di Tony Clayton-Lea, Irish Times, Irlanda
CONSUMERS OF pop music are fussy about lyrics; the examples of good and bad are far too numerous to list (this writer’s favourite clunkers include “there were plants and birds and rocks and things” from America’s Horse With No Name , and the geographically unsound “Coast to coast, LA to Chicago” from Sade’s Smooth Operator ), but you can guarantee that one person’s rounded gem of a lyric is another person’s dog-eared phrase.
For more than 30 years now, Bono’s lyrics have been on the receiving end of brickbats and bouquets; his detractors might point you to the likes of: “Some days are slippy, other days are sloppy; some days you can’t stand the sight of a puppy” ( Some Days Are Better Than Others ), while his fans might direct you towards this example from So Cruel: “You don’t know if it’s fear or desire/Danger the drug that takes you higher/Head of heaven, fingers in the mire/Her heart is racing you can’t keep up/The night is bleeding like a cut/Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot.”
The Vatican, meanwhile, extols the spiritual quality of Bono’s lyrics. Earlier this year, in L’Osservatore Romano , a newspaper viewed favourably by Vatican officials, Italian music critic Andrea Morandi argued that references to religion (via the Psalms, Habbakuk and the Magnificat) can be discerned in almost every U2 song. “What Bono is writing is very sophisticated and often misunderstood,” noted Morandi, implying, perhaps, that the mixture of the two can often lead to an appealing level of enigma.
Another religious publication, the somewhat more evangelical Christianity Today , states that, “for many Christians of a certain generation, combing through the lyrics of U2 songs in search of biblical images or references to Jesus Christ and his teachings is almost a sport”. It is little surprise, then, to discover that at various Church of England ceremonies (known as “U2-charists”) Bono’s lyrics take the place of traditional hymns. Originally devised in 2005 by American Episcopal priest Rev Paige Blair (who has since advised more than 150 churches of U2-charists in over 15 US states and seven countries), the lyrics used are culled from songs that include When Love Comes To Town, Mysterious Ways and Elevation .“Methodist hymn writers once wrote contemporary music,” Blair has noted. “Are we worshipping Bono? Absolutely not. No more so than we worship Martin Luther when we sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God .”
Don’t talk to acclaimed US music critic Dave Marsh about such matters, though. In 2009, in the political newsletter Counterpunch , he wrote an article in the wake of Bono withdrawing from a public debate (“Celebrity politics – a complete failure?”). Marsh, possibly suffering from a residual surge of humiliation and hubris, opined that: “It can’t be denied that Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and the Edge can still make fascinating music. “Bono’s yelped vocals are another matter, his hollow lyrics – where every platitude yields to an obscurantist pretension and back again – yet another.”
So, on the cusp of Bono’s 50th birthday, where does all of this leave us with regard to what he writes and how it’s received? He’s no Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave or Elvis Costello, but neither is he a Noel or Liam Gallagher. Bono has himself said that the first two lines of Where the Streets Have No Name are “inane”. In the 2005 publication Bono On Bono he also said: “With the cadence and the way the melody falls, they can be more articulate than any purely literate response. Pop lyrics, in a way, are just a rough direction that you sketch for where the listener must think toward. That’s it, the rest is left up to you. When U2 songs are written, I don’t write them in English. I write them in what the band call ‘Bongelese’, I just sing the melodies and the words form in my mouth, later to be deciphered.”