Column: off the record…, vol. 12-499

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off the record, from @U2

I'm glad the holidays are finally, completely and irrefutably over. The final weeks of December and the first weeks of January always seem to be a time when my family members and friends gather to discuss the difficult questions that really matter in life: What was the Claw really supposed to represent? Is U2, as the band asks itself, still relevant? Is their recent work worth listening to?

The latter question I get particularly defensive; when acquaintances say to me, "I only like U2's early work; it's changed so much that I can't listen to it now," I vehemently argue that although their melodies have adapted to keep pace with the changes in taste, style and marketing over the the last 30 years, the band's lyrics still resonate with the same themes they always have.

It is with this chip on my shoulder that I responded to my sister as we settled into my father's guest room on Christmas Eve. As I was turning out the light, she asked if I thought all song lyrics were poems. When I answered in the affirmative, she balked. "Way to disregard everything I've been working on over the last five years," I snapped. Then, I began to justify to her, and to myself, why I think song lyrics are poetry. Good poems can make terrible songs, I argued, and vice versa. Even U2's songbook has some examples of good poems gone bad, and bad poems made right.

No matter where I am — in the car, the kitchen or the mall -- my hips and shoulders begin to sway in opposite directions the moment I hear the first funky beats of "Mysterious Ways," but ultimately, I agree that the lyrics don't hold up to scrutiny. Ironically, I believe the song works as a whole because its form follows function. I can't imagine there is a woman on the planet who doesn't transform into a dance-floor diva when "Mysterious Ways" comes through the speakers; that's the point. A mediocre lyric is buoyed by a great melody, pulsing chorus and hypnotic bridge. It's one of my favorite songs.

On the other hand, "Numb" offers lyrics of significant power, but its repetitive musical phrasing bores me to tears. Of course, that, too, is the point; at the end of the 20th century, we were (and still are) inundated with so many conflicting images and rules of behavior that we risk becoming numb to possibility. As a list poem, it barely conforms to what most people think is a poem at all, but I find its length and specificity hard to challenge. Because the emphasis is on the negation of action, "don't eat / don't spill / don't piss in the drain," it is almost the opposite of "Mysterious Ways," which urges the listener to move, lift and lighten up in the face of anger and confusion. Again, form follows function -- which, for me, makes "Numb" a great song, but it is almost entirely impossible for me to listen to. I skip the track whether I am driving to work or cleaning the house. Both lyrics and melody express a tone of overwhelming oppression showcasing the whole band at the height of their powers. But, I don't think the lines themselves are necessarily strengthened by the music. I think the words could stand by themselves. This, I suppose, means I'm waiting for Bono to join the likes of Jim Morrison and Jewel and issue a poetry collection of his own. (Did I just write that?)

Talenthouse, a global social media site out of Palo Alto connecting artists working in design, music, film, fashion, art, dance and photography, is running a contest for Achtung Baby cover art, if the album were released in 2012. Shaughn McGrath and Anton Corbijn invited artists to submit photographs or artwork that captures today's global environment and the spirit of the album. McGrath and Corbijn will select 15 submissions that will be turned into a collage and featured on

One of the competing artists is Quebec City native Pierre Bellemare, whose U2-inspired paintings debuted in Montreal last summer and whose work I reviewed in a blog post on July 16, 2011. Pierre also designed the website for Achtung! The U2 Studies Journal, which I edit with fellow @U2 staffer Scott Calhoun. Voting runs through Monday. The winners will be announced Feb. 12.

And, speaking of artists, I was delighted to read another article about Peter Rowen in the Irish Independent this week. The face of Boy and War was one I got to know well drawing it on my notebooks and painting it on my jeans jacket in the ‘80s. In many ways, I can trace my love of portraiture back to those album covers; although the walls of my home are covered in art of all kinds, I can count on one hand the images that don't have a face. Rowen's portrait work as a photographer is compelling, if not haunting at times, capturing the personality of his subject with subtlety and compassion. He announced on his blog this week that he is hosting a DSLR portrait workshop in Dublin on February 25.

(c) @U2, 2012.

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