Friday, January 23, 2015

2014 In Review: In Love With Defeat

This is the first in what (I hope) will be a recurring series of posts about stuff I watched, read, listened to, and otherwise absorbed over the last twelve months. Yeah, it's 2015 now, but isn't that the best moment to look back? 



In June 2013, Edward Snowden absconded with thousands of stolen files from Booz Allen Hamilton and Dell, purporting to reveal earth-shaking national security secrets. Melodramatic rumors swirled about each new bit of his escape, with each new imagined homeland-- Cuba? Brazil? China? Germany?--a signifier of various flashpoints in world history; it was an unintentional Surrealist tour of failed 20th century utopias. Poetically, then, his final destination was Russia, a space whose history of resistance and psychological weight on the imagination is still strong enough for many to overlook its current, rather-less-utopic regime.  But the space in which Snowden and all of his Boswells really live (no links--please, you know who they are) is virtual. It's not just through the files he stole, slowly dolled out in PowerPoint links to eager readers of the Guardian and other outlets, but the way he's become less a person than a disconnected set of images and meanings across multiple screens: blogs, comments sections, movies, and the pathetically vulnerable, often slowly buffering images of Snowden himself talking on TV screens to conferences where he is welcomed as a tech-bro hero. We might be told by surprisingly credulous sources that "Edward Snowden is not the story here," but he remains the best part of the story because the confluence of his hiding in Moscow and his subsequent digitization means he can be photo-shopped into anything we want: hero, traitor, pawn, poet of revolution. He's become a real-life Vision: everywhere and nowhere at once, full of information and so disassembled (to say nothing of dissembled) across the virtual that he no longer has control of its impact. 





I thought of Snowden a few weeks ago, listening again to Songs of Innocence, the new album U2 made freely available to I-Tunes users on September 9, 2014, and not just because Iggy Pop (of all people) would scream about Apple as "the Computer Putins" (an overreaction that nicely elides what the "Computer Putins" are actually up to in Snowden's supposed bastion of freedom). It's not easy to be a pop star these days. What struck me was how wonderfully the two situations became Bizarro mirrorings of one another, in both the initial gestures and the responses they incurred. One story began with the taking of digital information, the other with its being freely given; in one story,  information was strategically placed on the 'Net in pieces, for maximum impact; in the other, maximum impact was attempted with one dramatic dump of the whole; one hero saw a mixed response, with the  loudest voices declaring him someone "who has done far more for the world in the last 2 months than you have in your life"; the other discovered its loudest immediate voices to be critical ones, as if eleven free new songs from one of the world's biggest bands was, in fact, a terrorist act. It's perhaps another moment of ironic synchronicity between our matched media heroes that the "achtung baby" U2 used on its 1992-93 world tour (captured in the image above) was an animated metaphor for a Russian cosmonaut left floating, forgotten, above the earth when the Soviet Union fell: in all of these cases, there's the question of what happens to both the image and the information once it's launched into space.

 

Please note that we're three paragraphs into this post,  and we haven't even gotten to the music yet.  It's always that way with U2, a band that invites--at times, seems to demand--that you filter your reading of what you're hearing through whatever image is the most current one: adolescent post-punkers, Irish liberators, shamans, bluesmen, irony-soaked Bowie-heads, postmodern satyrs, disco kings, repentant nostalgists. It's a 35-year palimpsest that shows no signs of being cleared away anytime soon (despite the best efforts of rogue demon bikers), and its rich, playful contradictions (both knowing and unknowing) explain why the band has been such a subject of academic study for much of its career: like the crazy writers who chase after the meanings of its sounds, U2 delights in wearing its influences, themes, and subtexts on its sleeve (yes, I know "subtexts on its sleeve" is a paradox. This is Bono we're talking about). No wonder the first images from the video for "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" (its very title casting and breaking a mysterious spell simultaneously) are those of the band flickering to life like a slowly-loading dusty web-page, all bytes and flare and faded shadows they can't shake: ironic fascination with an aging public portrait must be an Irish thing.


For all the poutrage it stirred up among people unable to hit "delete" on their I-Phones, the Big Album Drop of Sept. 9 turned out to be pretty canny,  leading to 30 million actual downloads (exposing the band to ten times more people than bought their previous two records), and more importantly, giving them a loud media cover for a deeply personal set of songs. "I told someone we were making a dense record, and they thought I said dance record," Bono chuckled back in 1991, just as Achtung Baby was set to release, reveling in the freedom to move and create that the confusion over their then-new, decadent image gave them. Similarly, if Songs of Innocence had come out through normal channels, it might have been ignored, politely nodded at, or savaged as overly earnest: it's easily U2's most autobiographical record since Pop, boldly playing with sound and subject in a manner that their more subdued commercial music in the 00s tended to skitter away from (the backlash against Pop remains the real creative break-line in U2's career, something they see the shadow of to this day). Where 2000's enjoyable All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's rather anemic How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (half a good album in search of its other half) found U2 consolidating its sound to lure back alienated fans, and 2009's No Line On The Horizon displayed the group's Eno/experimental side to its full, glorious effect, Songs of Innocence synthesizes the band's melodic brilliance and its desire to push boundaries. U2's pop craftsmanship has rarely been this focused (the songs almost glisten with harmonies), while the collection's kaleidoscopic range of influences and raw lyrics show that, even headed into their fourth decade, the group hasn't lost the ability (or, more importantly, the desire) to search and to startle.


Early word cited punk as the musical compass for the new album, and you can certainly hear that in the Sex-Pistols-by-way-of-Mick-Ronson rush of the Edge's guitar on "Ramone." But it's the record's other influences that are more prominent, and more fascinating From the synth-pop keyboards building to a rushing climax in "Every Breaking Wave" (actually begun during the Horizon sessions, but abandoned, to Brian's Eno's great dismay), to the pop-punk, Clash-y rush of "Volcano," to the Tears For Fears'-like layered vocals on "Raised By Wolves," an alternate title for Innocence could be Confessions of a White Flag Waver (or, What We Were Secretly Listening to in the 80s). The sheen of half-a-dozen bands that were charting during U2's rise to fame can be heard across the record, a nice musical map backwards into the band's past, a pallette they use to frame lyrics about coming of age in a war-torn Dublin ("all these stolen voices will someday be returned," Bono confesses on "Ramone"-- songs are almost always his confessional box).



Juxtaposition between content and form is everywhere, mapping emotional disjunctions. The New Wave "woo-woo" harmonies of "Iris" are easy to sing along to even as the lyrics detail the collapse of Bono's mother at her father's funeral, and her subsequent death from an aneurysm when Bono was fourteen; Adam Clayton's dub-like bass patterns on "Volcano" create an insatiable need to pogo, even as the lyrics detail the protagonist's rage and disillusion: "the future's gonna land on you," the third-person narrator growls, unheeded by the young man he's observing, whose "world is spinning fast tonight"; if you slowed down "Raised By Wolves," its wah-wah guitar, boogie piano, and complex rhythm patterns could make it a good funk song, but its lyrics-- detailing the May 17, 1974 bombing on Talbot street in Dublin that killed fourteen--are harrowing (and a good example of Bono's rarely-used gift for journalistic detail). "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" borrows the opening synthesizer line of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," perhaps a dark in-joke, given that the song details the corrupt spirit of a priest who molests young parishioners (including some of the band's friends), and continues on with his life as if he's done nothing.


A lot of the songs revolve around 1974, clearly a turning point personally and politically for the band. It's a return to the subject of their very first single, "I Will Follow," which also explored the death of Bono's mother, and Pop's "Mofo," which punned on that death to link up loss with being the biggest, loudest pop motherfucker one could be, as a sick substitute ("I'm still a child," Bono cried on the latter. "No one tells me no"). U2 would form in 1976, when Larry Mullen, Jr. posted a call for band members at Mount Temple Comprehensive, where the four members went to high school. The joy on Songs of Innocence--aside from the energy of the performances--comes from remembrances of those early glimmers of artistic escape and band communion. "Cedarwood Road" refers to the street on which Bono grew up (its title also feels like an allusion to Paul Weller's great 1995 record Stanley Road), but it's really about the desire to escape that space, and the joy of finding something new: "The hurt you hide, the joy you hold/The foolish pride that gets you out the door," Bono sings, and for once, his youthful protagonist's swagger feels focused, rather than out of control. In the most U2-ish line on the record, the group finds power in a homonym: "And friendship once it’s won/It’s won... it’s one."

In his speech inducting U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen referred to that kind of equation as the math of rock 'n' roll, referencing the band's single, "Vertigo": 

Uno. Dos. Tres. Catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art, and love, and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together in search of a fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire, you want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out. It's embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens.



It's a mathematics U2 has pursued since its first single, come hell, high water, or flying lemon ball: even at its most ironic (I might argue, especially at its most ironic, but that's a subject for a different post), U2 has been about equations of inclusion, of the dance hall as a church in the very best sense: "We're one, but we're not the same." "This is not a church, but this is holy ground!," Bono yodeled while performing at a Van Morrison concert in Dublin in the mid-80s, and that kind of large, melodramatic gesture will always get him in trouble, particularly in an age of Snowden, which seems much more about evasion, about control, about the hypocrisy of the singular. In an early 2014 single, "Invisible" (which, unfortunately, was left off Innocence, but will presumably show up on its follow-up, Songs of Experience), U2 used a very New Order-like arrangement to document their final escape route out of Dublin's backstreets and towards nascent stardom: "There is no them/There's only us," Bono chants again and again. That kind of community is a tricky sell at any time, but one that feels more crucial than ever in an age when the nihilism of the hacker is far easier than the audacity of hope. But giving that freely is a very U2 gesture, and a reminder of why it's valuable to have our pop stars still floating out in space, waiting for us to listen.


Uno. Dos. Tres. Catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art, and love, and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together in search of a fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire, you want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out. It's embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens. - See more at: https://rockhall.com/inductees/u2/transcript/bruce-springsteen-on-u2/#sthash.PwxC9scp.dpuf
Uno. Dos. Tres. Catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art, and love, and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together in search of a fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire, you want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out. It's embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens. - See more at: https://rockhall.com/inductees/u2/transcript/bruce-springsteen-on-u2/#sthash.PwxC9scp.dpuf
Uno. Dos. Tres. Catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art, and love, and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together in search of a fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire, you want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out. It's embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens. - See more at: https://rockhall.com/inductees/u2/transcript/bruce-springsteen-on-u2/#sthash.PwxC9scp.dpuf
Uno. Dos. Tres. Catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art, and love, and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together in search of a fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire, you want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out. It's embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens. - See more at: https://rockhall.com/inductees/u2/transcript/bruce-springsteen-on-u2/#sthash.PwxC9scp.dpuf

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