A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Achtung Baby

We'll be running sneak previews, over the next few days, of some of the books that'll be publishing in the series later this year.

First up is Stephen Catanzarite's meditation on Achtung Baby - the first overtly religious/spiritual book we've had in the series and, I think, also one of the most interesting. Here's a passage from the book's first chapter...


Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, something bad went down—and it took everything and everyone down with it. Even the most well-adjusted person, possessed of a sunny disposition and positively brimming with “high self-esteem,” recognizes that the world is often a very dark and dangerous place and that people, though capable of astonishing kindness and goodness, frequently commit acts of unspeakable evil. With us and with the world things are just not right. “Life,” said the Buddha “is suffering.” “Whatever we are,” said Augustine, “we are not what we ought to be.” Fulton Sheen describes man as a “seat of conflict,” and in his classic book Peace of Soul offers an account of the origins of that conflict through a musical analogy:

Picture an orchestra on a stage with a celebrated conductor directing the beautiful symphony he himself composed. Each member of the orchestra is free to follow the conductor and thus produce harmony. But each member is also free to disobey the conductor. Suppose one of the musicians deliberately plays a false note and then induces a violinist alongside of him to do the same. Having heard the discord, the conductor can do one of two things. He could either strike his baton and order the measure replayed, or he could ignore the discord. It would make no difference which he did, for that discord has already gone out into space…on and on it goes, affecting even the infinitesimally small radiations of the universe. As a stone dropped in a pond causes a ripple which affects the most distant shore, so this discord affects even the stars. As long as time endures, somewhere in God’s Universe there is a disharmony, introduced by the free will of humanity.

The analogy is, of course, made to the story known as the Fall of Man. As told in the book of Genesis, God created the first man and woman in his own image and placed them in a wondrous and wonderful garden filled with beauty and delight. The garden was to be governed by love, and God spelled out exactly what that meant so that the man and woman could live in harmony with God, with each other, and with everything else God created. God also gave them freedom—free will—so that they, out of love, might make beautiful creations of their own. Being free, the man and woman could decide whether or not to obey God’s instructions, but that was never an issue—until the day the devil slipped in. Convincing the man and the woman that God was playing them both—and withholding the best of everything for himself—the devil suggested they take matters into their own hands. Exercising their God-given freedom to disobey God, first the woman and then the man overreached their grasp and overstepped their boundaries by stealing fruit from the one tree God had reserved for himself, setting off an ecological catastrophe of eternal proportions. Having polluted the garden with the taint of their selfishness, Adam and Eve earned for themselves—and for us, their spiritual children—a one-way ticket out of Eden. The cost of re-entry being more than they or we could ever afford, we remain in exile to this day, still touched and enchanted by the scents and echoes occasionally wafting from God’s garden but still dancing in the dung to the devil’s discordant tune.

Each song on Achtung Baby provides a variation on that tune. Taken collectively they offer an insightful meditation on the Fall and the consequences of our “fallen-ness.” It is all there: our infinite potential for dreaming, discovering, and building, and the trouble we cause by confusing our liberty with license; our wanderings through streets both named and unnamed in search of peace or escape, enlightenment or forgetfulness, love or domination; the longing in our hearts for unity between and among God and man, man and woman, brother and sister, parent and child, and the restlessness, pride, larceny, and fear in our heads that disturbs even the happiest of homes; our reveling in the fact that we truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and the sad acceptance of our brokenness; the excellence of fidelity, and the appeal of seduction; the glamour of evil, and the disaster of sin; the paradox of being rooted in time but destined for eternity; the God-shaped hole at the center of our being, and our vain attempts to fill it with something, everything, anything other than God.

These paradoxes, contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies that permeate our existence say something very important about the essence of our fallenness. We are not, as some consider us to be, completely depraved. Somewhere deep within ourselves, and no doubt to greater or lesser degrees, we all still know the difference between good and bad, between right and wrong, between what is beautiful and what is ugly. And all of us, again to greater or lesser degrees, feel drawn to do what is right—along with a distinct inclination to do that which is wrong. In his book, The Revenge of Conscience, political philosopher J. Budziszewski argues that falleness itself is a paradox. “We are neither simply good nor simply bad,” Budziszewski says, “but created good and broken. We are not sheer ugliness, nothing so plain, but a beauty ruined.” There is a little good in the worst of us, but also a little bad in the best of us.

Both musically and lyrically, Achtung Baby captures this, the zeitgeist of our fallen world. The melodies throughout are simply stunning—and stunningly simple—but cast against, around, and on top of complex arrangements overflowing with guttural howls, jarring chimes, trashy beats, and sheets of decadent noise. The guitar riffs, masterfully rendered and brilliantly layered, are also regularly and deliciously off-kilter. The bass lines are solid but frayed, made all the more engaging by their Anglified funkiness. The beats are straightforward and harsh here, tasteful and restrained there; naturally simple and yet abounding with processed intricacy, they frequently and gamely upstage everything else in these wicked mixes. The mixes themselves, though densely packed with a range of sonic elements and patterns, often dissolve and decay into tracks so fragile, vulnerable, and filled with empty space that it feels like a song might break into disparate fragments and collapse.

And then there are the voices. The passion and elegance, beauty and grace, desperation and longing, lust and regret, truth and confusion communicated in each and every note vocalized on Achtung Baby prove two important things about music. First, no instrument is more potent or versatile than the human voice. Second, you don’t always have to sing on key to make music of enduring beauty and relevance. Like the guitars, the vocals are richly layered, creating a tapestry of different colors and shadings that range from the darkest blacks and deepest blues to the hottest reds. Cold growls, soaring arias, wraithlike chants, and comic falsettos blend and clash with a precise abandon.

The lyrics are a poetry of falleness. Litanies of frustration and regret, sloganlike boasts, psalmlike appeals, and unholy confessions push, prod, and stretch the boundaries of what is possible and acceptable in a rock song. The songs themselves also press against the envelope of expectation, taking the traditional pop songwriting structures of verse, chorus, and bridge and subverting them. Achtung Baby is itself a paradox: a dark and disturbing album about ruination that is strikingly beautiful and inspired.



Matthew Perpetua said...

This seems promising. I've read some other rather spiritual takes on U2, but this one seems the most in line with what I find attractive about that particular album.

Shawn T said...

On my list. Great writing.

Anonymous said...

wow. so the only thing more pretentious than U2 are the people who write about them. I'm with Randy Newman. I keep hearing how great their lyrics are and then I read them....

Anonymous said...

Interesting approach; great writing.

Anonymous said...

It's not pretentious to have opinions and express them well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'd much rather read a book about all those great, thoroughly unpretentious rock groups. Like...like...like...hmmm. Oh, right.

When someone starts tossing around the word "pretentious"...it usually says a lot about their own pretensions.

Finally, it seems someone has gotten a handle on the spirtual aspects of U2's music -- someone who appears not to be ashamed of traditional Christianity. Bravo! This looks like an amazing book.

Anonymous said...

U2 left me behind with the Joshua Tree when they went on to Achtung Baby.

The best comment I ever heard on post JT U2 is this -

at a stadium gig, Bono stopped the music and began ordering the crowd to be silent.

FInally he had complete silence, and intoned ......

"Every time I clap my hands, a baby dies of starvation in Africa"

Someone in the audience shouted out

"Well stop fucking clapping then"

The irony is I quite like Achtung Baby now.

Unknown said...

Funny story but it never happened. It's just one of those urban myths that people like to pass along on the internet. Snopes.com has some background on how that myth spread.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, checked Snopes out, the concept still makes me laugh, as Bono is such a pretentious twat the story sits well with him.

Anonymous said...

Whoever this person is, thinking like Randy Newman and crap, listen to the damn album. Then comment. Judge the music and lyrics in their context. Or is that too hard for u.

Good article, about a great album.

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