Debating who deserves the arbitrary title of “The Greatest Living Band in the World” is futile, principally because tying down such a subjective distinction on a group that all music fans agree with is impossible. There is, however, a canon of contenders. Whether judged by influence, record sales, concert revenue or critical acclaim, certain bands routinely appear atop examinations of “The Best Ever.”
By those objective terms, it’s hard to deny the pop culture power of U2, one of rock ’n’ roll’s most enduring bands. It has released 13 albums (10 of which went at least double platinum) without any major change in the band’s lineup, won 22 Grammy Awards (twice for album of the year) and holds the record for the highest grossing concert tour of all time (it also holds the No. 6 spot).
And critically? In 2012, Spin Magazine declared U2’s “Achtung baby” to be the most influential album of the past 25 years, controversially beating out other favorites by bands like Radiohead and Nirvana. When Rolling Stone Magazine compiled its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, five U2 albums were listed, with “Joshua Tree” being ranked as No. 27 (U2’s highest presence on the list).
U2’s influence crosses genre divides, with musicians ranging from Coldplay’s Chris Martin to hip-hop icon Kanye West citing the band’s grandiose musicality as inspiration for their own sound.
Suffice it to say, U2 is unquestionably one of the most influential musical acts of all time. But one defining element that often eludes the public’s perception of the band is its deep sense of spirituality.
In excelsis Deo
Bono, who had a Roman Catholic father and an Anglican mother, has made no secret of his personal religious convictions. He has made a name for himself as a philanthropist and humanitarian, professing along the way that his belief in a benevolent God has compelled him to help those less fortunate than him.
But beyond the realm of the benefit concerts and celebrity-boosted nonprofits, Bono — as well as his bandmates The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. — also injects a sense of Christian spirituality throughout the songs of U2. One of the earliest examples of the band’s Christian influence can be heard in the opening track of “October,” its second studio album. “Gloria,” a gentle ballad, features a chorus sung entirely in Latin, translated to mean “Glory in you, Lord / Glory, exalt him.” The chorus was reportedly taken directly from “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” a liturgical hymn.
Less obvious examples of religious imagery continued to be woven into the band’s work, and listeners took notice. The band’s success reached uncharted status during the tour for its Grammy winning album “Joshua Tree,” and on April 27, 1987, it was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The subsequent microscope placed on the band has allowed for plenty of public discussion of the band’s faith.
In 2005, Bono was interviewed by French journalist Michka Assayas, later published as the book “Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas.” This interview provided some of the most candid insights into the faith of one of the world’s most famous front men.
Sinners, saints and symbols
As a student of Christianity, Bono rejects New Age notions of unspecified spirituality. His faith is strictly targeted at the grace of Jesus. “I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma (or justice) into one of Grace,” he told Assayas. But as a Christian, Bono also seems skittish to speak critically of his own faith in public, something he clearly sees as a distraction from the positive gifts of works of faith.
“I don’t let my religious world get too complicated,” he said.
But that very same interview shows that to Bono, faith — and Christianity in particular — is best understood through layered symbols.
While discussing the complicated balance that many Christians feel the need to endure in order to comprehend what some deem as the more wrathful God of the Old Testament and the God of love found through Jesus in the New Testament, Bono leans on imagery that clearly appeals to a more abstract (or artistic) sensibility.
“In the Old Testament,” he explains, “it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.”
That combination of grandiosity and humility has been a trademark of U2’s decade-spanning sound. One of the most stark examples of this can be found within the soaring vision of the band’s most celebrated album, “Joshua Tree.”
The album opens with two of U2’s most beloved songs: “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Both are large enough in sound to fill any arena with a sense of boundless energy. Optimism reverberates through Bono’s high-pitched croon as he sings of wanting more, wishing to break free and find the promised land. “I believe in the Kingdom Come,” Bono proclaims. “You carried the cross, and my shame. … You know I believe it.”
But two tracks later, Bono explores the debased life of sin. If “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is an ode to the frustrations of seeking a pious life, “Running to Stand Still” serves as the harsh reminder of the realities of sin.
“Running to Stand Still” depicts a women overcome with a heroin addiction. “Sweet the sin,” he sings, “But bitter the taste in my mouth.” This song, like so many others in a vast collection of ballads and anthems, focuses on what may seem to be a Godless existence. In this case, drug addiction fills what Bono would later call, in his song MOFO, a “God-shaped hole.” But other albums have explored diverse vices.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the opening track to U2’s 1983 album “War,” describes with grief the sectarian conflicts of Northern Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century. Religious divide, according to the message of the song, has taken the place of Christ-like love and brotherhood. The albums of the 1990s (“Achtung Baby,” “Zooropa” and “POP”) all decried consumerism and an oversaturation of media for dehumanizing the human race.
The title track of 1993’s “Zooropa” gets explicit about the effects of over commercialization. “I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what, and I don’t know the limit, the limit of what we got.”
“You were talking about the end of the world”
Just as U2 has explored the depths of the false gods we worship, Bono’s lyrics haven’t shied away from expressing his own complicated devotion to the God of Christianity, despite what he told Michka Assayas.
As noted earlier, declarations of faith were common in albums such as “The Joshua Tree” and “The Unforgettable Fire.” But during what Spin Magazine calls “the ironic years” of the 1990s, Bono dove quite often into the darker waters of religious devotion. Songs such as “Until the End of the World” (a stylish retelling of the Last Supper from the perspective of Judas) and “The Wanderer” (a song written by Bono for the “Zooropa” album, but sung by Johnny Cash) all depict apocalyptic visions of end times. But in these songs, Bono seems to see the plagues and curses of the Old and New Testament as symbols for the pain of discipleship.
“I went with nothing/ but the thought you’d be there too/ looking for you” Johnny Cash croons on “Wanderer.” Both Judas and Cash’s wanderer are lost souls, looking for protection and comfort only to be confused by spiritual pestilence and sorrow. “In my dream I was drowning my sorrows/ But my sorrows, they learned to swim,” sang Judas. “Waves of regret and waves of joy /I reached out for the one I tried to destroy /You … you said you’d wait ‘til the end of the world.”
One of the most striking examples of spiritual pessimism in Bono’s lyrics comes from “If God Will Send His Angels” from 1997s “POP.”
While attempting to comfort a broken soul, Bono sings of the problems that might be fixed if only God would send his angels. However, he explains, “God’s got his phone off the hook, babe/ would he even pick up if he could?” He continues with a devastating depiction of a commercialized Christ:
“Jesus never let me down/ You know Jesus used to show me the score/ Then they put Jesus in show business/ Now it’s hard to get in the door.”
Bono even went so far as to personify his skepticism. During the band’s Zoo TV Tour in promotion for Achtung Baby, the lead singer would often dress up as a character he named “MacPhisto.” a devilish looking man with a pale face and red horns. He served as a symbol of spiritual irony and, according to Time magazine, the glamorous but empty face of rock ’n’ roll. In many ways, Bono’s alter ego was more than a gimmick for concerts, he was a personification of the singer’s worst fears: A washed up rock star who’s sold his soul to the devil.
Songs of innocence
U2’s religiosity has yet to let up, with possibly the most clear references to God or Christianity to date being displayed on the closing track to 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” The name of the song is “Yahweh,” and describes a man seeking spiritual rebirth in rather overt terms.
The release of U2’s latest album, “Songs of Innocence,” comes with a certain irony. It seems rather odd that a band that spent so much time lamenting how commercialization had dehumanized just about everything would release its latest album (granted, for free) during a promotional conference for Apple Inc.
Nevertheless, U2’s newest album continues to build on many of the spiritual themes in its catalogue. It cries for social justice, praises the virtues of love and stumbles over the stones of faith.
“I’m a long long way from your hill of Calvary,” Bono sings on the album’s fourth track, “Song for Someone.” But he faithfully pleads, “There is a light, don’t let it go out.”