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March 2009


31UyE4JPN7L__SL500_AA240_ First listens to new albums are all about judgements. The surprising thing about this, the most eagerly anticipated eleventh studio album by U2, is that it caused my first judgement to be not about the the album itself but on U2’s previous two releases. In the light of No Line On The Horizon, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind must feel a little insecure, frail and vulnerable. They were good albums with many songs that will pepper U2 concerts for many years to come BUT alongside the jury made up of the songs on this new album they are found wanting; good but no longer great. The initial judgement of NLOTH is that it is indeed great. Many spoke of ATYCLB being the third great U2 album but actually it actually it might just have arrived now, though time, and hearing these songs in the live context, will tell. NLOTH is, for sure, a much more carefully crafted, mature, fulfilled work of art.

Taking that extra time between albums, the longest gap in U2 history, and feeling their way towards an album rather than chasing deadline day mixes has all been worth it. Bringing in Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, their producers and musical mentors for twenty five years, as co-creators this time has also added sonic breadth, width and depth. What the six creators have finally presented to the world is an album of various shades and atmospheric shifts, big big riffs to move the body and sparse reflectives to caress the soul. Edge, Adam and Larry have rarely played better and Bono’s lyrics and voice show another level of maturity. Lanois and Eno then add loops and left field lateral thinking that brings a treasure trove of slow burn layered melodic wonder.

Every U2 phase gets a name check... the worship of the youthfully exuberant October is back on Magnificent which finally kicks in to a Unforgettable Fire soundscape... while Fez - Being Born has a Passengers mood... Stand Up Comedy is the girder crunch chords of Achtung Baby... the lyric of Unknown Caller would sit well on Zooropa... Cedars Of Lebanon is like one of those great Joshua Tree soft spoken word poem out-takes that finally got their recognition on that album’s Twentieth Anniversary Edition. I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight would have sat nicely on the last two albums but as highlighted in the unsettling sound of the lead-off single Get On Your Boots it is all wrapped up in fresh experimental recycling. Having suggested familiarity there are many tracks and sections of tracks that if played without vocal would not reveal the band’s identity at all. Moment of Surrender is such a song; seven minutes of spiritual journey where the Edge actually plays a solo from David Gilmour’s guitar school. The mixing the U2 sound with that which isn’t gives more twists and surprises than we have heard for awhile.

A Twitter friend asked for a one word review to which I wrote Theological. We have gotten used, some of us excited, about Bono’s declarations of faith over thirty years but there is enough theology on NLOTH to set up a Seminary! As the lyrics are more thought through so is the theological undercurrent to songs where God is rarely in the headline but omnipresent in the story. Since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb I have come to regard Bono as a theologian and here is more evidence of his contribution to helping us navigate us through the uncertainty of the post modern age with assurances that grace is all that we need because grace is all that we have. With U2 there is an absence of dogmatic arrogance but always a humble strength of belief, a constant of confession and the discernment to thus “everyday I die again and every day I’m born again” and that it’s “Not that I believe in love but that love believes in me.”

What U2 do is believe in spite of the evidence and believe that the evidence will change to almost quote, one of Bono’s social justice allies, Jim Wallis. In U2 songs we are not about hanging around waiting for some better day way down the line or denying the bad news that is strewn across the newspapers today. U2’s religion is not an opiate as Marx might have accused Bono had they both found themselves as a team fighting poverty in the same era. Instead it kisses the future while holding its arms out to the world on the street. It believes that reaching the light is certain even though it is a mountain to climb. The songs on NLOTH shimmy and shift between the reality of war and the worship of God; there are couplets of doubt alongside convictions of hope.

It could be that U2 from north Dublin are the natural successors to the negro slaves who wrote those amazing spirituals on the plantations of America’s southern states. Obviously I am not thinking of Edge’s guitar sound but the spirit of the songs and the theology that underpins. A careful look at the spirituals will reveal that the belief in what will happen in the next life directly impacts the present one. The belief is that redemption is already here and at the same time still yet to come. So if we believe that “we’re going to make it all the way to the light” then don’t just sit around waiting but fuelled by such a belief we might find ourselves at times “lost between the darkness and the dawning” but we can “shout at the darkness, squeeze out the sparks of light.” This album is a journey through that hinterland and the horizon is blurred with no demarcation line. Time is not linear and we are not to look for the visibility of the evidence around us but a vision of how it is going to be. If you are on such a spiritual pilgrimage then here are more songs of worship and catharsis.

Maybe one of the challenges to U2 about this album is that the music world has changed again since their last release. There is a credit crunch and the download has broken up the world of the LP. It could be that in years to come this might be considered one of their fullest works but not their biggest seller. So will U2 really be content with making art rather than the top of the charts? I hope so. Those with ears to hear need a whole dose more of this!

Fair Trade - the Stories in your Shopping Bag


We found ourselves on a Fair Trade vineyard near Stellenbosh in South Africa. A worker came to tell us of the many advantages Fair Trade had brought. They had bought their own land and indeed some of the vineyard. Their children got education right through to University and there was also education available for them. But there was more…moments later and just a few hundred yards away we were standing by a fence in their village. On their side of that fence were beautifully painted houses and carefully groomed gardens. There was a little school and a play area. There was colour and beauty and all of that freedom and ownership we had just heard about was bursting with life. But on the other side of the fence…was the neighbouring vineyard. There was literally the thinnest breadth of wire dividing. And on that other side there was dirty, faded, paint peeling houses. There were rough dust and dirt paths between them. There was no colour, no energy, no pride and no sense of hopefulness.


It was a stark contrast. It was the most challenging piece of land I had ever stood upon. The choice was clear and stark. Buy into one side of the fence and there is a sense of care and justice for the workers. Buy into the other and there is simply exploitation, disregard and neglect of workers and their children. When my students stand in their local Co-op to buy coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate or whatever they now know they now have a visual aid to help them decide what products to buy. Their decisions have suddenly become a whole lot bigger and a whole lot clearer. There is a thin line between justice and oppression and we stood right at the sharpest part of the fence. Which side will we be investing in? What side of the fence best describes the redemption of heaven? Which side is God most thrilled with? What does it mean in our everyday shopping for us to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

God advises his people constantly about the dangers of wealth becoming a greed that distracts from more eternal. In Isaiah 3 he sits in judgement on the rich using and abusing the poor for their own decadent comforts, “it is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” Ezekiel tells Israel what her sister Sodom’s sin was, “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” The rich/poor divide in our world is something God ranted has about for thousands of years. It is not his way and it doesn’t happen in heaven; a heaven we pray in the Lord’s Prayer will come to earth.

In the book edition of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2 front man and political activist Bono spells it out, “Shopping is politics. You vote every time you spend money.” He points out that of course trade is good BUT only when it is fair. The Hewson (Bono’s real surname) family are not just talking about trading fairly. Bono’s wife Ali has just launched a Fair Trade fashion line. Edun is a partnership between Ali’s vision of world revolution through what people wear and New Yorker Rogan Gregory’s fashion designs. Street fashion with a story that doesn’t make us guilty of greedy exploitation and a style that is deeper than the outward appearance. So Ali in recent interviews echoes her husband, who I suspect might be echoing her all along, “The revolution is happening in your house, in your purse, in your wallet, how you spend your money...Shopping is politics."

We could wrestle in cerebral and spiritual discussion about these things for some time. It is scandalous that in trying to switch America on to justice issues like debt relief, HIV/AIDS and trade issues both Bono and Ali have had to prove what advantage it would be to America rather than the good idea of ridding the world of poverty, injustice and millions of senseless deaths. In Making Poverty History Bono has been showing how good it would be to America’s security as well as the advantages for trade. In the concept of Edun one of the aims is to prove that it can be profitable so that other companies, whose bottom line is greedily increasing profits, might see the benefits. This is the vomit of the modern malaise of selfishly getting more with no moral or ethical conscience to give. In the end though where Ali in particular and Fair Trade in general hit the nail on the head is in every day actions, not in the intellectual ether.

For Ali there is a dilemma. As a mother she doesn’t want to think that another mother’s child was exploited in making her children’s clothes. She doesn’t want to think that she or her children wear the stories of injustice. Companies who leave factories and the souls of their workers desolate to set up elsewhere in order to save a few cents per t-shirt is not a story that she wants her children to be wearing. Clothes that say we in the west walked over the poor to feed our greed might look good but they should feel bad. The whole of Africa had 6% of world trade in 1980 and by 2002 that had dropped to 2%. To increase Africa’s trade possibilities and give jobs to the people of that continent is a more lasting way to make poverty history than debt relief and charity though we should never give up on those. African writer Ben Okri wrote, “Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.” Wearing clothes with positive and life changing stories could be infectious.

The United Kingdom have been trail blazing in the Fair Trade market. There was a 50% increase in sales last year alone with sales topping £140m for 2004. The number of Fair Trade certified products rose from 150 in 2003 to 834. Café Direct the Fair Trade marked coffee has now 19% of the gourmet coffee market. It is only a decade since charities like Christian Aid encouraged people to campaign in their local supermarkets to have Fair Trade coffee on the shelves. It seemed such a small token of activism and yet today all major chains carry various Fair Trade products and the Co-op’s own chocolate brand for example is totally Fair Trade.

In the UK there are no excuses. The stories in your shopping bags (environmentally friendly of course!) can be intravenously purifying the blood of the nation’s soul never mind your own. There is no need to go to Africa or central America to change the world. That is good news and bad. The good is that we can all do something today. Making your impression can be tangible. It also means that there are responsibilities and no chance of hiding your head in the sand. To not make decisions about changing what and why we buy is making a decision to keep the poor, poor. To make poverty history is within the grasp of this generation. As Bono said at the Labour Party Conference back in November, ““We are the first generation that can look extreme and stupid poverty in the eye, look across the water to Africa and elsewhere and say this and mean it: we have the cash, we have the drugs, we have the science -- but do we have the will? Do we have the will to make poverty history?” Do we? And do the American people have the bravery to do what the UK has done so far and put Fair Trade on the map of the land of the free.