And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on.”
- From October by U2
Perhaps U2’s first moment of controlled and crafted genius, Edge’s piano changes the band’s soundscape entirely and brings to the early catalogue a song that is sophisticated, economical and deep; Eno before Eno! Christian hymn writers have often used a minimum amount of words for impact – Taize would be a good example – but it is more likely that Bono simply didn’t have the time to elaborate; he'd lost all the lyrics for this second album somewhere on America's west coast! However, what might be nothing more than a sketch at the time begins to feel perfectly complete as the time goes by.
October is a haunting piece that sits in the vortex of change and a change that is not a welcome. Bono often speaks of having the title first and of thinking that the hopeful spring of the sixties had given way to a colder, bleaker time in 1981.
As well as that global vortex of change the band were in their own personal vortex. Camped out with the Shalom Christian community on Portrane beach just north of Dublin, Edge and Bono were wrestling with rock stardom or not; was it compatible with the intensity of their Christian commitment. The trees were bare in their own souls and it worked its way into this piece of lament. Holed up in a caravan, fasting, praying and reading the Bible it was inevitable that Scripture would creep into the creative process.
October is very much in the lament tradition of the Psalms or other Old Testament books, that would find their way into their next album War. October is Psalm-like while 40 on War would be an actual Psalm. Isaiah would feature a couple of times on that follow up album too. In the vortex of October’s lament comes hope; in the midst of tossed about confusion comes truth; in the midst of negative change comes the constant to be trusted in. God doesn’t change. The seasons do, the politics of history does but God... “you go on and on.”
As I rewrite this blog post, as I do almost every October 1st, I cannot but think of its truth in the light of yet another of Northern Ireland's political crisis. As our politicians attempt to work out a way forward, that is pleasing for them all, it would be good if this seasonal U2 song reminded them of this ancient wisdom from the Bible; Kingdom rise and kingdom fall. It is a subtle reminder to focus our energies, gifts and love on that which lasts and not on whatever nationalist identity you consider yourself. History has proved time and time again, what Scriptures constantly declares, that those identities will fall away. God on the other other hand...