Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Oscars 2018: Early Thoughts

The Academy Award nominations are on January 23 - exactly six weeks away - and the prognosticators (like me) have been in session for at least that long already. The recent announcements of winners from several critics' circles, year-end best-of lists, a few awards ceremonies, and the nominees for the Golden Globes yesterday have mostly confirmed what many Oscar watchers already knew: that this is shaping up to be the weirdest movie awards season in years.

It was already going to be unusual with the specter of the weird way in which last year's Oscars ended - with the announcement of the upset of Best Picture winner Moonlight over heavy favourite La La Land occurring after the latter had incorrectly been announced as the winner - hovering over this year, but the events and revelations of the past few months have made the whole thing even stranger.

Several Oscar watchers have commented that all of the sexual harassment accusations and rapid and radical changes that are already starting to happen in power and authority structures as a result have already significantly affected the awards season race in several ways. Some of the films that might otherwise have been in the conversation have already been blackballed because of content, creator, or sometimes both, and there have been at least a dozen films that have been directly affected by the ongoing revelations.

But even films that have been affected are finding unprecedented ways to compete in this awards season. Wind River scrubbed Harvey Weinstein's name from its credits, and Ridley Scott ambitiously reshot Kevin Spacey's scenes in his movie All the Money in the World with Christopher Plummer in the role of J. Paul Getty while still intending to meet his original release date of December 22; Scott's film will release only three days late to the public, and the gamble has paid off with early returns, as both Plummer and Scott were nominated for Globes.

It's very possible that this may have been an odd year anyway, given the slate of releases, the lack of clear leaders, and the general consternation about the box office over the course of the past year, but the past two months have all but guaranteed that this year's Oscar race is going to be stranger than normal, which is part of the reason that I waited in posting my initial thoughts on the race.

On last year's early predictions

I wrote my early predictions post at the beginning of October last year, and it obviously way too early, as there were many pictures that had already dropped off that initial long list by the beginning of November. Then again, I did manage to include all nine Best Picture nominees - which also happened to be the group of films that dominated the nominations - in my long list of 34 films, so I consider that an accomplishment.

Another six films from that long list of 34 films received one significant (ie. non-technical) nomination each, including four whose only major nomination was for Best Actress. In fact, of all of the major nominations, only two came from movies that were not on that early list, which indicates how predictable this whole enterprise has become.

Then again, I realized that the early nature of my picks made it easier to include the eventual nominees, and I still was not exactly accurate with how likely I thought the nominations of respective films were. In the categories I used, those nine most-nominated films came from the following categories: Flyweights - 1/6; Lightweights- 0/5; Welterweights - 1/8; Middleweights - 5/9 ; and heavyweights - 2/6.

That means that seven of the top fifteen pictures in last year's race - at least as I had determined them to be ranked early on - ended up in those final nine nominees, which is impressive. Then again, the other four that I had listed as "Heavyweights" combined for only two technical nominations among them, which kind of feels like leading baseball in strikeouts as well as home runs - sure, the home runs are still a great accomplishment, but it feels kind of diminished in the broader picture.

Predicting the Pool of Nominees

The pool of films that will receive the majority of significant nominations is probably only about ten to twelve films deep, with another five to eight films that will receive a few nominations among them, making for a likely total pool of between fifteen and twenty films contending for nominations in the major categories (Picture, Directing, Acting, and Writing).

A cursory examination of the past eight years in which there have been more than five Best Picture nominees (which seems to be a reasonable sample size for comparison) revealed that the smallest pool from which the major nominations (ie. non-technical and non-genre-specific) was derived was twelve films. There were three years that featured pools of eighteen, twenty, and twenty-one films respectively, with those larger years featuring more films that earned one random nomination, so fifteen to twenty total films contending in the major categories feels like a safe number.

I ended up with fifteen films on my short list at this point, which I grouped into three categories according to their current status in the race (as far as I perceive it): the Favourites; the Contenders; and the Players. I also included a brief mention of the Outliers, another fifteen films that would make up the rest of the long list were I to create a list as big as I did last year and from which various nominees might be chosen. I also included five "Wild Cards" that probably will not produce any nominees in major categories, but whose respective cases for nomination provide some interesting discussion and possibilities.

Here, then, are my thoughts as to the films in contention and their relative likelihood of being nominated with six weeks to go before the nominations are announced on January 23.

The Favourites

Call Me By Your Name - This is a coming-of-age love story that has captured the hearts of many critics and that I fully expect to end up with six or seven nominations, almost entirely in key categories, including Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, and two for Acting.

Dunkirk - Despite his commercial and critical success, Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director, and he has had only one film nominated for Best Picture (Inception in 2010). This feels like the year that he and his entire body of work will finally be recognized, and I fully expect Dunkirk to lead the nominations and for Nolan to win Best Director; it is even quite possible - maybe even likely? - that the film itself might become this decade's war film that wins Best Picture (the last one was The Hurt Locker for 2009).

Get Out - The fact that this low-budget satirical horror film from first-time director Jordan Peele has essentially become one of the locks for contention is all the evidence needed to demonstrate just how bananas this year really is. It might only get four or five nominations, but it should contend - or else it will be a huge snub and a reminder that #OscarsSoWhite is still very much a thing; then again, its contention is, in many ways, an ironic reminder in and of itself of that unfortunate imbalance.

Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig's directorial debut has been garnering rave reviews, and I would not be surprised to see it contending for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, and Supporting Actress. It has been continually gaining momentum as the season has gone on, and I think it has definitely upgraded itself to the status of a favourite with all of the accolades it has earned so far.

The Post - The most overtly political film of the year features Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, American history, the freedom of the press, and the Vietnam War, and it will allow a lot of interesting discussion about the present political culture of the US to be filtered through the lens of the past. It feels a little too big to fail, which might mean that it could, but all early reports are that it easily holds up to the early publicity and praise it has already received.

The Contenders

Darkest Hour - There is a lot of buzz about Gary Oldman's transformation into Winston Churchill in regard to a Best Actor nomination and award, but there is a possibility that this movie could contend for some other major awards. It might be a bit too conventional for the Oscars (which seems like a strange thing to say, but it might be true this year), and Dunkirk might steal a lot of its votes, but it's still a strong enough contender.

The Florida Project - Willem Dafoe's performance initially brought attention to this indie, but it has received enough attention that it might represent its indie kin with a few key nominations. It is also the most likely to be the film that is shunned (or almost entirely shunned, since Dafoe's nomination seems all but guaranteed) by the Academy.

Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson has mostly been ignored for the decade since There Will Be BloodThe Master earned three acting nominations, and Inherent Vice received a writing nomination, but this year could break his streak. This could also be the kind of film that many people love but that is mostly inexpicably ignored, like Silence in 2016 or Drive in 2011. Thread has gotten a lot of positive attention, so it just might manage to sneak in at the last moment.

The Shape of Water - I am legitimately surprised to see Guillermo del Toro's film being regarded so highly, but it has been received very well. There might be a bit of an "it's time" narrative happening as well, as del Toro was last recognized in any meaningful way for Pan's Labyrinth over a decade ago, and even that film was underrecognized both in nominations and in awards, as it did not even win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year. There is usually a sci-fi film nominated as well, so this would fit the bill.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - This indie is another example of a movie that might have otherwise been overlooked except for the current political climate. Martin McDonagh has had limited recognition for his previous movies, but this drama seems poised to be his official recognition by the Academy, in no small part because of Frances McDormand's performance in what may become her second Best Actress award.

The Players

The Big Sick - Kumail Nanjiani's comedy was well-received, and its narratives and circumstances might propel it to unexpected heights thanks to the current political context. It also has the benefit of being the most comedic film in the race, and the Academy often likes to find at least one token film to bring some levity to the proceedings. I had this rated higher earlier, but I think it's a little lower now.

The Disaster Artist - James Franco's movie about the making of one of the widely acknowledged "worst movies of all time" has already been identified as a fan favourite, and it might have the kind of narrative that would propel it to some key nominations. Hollywood, after all, loves movies about making movies, and this is easily the least political comedy in contention, so it might get attention as a way to not have to think about everything else that's going on.

Downsizing - In the eight years since Best Picture has expanded, there were only three years in which no hard sci-fi films were nominated, even though each of those three still featured a movie that was at least somewhat fantastical or sci-fi adjacent: Hugo in 2011; Life of Pi in 2012; and winner Birdman in 2014. So there's a decent chance that an actual sci-fi film will be nominated, and although it seems more likely to be The Shape of Water and despite the middling early reviews of the film, there's a more-than-zero chance that Alexander Payne's new movie could get a few key nominations; after all, his last three films have all been nominated, so you can't count him out. 

I, Tonya - Margot Robbie and Allison Janney have both been receiving raves for their performances in the Tonya Harding biopic, and it seems very possible that both of their narratives - young ingenue and established character actor, respectively - could end up in nominations and maybe even awards.

Wind River - If you had asked me two months ago, I would have ranked Taylor Sheridan's debut film much higher, but the fact that it deals with sexual assault and that it was originally produced by The Weinstein Company (an association the filmmakers have now scrubbed from the record) will probably lead to it mostly being ignored; then again, there could be a "nominate the performances, not the producer" movement that might help it out. I expect maybe one or two nominations at most. It probably belongs on the "Outliers" list by this point, to be honest, but I'm not quite sure what should go in its place - maybe The Greatest Showman.

The Outliers and Wild Cards

It seems as though this year might be one of those years in which there is a longer list of films from which the major nominations derive, as it appears that there are not as many of the big films that will dominate most of the nominations. If the pool of such films matched its height since 2009, there would be twenty-one films, which means that there would be films that have not yet been mentioned that would garner a nomination or two.

Some movies have moved into and out of contention over the past months, but here are the other fifteen films on the "long list" that I think might still earn a meaningful nomination from the Academy: All the Money in the World; Battle of the Sexes; The Beguiled; Breathe; Detroit; The Greatest Showman; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Last Flag Flying; Marshall; Molly's Game; Mother!; Mudbound; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Stronger; Victoria and Abdul. But I wouldn't bet on any of them getting more attention than a nomination or maybe two.

Then there are the true wild cards - the films that inexplicably remain part of the Oscar conversation and that may even garner some key nominations. Mad Max: Fury Road did it in 2015 and ended up winning six Oscars on ten nominations, and even Deadpool stayed in the conversation last year a lot longer than it had any business to (although seeing either Ryan Reynolds or the film's script be nominated would have been sublime). I am not suggesting that any of these films will necessarily be nominated, but I figured I would hedge my bets and describe the circumstances under which they could be nominated.

Beauty and the Beast - The original animated film was nominated for Best Picture in 1992, and although I don't expect this remake to duplicate that feat, it may have an outside shot at a couple of artistic and technical nominations. It will end up as the second-highest domestic grossing film of the year behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and that's still not nothing to the Academy.

Blade Runner 2049 - Although I fully expect this sci-fi epic to contend in almost all of the technical categories, I would be very surprised if it were to break through in the main categories after its tepid box office returns. This could be the time that Harrison Ford gets nominated for his "old man returning to a franchise" schtick, but I don't know that his performance was quite strong enough to do so. Roger Deakins might finally win his very long overdue Oscar for Cinematography, though.

Logan - The drumbeat for finally having a comic book movie nominated for Best Picture died down after Logan's initial success - and I doubt it will actually happen at this point - but a few technical nominations are reasonable. There's a small camp that is still promoting Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart as potential nominees for their final performances as their respective characters. I don't see either happening, but it does seem to be a weaker year for Actors, so Jackman might get nominated for The Greatest Showman if he does well, which could be construed as a nod toward his performance in Logan as well.

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - I really do not expect that a Star Wars movie will ever again be nominated for Best Picture, but if there was one that could be, I imagine it would be this one. Rian Johnson has a lot of street cred, and if Last Jedi delivers - and there's no reason to think at this point that it won't - it will get some attention in the home stretch.

Wonder Woman - Look, I was never on the "Wonder Woman for Best Picture" bandwagon, but I could see success for campaigns for Patty Jenkins for Best Director and Gal Gadot for Best Actress. I think the latter is much more of a stretch, considering the strength of the field, but it really depends on how much of a statement certain segments of the Academy want to make.

Early Best Picture Predictions

It seems like this might be the year in which we finally have fewer than eight nominations for Best Picture - maybe as few as five, depending on how much certain films galvanize their support over the next six weeks. I think Dunkirk will be the clear leader, but I'm really not sure what else will get a lot of nominations, as most of the other strong contenders are not the kinds of films that would usually garner much attention from the technical branch of the Academy. The Shape of Water could end up being the kind of film that is nominated for eight or ten awards largely on its technical prowess but that only wins one or two (or even none).

I think the Best Picture field will be seven films: Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has come on strongly of late. If it ends up being a field of eight films (the lowest previous mark), I think the next most likely nominee would be Phantom Thread, with Darkest Hour having an outside shot if it can get enough attention separate from Dunkirk.

In regard to Best Picture, Dunkirk seems to have a clear lane to victory at this point for a few reasons. First, it is an incredible cinematic achievement about which it could easily be argued that it is the best film of the year, and it is also the product of filmmaker whose work has been sorely underrecognized by the Academy. The field is relatively weak this year, and it seems like its two most likely competitors, Call Me By Your Name and The Post, might both be hampered by their similarities to recent winning films in regard to their likelihood of winning Best Picture (Moonlight last year and Spotlight the year before that, respectively).

There is also the fact that Dunkirk, more than any other major film contending this year, appeals to the Conservative wing of the Academy. Although Hollywood is often (fairly) accused of a left-wing/liberal bias, there is a not insignificant portion of the Academy that are politically conservative, and they like to vote for movies that represent their views. After the more liberal recent winners like Moonlight and Spotlight, it would not surprise me to see a war movie emerging as the winner, which is why I think Dunkirk is the film to beat at this point.

I do think that this conservative contingent ensures that genres like war movies and westerns are represented, in some cases regardless of their relative quality; it could easily be argued, for example, that True Grit and Hell or High Water deserved their nominations, and that American Sniper and War Horse did not, but it seems fairly clear that all of those movies likely benefitted from a red state bump. It is also why a movie like Stronger - the true story of someone involved in the Boston Marathon Bombing - has an outside chance at a nomination for Best Actor.


There are a few more awards to be announced, and each one will bring the race into more focus over the next few weeks. Most of the critics have chimed in, but the Guilds have yet to announce their winners, and those are far more predictive of the nominations and awards than any awards or year-end lists. That said, the nominations are open later this year, from January 5 to January 12, with the Golden Globes happening early in that week on January 7, so there is still a lot of room for films to shuffle around, as they already have over the past few weeks. (Phantom Thread, in particular, has trended waaay up.)

I think this year has the potential to be interesting in regard to seeing the shift that Hollywood is making to a new kind of an Academy that might be more merit-based than it used to be, and I think the shifts that have already happened in the relative positioning of certain films are already indications that the Academy might not be the same again.

In the meantime, there are a number of films that I am quite interested in watching, including a couple that have eluded me thus far. My personal list of top films to watch includes: Get Out; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Shape of Water; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. If I manage to have the time, I would also like to see: The Big Sick; Darkest Hour; The Disaster Artist; Downsizing; and The Post. But the first priority, of course, is Star Wars: Episode VIII this weekend, so everything else will have to wait.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

An Advent of U2: Love

Love is kind of a big deal for U2; in fact, "One" might say that it's the biggest deal for them (see what I did there?). Love comes up again and again throughout their music - enough so that books have been written on the subject of "love" in U2's music. I still don't think that these authors collectively have reached the depths of how U2 incorporates love as a theme and an action, but many of those books have nevertheless affected the way I see their music and the theme of love throughout their songs.

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".

I am you and you are mine
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 clich├ęd 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.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

An Advent of U2: Hope

The release of U2's fourteenth studio album, Songs of Experience, on Friday, December 1 guaranteed that I would be engaged in a constant battle with my wife's Christmas music for supremacy of the stereo over the next few weeks. But I realized that this juxtaposition of U2 and the season of Advent would make for an interesting series of posts, and that it might be worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on how each of the themes of Advent - hope, love, joy, and peace - are found in U2's music.

These are not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive thematic investigations into each of these four concepts, as there have been many books already written on the resonance of these ideas in the music of the Irish quartet. Think of these posts more like quick reflections meant to inspire further investigation of each theme throughout the week and the rest of the Advent season. With that in mind, it makes sense to start with today's theme: hope.

Conspiracy of Hope

Hope is found as a theme throughout U2's music, though I find it curious that it has never been included as a word in a title of one of their songs. (It did, however, feature as one the title of the short "Conspiracy of Hope" tour in which U2 participated in 1986 to support Amnesty International.) Hope is one of the band's most endearing qualities, as they are relentlessly positive (often irritatingly or cloyingly or confusingly so to many non-fans). 

The idea of hope comes up over and over through the way Bono talks, the causes he and the band support, and the lyrics of various songs. Each album contains several songs that are explicitly hopeful - enough that it would be hard to describe all of the ways in which hope permeates U2's lyrics here. But it's worth it to see how the idea of hope appears in different stages throughout their career.

Some of their most obviously hopeful lyrics are found in their first few albums, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than the chorus of "40", the album that closed 1983's War and many of their concerts. The band had been much more explicitly Christian in their first three albums, and ending an album with a revision of Psalm 40 only further cemented that reputation.

What I find interesting about "40" is the way in which U2 inverts the first few verses of the Psalm, with Bono singing "I will sing, sing a new song" before inquiring "how long to sing this song?" The idea of persevering with hope is juxtaposed with wonderment about how long hope has to be the driving factor for such perseverance, and these two lyrics in many ways sum up the very role of hope in the career of U2, both as musicians and philanthropists, having to balance the reality of a fallen world and the hope that it could be made better somehow.

But yes, I'm still running

The next few years were no less hopeful for U2 as they ascended to the heights of being the biggest band in the world. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire presented its concept of hope in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and U2 still uses his name and cause as a rallying cry for the indomitability of the human spirit today.

The Joshua Tree is often listed as one of the most hopeful albums of its time, and many of its songs are inherently hopeful, but one sticks out above the rest: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". It's somewhat ironic that this is the song that turned many Christians away from the band, even though it is arguably their most iconic "gospel" song.

It's a recognition that this world cannot provide everything we need and that there is more out there for us to experience. It's an admission that we will never be satisfied by the things in front of us and a yearning for me. It's an expression of the hope that there is something more than what we see and of the perseverance that it takes to get there. It's deeply hopeful, especially in its most poignant turn of phrase:

I believe when the Kingdom comes 
then all the colors will bleed into one
bleed into one
but yes I'm still running.

It's U2 at its most hopeful, and one of my favourite U2 songs. Plus, it gave me this moment the only time I saw it performed live in concert.

Wake Up Dead Man

U2's darker trio of albums in the 1990s - Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop - were not without hope, although it was often masked and disguised by layers of irony and cynicism. One of the best examples of this inversion of hope is perhaps the last song of the era, Pop's "Wake Up Dead Man", which is written from the perspective of someone wondering about the presence of Jesus on Holy Saturday, the day between his death and resurrection. 

The song is itself a companion to and inversion of the narrative of Judas presented in Achtung Baby's "Until the End of the World", but it is strangely hopeful despite its desperation in considering a world without a saviour, even as it includes the lyric "listen as hope and peace try to rhyme". It was an aching, yearning, honest look at the pain of life, but it was still strangely hopeful even in its anguish.

Then, that interpretation of the song was justified a few years later, when the band explicitly paired the song with the inspirational "Walk On" during the Elevation tour. It made perfect sense as they tried to understand how a secular world could embrace hope and what it would mean to be hopeful in a cynical place, and it made perfect sense of the hope that underlay all of U2's efforts in the 1990s.

Don't let it get away

U2 did not stay in that cynical space, though; much like there was an unheralded transformation that led U2 into exploring the dark territory of the 90s, there was an equally unexpected return to form after the conclusion of those albums - kind of like they got it out of their systems. The band's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind was lauded for its return to the band's previously explicitly hopeful form, particularly in regard to wearing its heart on its sleeve.

The album - and this era of the band - starts with opener "Beautiful Day", now one of the band's most iconic songs. It includes Bono singing "I know I'm not a hopeless case", perhaps in response to the criticisms he had received over the previous decade from people who did not understand what the band was doing.

ATYCLB is relentlessly hopeful, as is its follow-up, 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Bono often introduced "Miracle Drug", a song about having hope in medicine to find cures for previously uncurable diseases, with a short talk about how U2 believes in the future. Those two albums were also created in a time in which Bono was arguably his most vociferously hopeful in his humanitarian efforts like Jubilee 2000 and the (RED) campaign, and his hopeful heart was on display in his lyrics (and in the shape of the stage in 2001's Elevation tour).

I can see the lights in front of me

U2's three most recent albums - 2009's No Line on the Horizon, 2014's Songs of Innocence, and now Songs of Experience - are little more nuanced than those two albums from the early aughts, but one does not have to dig too deep to see wisdom of hope even in darkness in these newer efforts.

The second track of Songs of Experience, "The Lights of Home" (which I initially misheard as "hope") is perhaps the most immediately obvious as being hopeful. After the moody Zooropa-esque intro of "Love is All We Have Left", "The Lights of Home" cuts in rudely with its initial guitar and drums before Bono sings something that seems almost laughable, if you thought he did not actually believe it:

Shouldn't be here 'cause I should be dead
I can see the lights in front of me
I believe my best days are ahead
I can see the lights in front of me

I think he actually believes that U2 has yet to write their best song, which is part of what keeps them going as artists. But that's not the only expression of hope on this album; in fact, many of the new tracks express a hope that America can regain its direction and again become the embodiment of the ideas that U2 has long admired. "Get Out of Your Own Way", "American Soul", and "The Blackout" do so in the most explicit way, but the video for "You're the Best Thing About Me" also recontextualizes the song as a love letter to New York and America and reclaiming it as a place for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to break free.

I believe in Father Christmas

I have barely scratched the surface of how hope permeates all of U2's work; in fact, I think it would be quite easy to write an entire thesis or book on the subject. But what continues to draw me to U2 is their belief in the possibility of the best of humanity, while acknowledging that we often have to deal with the worst of it. Hope becomes that much more powerful when it is incarnated, much as we explore how it came to be in the person of Jesus in this Advent season.

With that in mind, it only made sense to conclude with the lyrics from one of the few Christmas songs U2 has released, a cover version of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas". It was initially written as more of a critique of the commercialism of Christmas, but I think it works as reminder of how we can remember hope through the songs of U2 this Advent.

They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'd be peace on Earth
But instead it just keeps on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth

I remember one Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas Tree smell
And eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
They told me a fairy story
But I believed in the Israelites

I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart, let your road be clear

They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve


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