The National, singing in Fake Empire, a song which recently achieved exposure during the closing moments of Southland, a new cop show set in LA, directed in the unforgiving glare of the sun and the submerged, deep shadows of the LA night, with pin-sharp, brutal clarity. The track contains a multitude of emotions tightly wrapped in the beaten cadences of Tom Waits’ poetry and the loneliness of Jack Kerouac’s American nights. The moment when despair and hope collide and it could go either way. This constant wonder of being alive. Everything is bright, everything is in shadow, and you go quietly through the shades in the valley of the sun, because to go any other way might make it all real, and you don’t know yet if you want darkness or wonder. Tiptoe, then, for now. Just like falling for someone, just like writing a novel; you plunge in with abandon and yet you tread carefully, because you don’t know yet what this thing may be, what it could become. You sense its power but don’t know it, although you want it more than you can say. You can only will it into existence. You want it, you want him, you want her. It’s all so close in your mind, so faraway from where you are. The chorus of the song tells us: “we’re half-awake, in a fake empire.” Maybe that’s the state we’re all in. Maybe that’s what it means to be conscious, to be human. To feel, to be in love. It’s our job as writers to find this out; it’s something only we can do.
Words from U2’s latest album No Line On The Horizon, released this week; a quiet, hypnotic set that yet thrums with the hidden but sensed force and latent danger of distant power lines. Occasionally thunder breaks and a storm races through, but the insistently meditative rhythms soon resume to carry us to the album’s Sopranos-like sudden conclusion. In the lines quoted above, Bono is writing in the character of a war correspondent, but those words could apply to all writing, that character could be any writer: “I’m here because I don’t want to go home,” he sings at one point. Writers take the long journey away from themselves, like actors, even as what they write or perform reinforces who they are; who we are. Throughout the album, Bono, perhaps the only rock star to truly channel the kinetic, elusive spirit of the Beats, attains sharp, brutal poetic heights: he has never been such a genius of compression as he is in these songs. “I’m running down the road like loose electricity,” like Kerouac in his original scroll for On The Road, full of restless, shifting energy, the need to escape, to move, to be alive. U2 channel the Beats, the rawness of punk, the immediacy of Japanese poetry, and even Ezra Pound, for they always follow his command to “make it new.” Take everything you know and remake it. That’s what Shakespeare did by turning established stories into new plays; that’s what Baz Luhrmann did when he adapted Romeo & Juliet into an utterly contemporary, furiously edited masterpiece of kinesis. That’s what U2 always do, to varying degrees. Achtung Baby was likely the biggest leap they have ever taken, from the traditional sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the new, heavily disguised, digitized, synthesized sincerity of Zoo Station and The Fly. The Zoo TV live show, while on the hand being utterly of the moment and groundbreaking and new, still carried echoes of Ezra Pound’s Blast magazine, published in 1916, with its one-word-per-page slogans, its cutting up and fragmenting of the cultural norms of the time, its exploding of conventions. The form was deconstructed and technologically rebuilt; this is what U2 have been doing ever since The Fly‘s distorted sonic reinventions. By the time of their Pop album, Bono was openly referencing William Burrough’s philosophy of cutting up the past and re-forming it. True invention and innovation demands the highest level of sincerity and dedication, to the soul of the piece, to the craft of realizing it. No Line On The Horizon is a beautiful, almost silent meditation on a long journey with no end in sight; it’s also sonically, musically and lyrically inventive. Unlike Achtung Baby, that invention is here absorbed by a minimalist soundscape. It takes many listens; all of U2’s layers are compressed into a smoothly digital rendering of loss and hope. It’s a writer’s showcase in many ways; whether you write poetry, music, lyrics, stories, screenplays or novels, at some level the same needs and demands will eventually apply.