Sep 26, 2014

U2’s best songs were written during these years—roughly from 1986, when they began recording “The Joshua Tree,” to 1997, the year “Pop” (which is actually very good) was released. But there was a problem: the songs depended for their power on the dramatization of Bono’s ambivalence about God. Onstage, he theatrically performed his doubt: on the “ZooTV” tour, in support of “Achtung Baby,” Bono regularly dressed up as the devil, singing songs of romantic-religious anguish in costume. That anguish was genuine, but there was something unseemly about his flaunting of faith and doubt. It was a peep show in which, instead of showing a little leg, Bono teased us with his spiritual uncertainty. In a song called “Acrobat,” on “Achtung Baby,” he accused himself of hypocrisy: “I must be an acrobat / To talk like this and act like that.” He quoted Delmore Schwartz: “In dreams begin responsibilities.”

U2 have continued to write songs of doubt (“Wake Up Dead Man,” off “Pop,” is especially good). But they are no longer wild, ludic, and unhinged in the way they talk about God. There used to be something improvisational and risky about their spirituality—it seemed as though it might go off the rails, veering into anger or despair. Now, for the most part, they focus on a positive message, expressed directly and without ambiguity. The band’s live shows have a liturgical feel: Bono, who regularly interpolates hymns and bits of Scripture into his live performances, leads the congregation with confidence.

Joshua Rothman, "The Church of U2" (The New Yorker)

Amen. The dad-rock spirituality that U2 has mostly settled into these days doesn’t speak much to the lived experience of faith: the highs, lows, and long stretches of indifference in between; the shouts and whispers that simply ask “why?”; the confusion and rebellion that double as loneliness. It was in these spaces that Bono used to reside and flourish. Through the act of confession - forthright, poetic, though not always penitent, confession - he lent beauty to the sin and chaos of human nature that he dramatized in his lyrics. The effect was usually gripping and deeply resonant. (Ex: From Achtung Baby's “So Cruel”: “I'm only hanging on / To watch you go down / My love”.) ’90s U2 = the best U2.

Sep 18, 2014

Tastes like the real thing

Not only has the release of U2’s latest record occasioned middling to poor appraisals as well as the inevitable, seemingly contractual 5 star hosanna from Rolling Stone, but there have also recently surfaced several full-throated defenses of Pop, the much maligned and misunderstood final act of U2’s ’90s trilogy. This is welcome news. Pop is far better than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. I’d place it at the low end of U2’s top 5 or just outside of it - a near great collection that deserves to be rescued from the dismissals and confusion that greeted its release. Sonically, it’s adventurous and a little weird while still being sufficiently mainstream. The dominant electronica motif is neither a cynical ploy nor a mere ironic prop. Lyrically, Pop is dark, probing, and very human (much like Achtung Baby and Zooropa). See "Please" and "Wake Up Dead Man" in particular. Both are masterful outings - pained, bewildered, wrenching. From the latter: “Jesus, Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a fucked up world it is too.” That’s Bono, the consummate happy warrior for peace and social justice, helplessly lamenting his and all of creation’s disordered state. It rings all too true.

Front to back, Pop offers a riveting contrast of form and message.The ostensibly frivolous electronic-pop machinery belies the depth of Bono’s pleas and perspectives. As he goes “searching for Baby Jesus under the trash” (which may be something like Pop's mission statement [from "Mofo"]), don’t allow those critics who misread Pop years ago to dissuade you from following.

Here are two smart takes:*

1) Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Week:

Pop is a trashy, vulgar, spiritually insightful, heart-shattering record. It takes a vandal’s thrill in deploying the self-declared world’s greatest rock band to deface rock and roll. It shapes the echoing blips, tape distortions, and drum loops of electronic music into a political statement as substantial and tightly packed as a pipe bomb. It rummages through the refuse of modern pop culture and finds a God worth loving still. And its critical failure was a miscarriage of justice.”

2) Annie Zaleski of the A.V. Club:

"Lyrically, Pop is also far more complex than it might seem; in fact, the record contains U2’s last great bits of unselfconscious songwriting. (Save for “Playboy Mansion,” a flimsy takedown of fame and stardom that aims for scathing but rings hollow.) In keeping with the clubland feel, its lyrics toy with sexuality—“Loved” is a particularly nuanced take on romantic confusion and temptation, while “Discothèque” obliquely captures the exuberance of a one-night stand. But for the most part, Pop’s ruminations on self-doubt, mortality, and regret contrast with the album’s steely digital sheen. “Please” criticizes the self-sabotage inherent with (and the magnitude of) Northern Ireland’s violent conflicts, while “Staring At The Sun” is both a crisis of faith and a condemnation of blind worship. And the distortion-cracked grayscale dirge “Wake Up Dead Man” is astonishing, a stark plea where Bono begs Jesus for guidance through despair–although the repeated cry of “Wake up, wake up dead man” also feels like he’s attempting to rouse himself.”

* One qualification: I think Dougherty overstates the case for Pop, but I still appreciate much of his argument.

Sep 12, 2014

Psalm 39:4-6

Lord, make me to know my end,
And what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am.
Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my age is as nothing before You;
Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor. Selah
Surely every man walks about like a shadow;
Surely they busy themselves in vain;
He heaps up riches,
And does not know who will gather them.”


Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”


It was hard not to think of the latter as I read the former this morning. One maintains Eternal Truth and the other utter meaninglessness, but both powerfully confront human frailty and the passing nature of things.

Sep 8, 2014
We are called the Church of Martyrs, That’s our pain and our saving grace. Our faith isn’t a theory. It’s not a set of teachings. It’s a person and we’re called to be like him. When I look at this evil, I want to be Rambo. But that won’t do any good. We carry the cross for a reason.

Bishop Francis Kalabat 

Source: "As Iraqi Christians in U.S. Watch ISIS Advance, They See ‘Slow-Motion Genocide’" (NYT)

Sep 8, 2014

As long as Western liberalism has existed, it has been found charmless or contemptible by some men. Western liberalism asks men to be governed by laws made by mere men and their politicking. It demands of most men that they be mere citizens. It urges thrift, prudence, and industry. This is not for everyone.

The Islamic State not only has the romance of revolution, and the promise of action and power, but also religious and apocalyptic appeal. Establishing the caliphate is a way for Muslims to “immanentize the eschaton,” to bring about the final, God-ordained order to a political reality. This is a persistent desire in human history in Europe and the Levant. These religious impulses can be sublimated within Western liberalism, but only with great difficulty. The Islamic State holds out real appeal for some men who have difficulty believing themselves to be just another part of a long, ambiguous history of human civilization, and who long for something more than a vote, a job, and a life that will be forgotten in a generation or two. It seems every so often, Western liberalism will help produce enemies bent on destroying its all-too-human order, and replacing it with one that has the imprimatur of the volk, the verdict of History, or the laws of God.

Michael Brendan Dougherty, “How the West produces jihadi tourists”

As I read Dougherty’s superb column, I kept returning in my head to a Pearl Jam lyric. From “Wishlist”: “I wish I was a sacrifice / But somehow still lived on.” I wonder if there’s a connection between the two. Do the same commonplaces and banalities of Western modernity that breed violent disaffection among jihadi tourists also give rise to the forked mentality that Eddie Vedder describes? To varying degrees, most Westerners are still spiritual creatures, with a sense of Higher Things, and a hope (however vague and buried) for some kind of Significance. At the same time, we’re so enmeshed in the prosaic order of our daily lives and life itself, and we grievously fear loss. The outcome of these conflicting tendencies? A desire for exultation but on the cheap. Comfortable transcendence. Ultimate meaning without the ultimate cost. The coups that overturn our lives must be bloodless and reversible.

Aug 27, 2014
So much sass. So much denim. So much yes.
(Source: The Packers’ official Twitter page)

So much sass. So much denim. So much yes.

(Source: The Packers’ official Twitter page)

Aug 21, 2014
Special features in God’s Glory Bible:
- All of Christ’s words come emblazoned in red, white, and blue.
- Uses the prophetic spelling of Jerusalem -> JerUSAlem.
- First and Second Samuel have been renamed First and Second Uncle Samuel.
- A reworked version of Revelation that accounts for the First Intifada, 9/11, and Benghazi.
- A supplementary CD of Ronald Reagan reading the Psalms. 

Special features in God’s Glory Bible:

- All of Christ’s words come emblazoned in red, white, and blue.

- Uses the prophetic spelling of Jerusalem -> JerUSAlem.

- First and Second Samuel have been renamed First and Second Uncle Samuel.

- A reworked version of Revelation that accounts for the First Intifada, 9/11, and Benghazi.

- A supplementary CD of Ronald Reagan reading the Psalms. 

Aug 4, 2014

So what makes Lana the most effective advertisement for heterosexuality since, well, the cigarette? Her secret is simple. She doesn’t take heterosexuality for granted. Where other female pop stars lean back and assume a de facto straightness, Lana leans into her straightness so hard that she makes it seem tempting, even to her non-straight listeners. While other pop stars simply celebrate heterosexuality, Lana describes it in such alluring detail that even the most devoted disciple of Sappho might want to give it a whirl.

By making heterosexuality as marked as homosexuality, Lana explains straightness to me in a language that I can understand. She makes explicit all of its hidden wonders; she teaches them to me, song after song, video after video. She makes heterosexuality as hypervisible as my own sexuality and, in so doing, opens up the possibility of mutual understanding between us. No one tries as hard as she does to convince me that men are handsome, that sex is delicious, and that fast cars are the best place to experience both of them.

Samantha Allen, “Lana Del Rey Makes Me Wish I Were Straight”

Lana appeals to me chiefly for aesthetic reasons, but maybe there’s something to Allen’s argument from a hetero-male perspective. Maybe straight dudes like myself and others I know are drawn to LDR in part because she makes us feel so wanted. Indispensable even. From this vantage, her music might be viewed as a tonic for us, a counterpoint, in this moment of Western cultural history when the rhetorical guns have been turned on men. (To be sure, I’m emphatically *not* crying persecution or victimhood. But, these days, “You’re a straight male!” often passes as legitimate criticism, when life is far too complicated for that kind of glib, blanket, unsophisticated thinking.)

Lana doesn’t concern herself with ideology, which can have a flattening effect on art. She’s not interested in rooting out entrenched patriarchal power structures and the like. She’s too in the moment for abstractions. Her world is white hot emotion, old fashioned devotion meets pulsating desire, the unruly inner storm stirred up by love and lust. What results is compelling art - the kind of art that can bewitch lesbians, straight males, and others for many reasons, one of which is the bracing and even reassuring “raw heterosexuality” on display. Fascinating stuff. I highly recommend Allen’s article.


Jul 28, 2014
Mont-Saint-Michel, as captured by Maciek Nabrdalik for Smithsonian Magazine.  This is the kind of beauty that stills the soul and fires the imagination. Follow the link to see the full slideshow. The low-tide shots are wondrous as well.
Mont-Saint-Michel, as captured by Maciek Nabrdalik for Smithsonian Magazine
This is the kind of beauty that stills the soul and fires the imagination. Follow the link to see the full slideshow. The low-tide shots are wondrous as well.
Jul 28, 2014

Camus famously said that “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve”—a complicated statement for an avowed atheist. But Camus, of course, was more complex in his atheism than we might commonly expect: he was an atheist in reaction to, and in the shadow of, a Catholicism osmotically imbued in the culture (of the French certainly, but of the pieds noirs in particular). The inescapable result is that his atheism is in constant dialogue with religion; in L’Étranger no less than in, say, La Peste.

Sandra Smith has, in her admirable translation, plucked carefully upon this thread in the novel, so that Anglophone readers might better grasp Camus’s allusions. Here is but one key example: the novel’s last line, in French, begins “Pour que tout soit consommé,…” which Ward translates, literally, as “For everything to be consummated.” But as Smith points out, the French carries “an echo of the last words of Jesus on the Cross: ‘Tout est consommé.’” Her chosen rendition, then, is “So that it might be finished,” a formulation that echoes Christ’s last words in the King James translation of the Bible.

Claire Messud, "A New ‘L’Étranger’"
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