One of my introductions to thinking about the themes of U2's music soon after I became a fan was a booklet that was distributed by our local IVCF group: "Faith, Hope, and U2: the language of love in the music of U2" by Henry VanderSpek. It's a great introductory text that's worth a read, even though it runs only through Pop, and does not include the five albums and significant chapters of U2's journey since its publishing.
I am not going to attempt to be nearly as exhaustive as any of those authors, but I did want to share a few thoughts on how I think U2 portrays love on this second Sunday of Advent. I think U2 sees love as an unconditional action and love for all of humanity, and that any other forms of love ultimately point to this broader sense of love as the main drive for all human decisions and actions. But let's start by acknowledging the band's attitude toward the more superficial "love" on which many artists choose to focus.
I've had enough of romantic love
It's kind of surprising, considering how much love figures into U2's lyrics as a theme, that they have not really recorded many true "love" songs; in fact, I think much of their attitude toward love as a romantic construct can be summarized in the lyrics of "Miracle Drug", a track from 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which is ironically their album that is arguably that is most focused on love, including the fact that the title came from a conversation that the band was having with Michael W. Smith (of all people) and that indirectly poses a question to which the answer is "love".
Love makes nonsense of space and time, will disappear
Love and logic keep us clear
Reason is on our side, love
The songs are in our eyes
I see them when you smile
I've had enough of romantic love
I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up
For a miracle drug
U2 occasionally does deal with the notion of romantic love, but it usually tends to be juxtaposed with the pain of loss, grief, and heartbreak: the anguish of "With or Without You"; the saccharine sorrow of "Sweetest Thing"; the forlorn hope of "Song for Someone"; the confusion of self-destructive tendencies in the recent single "You're The Best Thing About Me". Romantic love is never straight-forward or easy, and Bono clearly expresses understanding of the depth of love as opposed to the possible superficiality of romantic love, as he sings in Dismantle's "A Man and a Woman": "I could never take a chance / of losing love to find romance".
In other examples, the idea of love in a romantic sense is tied up with images and metaphors that allude both directly and indirectly to what seem to be the three most significant feminine presences in Bono's life: his mother Iris, his wife Ali, and the Holy Spirit: "Lemon"; "Iris (Hold Me Close)"; and, of course, "Mysterious Ways". In each of these cases and more, the idea and the spirit of "love" is incarnated in the presence of women in his life, and it's much more than romantic or erotic love; instead, those relationships are meant to point to "true love".
In the name of love
It seems to me that love is considered by U2 as an abstract concept and that it is representative of the sense of unconditional "love for everyone", often called "agape" love after the Greek word used in the New Testament. Many of U2's most significant songs include deliberate references to this kind of love, both explicitly and obliquely (and sometimes ironically, as in Achtung Baby's "Love is Blindness").
"Pride (in the Name of Love)" uses the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration for loving humanity. "One" - considered by many to be one of the band's best songs and acknowledged by U2 as the song that saved them from splitting up - provides the language of a world united in "one love, one blood, one life" in the hope of healing together. And "Elevation" directly addresses "Love" as a personified character - "Love, life me up out of these blues / Won't you tell me something true / I believe in you" - which also echoes the repeated affirmation from Rattle and Hum's "God Part 2" that "I believe in love".
U2 definitely believes in love, and that belief has strongly shaped this new album, which contains the word "love" explicitly in the titles of its songs in a greater concentration than any one album in their career. Only about a dozen songs in their 14 albums actually use the word "love" in the title, and three of those are from Songs of Experience (four if you include the remix of "Ordinary Love" included as a bonus track): album opener "Love Is All We Have Left"; the psychedelic groove "Summer of Love"; and the expansive and inspirational arena anthem "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way".
Some critics have accused U2 of being clichéd or trite with the former and latter songs; while I readily admit that subtlety is not necessarily Bono's strength as a lyricist, I tend to dissent from that line of reasoning. If it were any other artist, I might be inclined to agree, but the difference with U2 is that they have four decades of incarnating love both as an idea and as an action in the philanthropic and humanitarian work that cannot be separated from their artistic endeavours.
The members of U2 have talked frequently about how this new album was significantly shaped by events such as Brexit and the American election, and I believe that the biggest influence was likely in bringing them back to the idea of love as the one thing that can overcome all of humanity's problems and that can unite us in a time of great division.
Love, to U2, is not abstract; rather, it is incarnated in the actions of people and governments. They continue to give a lot of airtime to love, and I think they do believe that "there is no end to love", as they sang in "California" on Songs of Innocence. But I also think that they believe that love is the only solution for a broken world, and I think they fear that we're headed for the "or else" of "Love and Peace or Else".
I think, like many of us, that they don't know what to do about this world in its current state, but they know that they have a platform to express what they believe, and their belief is in love as a result of concrete action rather than "prayers and thoughts". They have certainly made me think about what it means to love others in this broad sense, particularly in this Advent season.