By John Cody
• U2: How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Island, 2004
• Tom Waits: Real Gone, Anti, 2004
IN A BUSINESS where new acts come and go with regularity, both U2 (who have been together for over a quarter of a century) and Tom Waits (well into his fourth decade as a recording artist) continue to produce vital music.
Perhaps the most anticipated release of last year, the first-week sales for U2′s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were more than double what their last release (2001′s All that You Can’t Leave Behind) sold in the same period. Overall, this is the biggest album of the band’s career to date.
In the foreword to Get Up Off Your Knees (Cowley Publications, 2003) a collection of sermons inspired by U2′s lyrics, Eugene Peterson describes the band as modern-day prophets.
He writes: “Prophets confront us with the sovereign presence of God in our lives. If we won’t face up, they grab us by the scruff of our necks and shake us into attention. Amos crafted poems, Jeremiah wept sermons, Isaiah alternately rebuked and comforted, Ezekiel did street theatre. U2 writes songs and goes on tour, singing them.”
While three of the four members are clear about their faith, they’ve never bothered to toe the politically correct line within the conservative evangelical movement.
Bono regularly meets with world leaders, arguing for Third World debt relief and increased action on the AIDS crisis. This makes some in the church uncomfortable. However, it’s worth noting that this is only a part of the church unfortunately, at times, it seems the most vocal part.
Peterson comments: “In every age, religion has served as a convenient cover among an astonishing number of people for cozy self-righteousness and a judgmental rejection of suffering sinners. Prophetic voices that challenge the people of God to live ‘in accordance with the scriptures’ scriptures that are especially vocal about care for the poor, the suffering, and the disreputable have never received cordial treatment from people who use religion to cocoon themselves from reality.”
On Atomic Bomb, U2 continue to address issues pertinent to believers. The church is taken to task in ‘Crumbs from Your Table.’ The song, which one writer claims “should be sung, or at least read, to every church in the world,” deals with the church’s reticence in dealing with the AIDS crisis: “You speak of signs and wonders / I need something other / I would believe if I was able/But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table.”
On ‘Vertigo’ the album’s first single Bono sings of God’s love teaching him to kneel. ‘All Because of You,’ a powerful, driving number, works as a straight-ahead worship song. The disc’s closer, ‘Yahweh,’ has been described as a postmodern Christian hymn.
There’s an undercurrent of melancholy throughout much of the album. ‘One Step Closer’ encapsulates the feeling: “a heart that hurts is a heart that beats.” Many of the songs including a standout, ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own’ are informed by the recent passing of Bono’s father.
On every track the band sounds inspired. Bono’s voice is stronger than ever, and the rhythm section which rarely gets sufficient credit offers solid support throughout.
While many of his contemporaries got old, Tom Waits began in his words “fighting against decay.” During the eighties he took a radical turn, evolving from his singer/songwriter roots to experiment with a variety of textures and settings embarking on a quest that continues today.
Real Gone’s sometimes cacophonous mixture incorporates percussion, blues, hip hop and more. For all the sonic machinations, strip away everything else and it’s obvious that Waits is a great songwriter.
At one point, he sings: “I feel like a preacher wavin’ a gun around.” It’s easy to see why. The album’s first track includes the line: “If I had it all to do all over again / I’d try to rise above the law of man.” ‘Sins of My Father’ opens with “God said ‘Don’t give me your tin horn prayers,’” before asking: “Does the light of God blind you / Or lead the way home for you?” Later, the song’s protagonist notes “I’m way beyond the gavel and the laws of man / Still living in the palm of the grace of your hand.”
Frequent references to faith make it clear that Waits, like Bono, sees earthly problems as intrinsic to the human condition, rather than anything external. He recently commented that, as much as he dislikes George Bush, things wouldn’t be much different with a Democrat in the White House.
Bono likewise refuses to take sides. Instead of arguing over which party is closer to the truth, last year he addressed both the Democratic and Republican conventions.
© John Cody 2005