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The Dream Of Ridiculous Men

The music on U2's new album, Songs of Innocence, reaches back toward the moment when the band was first building an audience. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

The music on U2's new album, Songs of Innocence, reaches back toward the moment when the band was first building an audience.

Courtesy of the artist

The last short story Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote is about being seriously ridiculous. In "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," an intellectual prone to existentialist despair is saved from suicide when, in a vision, he discovers a parallel planet where humanity has never sinned. "It was like being in love with each other, but an all-embracing, universal feeling," he tells the reader. This contact with Eden reinvigorates him, but then, during a playful moment, he teaches the planet's innocents how to deceive each other — and this leads to a catastrophic, Biblical fall. By the time the man awakens, his Eden has become just like Earth, full of violence, crime and war. It's the world he once thought was meaningless. And still, the man finds himself redeemed. He stands on a corner, preaching the essential goodness of humanity, despite his knowledge of the equally omnipresent potential for corruption. He's a rube for being optimistic, and he knows it. But he declares at the story's end, "I shall go on and on!"

The serious ridiculousness expressed in that conclusion differs from the unthinking kind that entangles people every day. Ordinary ridiculousness comes from not being aware — from either simply not thinking about bad or excessive choices, or from embracing blind faith in the self, a God or a system. A seriously ridiculous person is clear-eyed. She knows that idealism is a fool's game to begin with, and that every conviction carries the risk of closed-mindedness. But she takes on belief as a practice, a way of being around others that seeks common ground. The ridiculous man or woman has found a way to connect things within life's inevitably broken landscape. It's an act of reaching out that can never be fully fulfilled, but which changes things in the moment, which is all we really have.

When Bono told a Time magazine reporter in 2002 that the right to be ridiculous was something he held dear, he was criticizing himself, talking about how his ego gets in the way of being open to change. By the time he turned it into a lyric in 2009, he'd changed "be" to "appear" (letting that ego convince him that, on some level, he was being reasonable) and put it into a verse about changing the world. But at its best, Bono's band, U2, achieves seriousness ridiculousness: the ability to lift its fans beyond the moment in which they're stuck, not because they're presenting something better, but by entering that moment, making music that captures its intense emotional shakiness and making a space there that feels like it has room. He should have stuck with "be," because what people love and hate about U2 is the band's insistence that listeners not just watch or listen, but enter into an experience with them.

Ridiculousness is a common stance among the religious and the otherwise radical. Showy rejections of social norms — rags worn, street corners stood upon, shouts directed at passersby — complement refusals to accept the political or philosophical status quo. Among artists, ridiculousness can be cultivated, but often it's unthinking: not a conscious attempt to balance socially challenging contradictions, but a product of self-indulgence and overblown ego. Rock 'n' roll ridiculousness started out deep — Little Richard unsettling America's assumptions about race and gender, wailing beneath his magnificent pompadour — but ended up a joke — Spinal Tap's bassist stuffing a zucchini in his pants. Between those two extremes, one a genuinely defiant stance shot through with hope and humor and the other a disastrous manifestation of believing your own hype — anyone who believes that rock music can have an impact on people's perspectives has to navigate a path.

From the first time a couple of friends at a Christian high school thought it would be cool to make Kraftwerk-influenced, guitar-driven art rock while calling themselves Bono and the Edge, U2 has been a ridiculous band. It wasn't fame or massive financial success that made it that way: To go on and on, like Dostoevsky's happy evangelist, was the group's original mission. "I think the first concept we had of value was that people who live ordinary lives had extraordinary things in their heads sometimes — most of the time, actually, and that people are extraordinary," Bono told the band's biographer, Neil McCormick, in 2006, going on to quote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh: "God creates nothing but geniuses."

This determination to dig for big meaning went against punk's direct assault. It was pretentious. And it manifested musically, not only in Bono's lyrics and vocals, which (in that same book) the Edge associated from the beginning with "speaking in tongues, maybe not divinely inspired but from your own inner, jumbled-up psyche," but in the guitarist's love of disorienting effects, the drummer's scattershot intensity, the bass player's aggressiveness.

Songs of Innocence, the album U2 officially releases next week after sharing it with (many say foisting it upon) the world in digital form a month ago, is about becoming ridiculous and hoping to stay that way. Bono's lyrics recount events in his early life: the death of his mother, meeting his wife as a teen, falling for those punk bands that first convinced him he could be a musician, exploring mild delinquency with friends in the days when U2 was forming. He's trying to figure out exactly when he decided to go all in, to put the energy people around him were devoting to religion or political rebellion into music. From the point, in the song "Raised By Wolves," where he voices a friend's cry of "I don't believe anymore" after witnessing a loyalist bombing, to the one in "Song for Someone" where Bono implores his future wife, Ali, "There is a light — don't let it go out," he's tracing the evolution of a stubborn optimism that would later make U2 the biggest band in the world, and the one most likely to be accused of overreaching. "It's hard to listen while you preach," Bono sings in "Every Breaking Wave." In these songs, he's also trying to determine if and when he stopped listening.

The music on Songs of Innocence also reaches backward to the sound of the recordings that brought the group to prominence, before the producer Brian Eno guided them toward wide-screen soundscapes. It's punchy, a little off the rails at times, though years of absorbing wider influences make its sound much thicker than what U2 did on October and War. The hit-making younger producers the band enlisted, including Ryan Tedder and Danger Mouse, grew up with U2 and reflect back the band's grandiosity within tighter, sharper, more 21st-century frames.

Songs of Innocence comes together thematically not only because its songs are autobiographical, but because they trace how that original attempt to say more operated in relationship to events in band members' lives, whether personal or, in several cases, political. Critics have scoffed at Bono for writing a song called "The Troubles" that's not about the civil unrest he lived through as a kid. But the song does feel like the response of an inevitably narcissistic young artist (a teenager in a band, maybe) who decides that "taking on the shape of someone else's pain" doesn't call for protest, but empathy — an empathy that, because this teenager wants every statement to be huge, has to translate as nonspecific and open-ended, there for different kinds of ordinary people to witness and emulate.

U2's ridiculous striving to track down something like universal significance worked for many people, maybe especially for listeners who were themselves turning away from specific systems of meaning (like a particular religion or home community) while trying to hang on to the comfort, the sense of being more than yourself, that those systems provided. U2 fans have always been ridiculous, too: Like acolytes of the Boss, Bon Jovi, Mary J. Blige and Lana Del Rey, they prioritize emotional investment over critical judgment, loving what their favorite artist provides because of its feel, its overwhelming embrace, instead of its ability to satisfy particular tastes. U2 music can be "bad" by most critical assessments — overblown and meandering, or flailing, trying too hard — and still provide fans with the connection they crave. The insistence of the music is embedded in Edge's prodding guitar lines and in the declarative openness of Bono's singing (of that damned mouth!). Those elements push against a rhythm section that has worked to hold the mess together for decades, making sure that the sound also provides a conventional rock experience. The whole process is excessive (one of U2's original names was the Hype), but not decadent, because decadence is about endings — it's a condition of cultural or personal decline — and U2 always insists on beginning again. The band is like a lover always saying to its fans, "Please, now, let me take your hand."

It's reasonable to question the veracity of such a gesture from a band that's already enjoyed so much success. And in pop, older artists aren't supposed to want the spotlight, except when they're being officially celebrated by the new generation that's replaced them in the marketplace. Bono's insistence that he needs to remain in the middle of things particularly irritates people. But fans know that Bono beyond U2, a political person and a celebrity, is not Bono within U2, a voice still and always trying to find itself. His fame inevitably extends from his work in U2 and reflects back upon it, but every time the band has found renewed success, it's been despite whatever Bono has projected outside the music. From Achtung Baby to All That You Can't Leave Behind to "Vertigo," these renewals have worked only through the interplay of the band, which transforms his personal ridiculousness into that more resonant thing. There's a reason why the band's most enduring song is centered on the line, "We get to carry each other." The higher purpose of U2 as a band is a myth, in some ways; this is also a very profitable business with some questionable practices, and an edifice that must be very hard to contemplate dismantling. But myths are useful structures, able to both counter and distill the personal quirks of those who participate in their ritual.

Serious ridiculousness can devolve into the garden variety, of course, and U2 has taken that dive a few times: with the 1988 album and documentary Rattle & Hum, when the group tried to claim an African-American musical legacy they didn't really understand; and again in 1998, with the Popmart tour, when they became overly impressed with their own cultivated worldliness. Many music critics and other observers think 2014 is another such moment for the band. Whatever Songs of Innocence sounds like, the way U2 first presented it — as a "gift" paid for by Apple and automatically placed into millions of iTunes user's libraries — alienated many semi- or nonfans who felt encroached upon, datawise. There's something poignant about a band that's long invested music with powers of conversion — the most evangelical thing about U2, whose Christianity has always been the most secularized and widely interpretable variety — not realizing that for today's perpetually wired consumer, (data) conversion is primarily seen as something that takes up precious bandwidth. In cyberspace, things that arrive without warning or apparent cost are viruses or spam, not gifts.

Even if the mere omnipresence of Songs of Innocence hadn't provoked a fight-or-flight response in unbelievers (an omnipresence that might have been felt differently if a reclusive, controlling or confrontational artist, like Prince, Beyonce or Eminem, had provided the gift instead of an oversharing band), this is a challenging time for U2 to revel in its ridiculous ways. The practice only really works over time, not in the flat, nonlinear atmosphere of our social media-dominated culture. The street-corner preacher must bother the ears of passersby for weeks before people start to realize that some wisdom might be embedded in his blathering. Coming through the radio, repetition can be a scourge, but it's also the force that beats a hater's sword into a fan's ploughshare. Hear something repeated enough, and you will form a relationship with it, even if it's ultimately negative. In social media space, however, people are focused on each other; art is more a conduit of conversation than a repository of feeling. That's not to say people don't still have private experiences of art that evolve over time, or that artists don't mean for their work to be received that way. But especially in the public space of the pop mainstream, judgment usually comes first; taste, not feeling, dominates. A band like U2, reliant on a belief in feeling, becomes an object of ridicule.

Can U2 transform this moment of ridicule into one in which it earns the right to be ridiculous? A reversal could take place, but it might require the band focusing on the final attribute that makes seriousness ridiculous sustainable: humility. When All That You Can't Leave Behind signaled its return to form in 2000, U2 actively courted its audience with small club gigs and television appearances. It presented itself as not presuming anything. It's difficult to know what such humble pie might look like in the Yelp age, but Adam Clayton has said that U2 has another album nearly ready, and another chance to be alert to its own contradictions and how they play out in the historical moment. Like Dostoevsky's redeemed man, it'll go on, taking its punches and believing.

Correction Oct. 9, 2014

An earlier version of this story contained two errors. The bombing referenced in the song "Raised By Wolves" was not carried out by the IRA, but by loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the U.K. Another reference to conflict in Northern Ireland characterized "The Troubles" (of the late 1960s) as the "Irish civil war." The Irish Civil War occurred in 1922-23.

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