Friday, October 29, 2010

a little leitmotif lite: "No Line" as a (non-linear) sequel/prequel to "Achtung Baby"

buy the T-shirts (:
Along with the brilliant Rev. St. Keltic Ken, I have an affinity for those pop/rock songs from the 60s and 70s that were able to pack celtic-ish creativity, ethereal vibe, and a bit of progrock into a  radio-friendly three minutes.
Tunes like:

"A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procul Harum:

"Society's Child" by Janis Ian:

God must love "spooky music," huh, Ken?
(How about some McArthur Park?)
Especially in short singles.

More than  Ken, I also love many of the longer opuses and epics of progrock; songs with "movements," a la classical music.
Even though grand can become grandiose pretty quickly, and operatic can translate cheese...
I still love
"In the Court of the Crimson King" by King Crimson...

"Supper's Ready" by Genesis  (Don't get me started)..
whether with frontman Peter Gabriel:

(continued here, it's in 3 parts...of course)

Or with Phil Collins:


But one can see how bands would grow weary of reproducing the long opuses, and concept albums/rock operas, in concert, especially thirty five yeas later.  It has been said that when fans call out for "Supper's Ready," Collins sings a condensed version:  "There's an angel standing in the sun...666...Jerusaleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeem!!"

Which reminds us that any good, long story can be condensed.  And just hearing Collins  belt out those three snippets sends chills up the spine, as it is a microsm (albeit Cliff's notes) of the real  (23 minute) and grander thing (see the biblical backstory here)

Of couse, long songs, and concept albums (which are sometimes basically an hour-long song) have of course taken a hit in our soundbite  and megabyte times and technologies.
We are not living in Tommy anymore, and The Wall has come down.

But some recent albums:

...though technically not concept albums, or rock operas, maintain something of the concept and feel.
Sometimes lyrically, sometimes thematically, sometimes musically.
Songs segue, themes interweave, leitmotif happens.

Little leitmotifs, if you will.
Which is not the same as leitmotif lite.

This works well for Linkin Park, with lyrical refrains being revisited, as well as musical ones.
And many will remember the classic moment from a Neil Young concert: a fan yelled out, "All the songs sound the same!"  Neil dryly retorted: "They're all the same song!"

But it's the subtle, but obvious
(to an intent listener with their intelligence on....
one reason concept and complex albums...and albums themselves are in hard times...intent listeners are hard to find),
musical motifs that ocassionally reappear in a U2 work that  haunt, highlight and hyperlink it.
"Story shapes story," as Ray Vander Laan says of the biblical narrative's  intriguing intertextuality.

U2 plots their homiletical plot.
Lietmotif can be liturgy and leitiourgia.
(see  this by Beth Maynard, and  "Leitourgia, Leitmotif, Porn Stars and the Drowning Man")

It was Beth who got me thinking on the hyperlinked "oh oh"s of "Unknown Caller" and "White as Snow" as profound, and not just words. See also Beth's awesome comments on "God's signature melody"
throughout the U2 "No Line" album.
(I blogged a bit on that here, and here ate two more posts by Beth on the narrative of "No Line": Moments and characters and "Time won't leave me where i am,")

"No Line" began as a concept album, but was released as something less than...though the narrative line is still tracable,  and the shadow of the arc remains.... for those with ears to see (synesthesia is a helpful hermeneutical grid for U2).

Of course, one could make the case that U2 have been making "virtual concept albums" (even versions of the same album)  since their first album.

 But maybe "No Line" is sequel to,  or part 2, of "Achtung Baby" (I hope it's not a prequel).  Obviously one is darker and ocassioned by divorce; and one is overall more optimistic and opti-mystic (But there is more "up"/kataphtatic on "Achtung"... and more "down"/apophatic on "No Line".... that at first glance). And the newer album contains an obvious repeated lyrical leitmotif  in "let me in the sound."

It was Beth Maynard who got me thinking on the hyperlinked "oh oh"s of "Unknown Caller" and "White as Snow" as profound, and not just words. See also Beth's comments on "God's signature melody"
throughout the U2 "No Line" album, 
as a classic example of a musical leitmotif which segued not only two consecutive songs together, but hemistich the whole story.
(I blogged a bit on that here).

 And hear Beth out:


I defintely think there’s a relational thin place in this album. Consider ...also how the holy encounter at the end of "Unknown Caller" transitions, quickly, in the same key and with a very similar musical gesture, into the “old married folks” world of “Crazy Tonight.” The mundane is not mundane!
-Beth Maynard, see bottom of page here


The 'No Line" album's 

"Crazy Tonight/Unknown Caller" hemistich

is mirrored in 

the "Achtung Baby" album's

"Acrobat/Love is Blindness.'  Both sets of songs reveal, by a little leitmotif, an interpretive key to their respective albums.

These should've/could've been the singles !  (: 

How about a single 45, with A (Achtung) and B  (No Line) sides?


So, check this from Stephen Catanzarite's hugely helpful 33 1/3 book, "Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in Light of the Fall":

There is a stirring musical motif  in "Acrobat,"  a guitar line reminscent of the darkly sublime themes found in  Ennio Morricone's classic scores for the films of Sergio Leone.  As with those  scores, the guitars in Acrobat play out over a human landscape that is at once comic and tragic, desolate and abundant, Godforsaken and blessed.  It is no accident that this theme will be repeated again in the following song, "Love is Blindness,"a sign of the Spirit that wills to abound in the darkest recesses of the human heart
-Catanzarite, p. 82, emphasis mine

        To the soft purr of the organ repeating the  mournful motif from "Acrobat," "Love is Blindness" finds our man and woman walking unsteadily down the aisle of an empty cathedral where, just above the altar, a light burns in the darkness...The struggle is heard in the martial bass line, which though dimly beligerent, seems on the edge of exaltation.....It is a continutaion of his confession in "Acrobat," but it goes further...followed by one of the most powerful and harrowing  guitar solos ever recorded. _-Catanzaarite, p. 87
Would it be too much  to suggest that  "Achtung " is a rock opera?  Probably.  Other tahn a melodic figure from "Acrobat" that is repeated on "Love is Blindness," there are no leitmotifs or recurring musical themes on the album, such as there are on Tommy, nor are any of the sonbgs reprised, as on The Wall.  To borrow a phrase from Bill Flanagan, the album does have a "novelistic cohesiveness"....It might be moire precise to decribe it as a "song cucle"  (such as Lou Reed's New York), or even a concept album (a concept pioneeered by Frank Sinatra)..Catanzarite,96-97

Buy the book already, and read chapter 1  yesterday!


Could it be that all of U2's U2ness  can be shorthanded and summarized in that one theme, even that one note in "No Line," or that one "harrowing solo" on Achtung?
 If so, how ironic and appropriate that is The Edge who offers the centerpoint.
Even Bono's words are often wordless.
But Edge's  "swirling epiphanies" (Time Magazine's phrase!) and  "signature melodies of God,"
are interpreted glossolalia/Bongolese 

Praying thru guitar tongues this time


that interpret the text, the times.....and us.
A little leitmotif goes a long way.

Maybe  those short 60s songs were prophetic and proleptic signs of the times, and of the Kingdom.

The concept album may be dead.
(See "Gregory of Nyssa and Green Day: death/birth of the concept of the concept album")
But long live the kingly and Kingdomed concept of a conceptual double single..

1 comment:

  1. great stuff - lots to think about here


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!