After the riffed out centre of the album and the experimentation of Fez, here is the quiet reflective shift of pace; a piano led ballad and when the guitar comes in it is a gentle strum, as far from Edge’s trademark as is imaginable. It seems very unlike U2 but then Bono begins to sing and you immediately have Hands That Built America in mind, from the Gangs In New York soundtrack. It could be an evocative, suggestive, mysterious or vague story line, giving little away in images of highways, dry ground and woods and moons.
The singer’s brother and he driving on straight highways in the first verse could actually be Springsteen in his Nebraska phase. Interviews, however, fill us in on perhaps trivial information that Bono was thinking of a soldier dying in Afghanistan. Maybe when it makes its appearance in the movie Brothers directed by their old Irish mate Jim Sheriden we will have more resources for contextualisation.
Whatever the storyline, at the core of the song, perhaps given away by the melodic steal of the Christmas Carol O Come O Come Emmanuel are again questions of faith and doubt and salvation. There are no clues in verse one that we are to be confronted with the heavy theological issues of verse 2. Immediately, the narrator declares that he once knew God’s love but there was then a time when he lost it. Whether he is still in that doubting agnostic place we don’t know but salvation is what he is looking for. Forgiveness is what the ultimate search is for. Where it can be found is the key to this particular universe, or in the knowledge that it is a dying man eternity.
It brings to mind Springsteen again and all those characters from Nebraska seeking various kinds of atonement. On White As Snow, if we are aware that it is a war zone and a dying soldier, the question is can forgiveness be found in a terrain that is so unforgiving. A more general question is how there can be forgiveness gained where forgiveness is not given, recalling Jesus' words in the prayer he taught his disciples, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The answer, the singer feels, is “The lamb as white as snow.” This is the central belief of Judaism and Christianity. The Lamb atones for sin. A Lamb without blemish is the only thing that can bring that forgiveness from the Divine. Christianity believes that the Emmanuel who came in that Christmas Carol, whose melody underpins this theological discussion, is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1 v 29) to quote John the Baptist, Jesus cousin and fervent wilderness preacher.
This unblemished Lamb can make our hearts as white as snow is Christianity’s core belief. King David, Bono’s favourite Psalmist and blues singer, wrote his song of being made as white as snow (Psalm 51) after committing his most notorious sins, incidentally catalogued by Leonard Cohen in Hallelujah. King David ultimately hoped that God would make his heart as white as snow... and so this dying soldier. Intimate, tender, poignant, beautiful!