to the pomposity of Rattle and Hum.
Beneath all the camp and cosmetics however, the same primal intensity burned on. The album’s strongest track, “One”, remains a moving plea for universal love and the accompanying Mark Pellington directed video of buffalos running off the edge of a cliff continues to be an enduring image. As Lorca noted, “duende does not come at all unless death is possible”, and Achtung Baby, perhaps U2’s greatest album, wrestles with the limitations of love and mortality.
Then, as if the band came too close to being seduced by the darkness at the core of Achtung Baby, they retreated once again through the rest of the ‘90s to have fun, trading emotional tension for technique on 1993’s Zooropa and 1997’s Pop. Bono describes the prevailing mood best on Pop‘s “Staring At the Sun”:
I’m not the only one
Staring at the sun
Afraid of what you’d find
If you took a look inside
All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) was celebrated as a return to the familiar U2 terrain of the mid-‘80s, but in retrospect it sounds more like a preparation for the direct attack of what was to come in the form of their next release. Nevertheless, Bono’s morning-after rasp on “Beautiful Day” conjures up a convincing world-weariness, while “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t get Out Of”, written for late INXS singer Michael Hutchence, pulls beauty from the jaws of despair. The song’s coda reaches the elemental rapture inherent in the tradition of the best gospel music.
While their current release, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb doesn’t break any new ground technically, it is the strongest, most consistent album of their career. Like every U2 album, it has moments that soar above anything recorded by peers REM or Wilco, for example. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, their recent single, is one of them. The band reconnects with duende’s emotional power, a power that “surges up from the soles of the feet” with the velocity of an accelerating rocket. Written for Bono’s late father Bob Hewson who died in 2001, the song uncovers a condensed kernel of human pathos recognizable to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one:
And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own
As Bono says on the album’s accompanying DVD, “a song can change the world . . . it can change the temperature in the room”. As I was listening, my heart leapt into my throat with the force of a Molotov cocktail, bathing my senses in incandescent waves of euphoria.
In recent interviews Bono has drawn attention to a new vitality in his voice and it seems as though the entire band has rediscovered theirs. After two and a half decades of trying on different masks, they stand before the world grizzled, focused, and ready to rock.
Listen to me now
I need to let you know
You don’t have to go it alone
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “all loss, all pain, is particular” and the lyrical intimacy of this song creates a solid connection with its emotional core. Listening to it feels though we’re listening in on a private conversation:
I don’t need to hear you say
That if we weren’t so alike
You’d like me a whole lot more
In the video, Bono smiles slightly while singing this line, enhancing rather than diminishing the song’s mood. For a song that could easily take itself too seriously, it’s a welcome dose of comic relief.
As with songs like “Bad”, “Without Or Without You”, or “One”, “Sometimes” is a smoldering ballad that gradually intensifies until finally breaking into a transcendent crescendo:
Can you hear me when I sing?
You’re the reason I sing
You’re the reason why the opera is in me
It’s an explosive confession that raises the room temperature, melting away any distance between audience and performer. And for Bono’s father who apparently loved opera, it’s a fitting tribute.
Producer Chris Thomas, who has worked with everyone from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, doesn’t intrude or impose any formulas upon the song’s trajectory. The structure feels organic, soulful and modern.
The song follows a familiar U2 recipe. Start with a simple acoustic guitar; follow it with Adam Clayton’s supple bass and add some echo for ambience. Then allow ‘the Edge’ (guitarist Dave Evans) to drop a few luminous notes that slowly coalesce into bright chunks of riffage as Bono and Larry Mullen kick the song into flight.
“Sometimes” is a mournful song, but it’s not a tome of despair. As with gospel-blues, the raw passion of Bono’s voice elevates the music above grief and into the realm of catharsis. “Keening” is how the Irish dramatist JM Synge, referred to this kind of expression. Lorca identified it in the “deep song” of his country’s folk music:
It is truly deep, deeper than all the wells and seas in the world, much deeper
than the present heart that creates it or the voice that sings it, because it is
almost infinite . . . It comes from the first sob and the first kiss.
Lorca believed duende recreated familiar forms:
“The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old
Planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”
Few other bands come close to these dizzy heights. “Sometimes” is pure duende.
Lorca also stated “with duende it is easier to love and understand, and one can be sure of being loved and understood.” U2 acknowledges that “tonight”, as in other moments, weakness may overcome strength, but that’s OK- everyone has those moments. It’s in this realization that “Sometimes” crosses from the particular to the universal, cutting deep into the heart’s core to pull out an emotional response that has nothing to do with Bono’s father, but everything to do with our shared vulnerability as fragile living beings.
Music of this caliber and class feels as primal as shelter and food. U2 is keeping duende alive in their sound. All we can do is listen.