u2 and voice

U2 has created a Shakespearean library of music. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr are arguably among the best musicians ever. And so I studied what they said about making their new album in Rolling Stone. Besides enjoying Brian Hiatt’s writing, which alternately croons and wails (he, for instance, describes U2 bassist Adam Clayton as having a "gentlemanly air, as if he's permanently carrying a nice cup of tea") I was most struck by how these guys speak of their art, with equal parts reverence for process and talent.

First, they're rarely satisfied, always stretching for top shelf sound, from seeking a new flavor to allowing the ancient, like the track with birds chirping in their Moroccan courtyard-studio. I certainly don’t love all their offerings, but I can always tell they’re trying.

Secondly, their process is wrapped up in an ideal, and acceptance, repeated by Bono and the others, called It Was Hard. You get the sense it is always hard, even without their saying so right out. And yet they persevere, twisting the knife where it hurts most. "There's this theme running through the album of surrender and devotion and all the things I find really difficult," Bono reports to Hiatt. It Was Hard.

They can and do turn their attention to other hard things: World Peace, Faith, Africa, Writing, Children, Wives, Lives. And yet they return again and again with daring to their primary stage. I was born to sing for you, Bono sings on "Magnificent", and you believe him. The Other Things don't just inform their music; they define it.

"We knew by the time we were heading to Fez that we had found a new sound that was legitimate," says Clayton. "It had a primitivism - it had a rock and roll element to it, but there was an otherworldly feel, there was that connection with that Arabic scale." In other words, their early focus was on Voice, or an aspect of it. They pay close attention to the mechanics, but they also understand how the sum adds up to a greater whole.

Can you analyze your art to that degree? Even as a writer, I'm not certain I have that kind of vocabulary. And yet, it's necessary. Words define us and our actions. There's value in defining everything from the bass drum beat of craft (ad nauseum on every writer's blog) to the tiresome Higher Purpose. But we must stretch and combine the knowledge of mechanics to encompass the whole, the Voice. Otherwise, learning mechanics makes for a futile, rote knowledge.

I would argue acknowledging talent is useful, as Bono points out to the Edge: "… there are colors in the spectrum that you own, that weren't there before you painted them..." Such flattery can border on the obscene to the modest among us, and it's a quick route to alienating our readership if we direct it at ourselves. But I've yet to meet a truly modest artist. If you make art, I would argue you want it to be seen, heard, read. Most of us love the sound of our own Voice, and rightfully so. You have something to say. Don’t be ashamed. Embrace it.

But how can Bono say these things about the Edge without coming off like a prig? First, I believe he’s smart about what he does. He’s a professional. He has learned and continues to learn about his craft. And second, he’s basically a good person. He’s not perfect, he’s not a god, but damn, he tries to be good in his life. He gives the sense of a higher purpose. For Bono, it's "Vision over visibility...looking past what you can see in favor of what might be." This purpose sums up U2's Voice so neatly. I can almost hear that theme hammering through their music.

Except, we find less attention paid, and more impatience with, the sketchier, airy merit of what we're trying to achieve. Who doesn’t start shifting in their chair when some “literary genius” starts talking Higher Purpose? There’s modesty in claiming “it’s all about the story.” But Higher Purpose is a valid thing to analyze. Examining Purpose forces us to delve into an even darker realm in which Voice means everything. We can then use mechanics like a ladder to climb back out of the abyss: pacing and word choice and slippery dialogue and sketchy narrative tactics. But we must go into the abyss, because, in the end, the whole is greater because of intent.

Intent is what drives us to make art in the first place. Whether you know it before you type a word or slide headlong into it at 3 am on page 351, you, as an artist, have an intent. It’s why we persevere to be heard. And without knowing the why, how can we ever find and define Voice?

So…what's my purpose? What is my intent?

What's yours?

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