U2′s Latest Hymn: White as Snow

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Should art draw conclusions or simply "show"?

Every time U2 releases a new album, the rumors begin of it being another “throw-back” to The Joshua Tree. Fortunately, No Line on the Horizon continues the tradition of squashing such rumors.  Don’t get me wrong, The Joshua Tree was one of the more redeeming aspects of 80′s music scene, but who wants to follow a band that continually remakes the same album?  Here is where U2 earns their bigger-than-their-own-ego status.  Whether it is the distorted sounds of Achtung Baby!, the experimental project of Passengers, or the identity crisis of Pop, U2 has continually pushed their own creative bounds. No Line on the Horizon is no different.   With their unique play on post-Irish punk, songs such as “Magnificent,” “Unknown Caller,” and “Breathe” only suggest that U2′s progressive nature has yet to reach its conclusion.

There is one exception to this reinvent-ourselves tendency however – the “White as Snow” track.  Here, Bono continues his hymn-like obsession (i.e. “Yahweh”) and wraps his anti-war protest song in the melodic roots of the age old hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”  By taking a subtle narrative approach to the topic, “White as Snow” personifies the last moments of a dying soldier in Afghanistan.  And rather than go all “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on the matter, U2 chooses the descriptive route – “Here are the thoughts of the remaining 4 minutes and 39 seconds of this soldier’s life… What do you think?”  

After repeating the song a half dozen times, I could not forgo thinking of HBO’s recent film Taking Chance.   Based on the harsh realities of the Iraq War’s death toll, director Ross Katz decides to approach the matter in a similar fashion and simply tell the (true) account of Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl’s (Kevin Bacon) escort of fallen soldier Chance Phelps.  And as U2 does with “White as Snow”, Katz chooses description over commentary – “Here is what it is like to bring a soldier’s dead body back home…. You tell us.”  (Interestingly enough, Bono’s approach to the song was inspired after watching a different war film, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead.)

Both “White as Snow” and Taking Chance are moving.  Both possess dignity and beauty.  And both leave you to draw your own conclusions.

“White as Snow” by U2 (Lyrics)

Where I came from there were no hills at all

The land was flat, the highways straight and wide
My brother and I would drive for hours
Like years instead of days
Our faces as pale as the dirty snow 

Once I knew there was a love divine
Then came a time I thought it knew me not
Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not
Only the lamb as white as snow

And the water, it was icy
As it washed over me
And the moon shone above me

Now this dry ground it bears no fruit at all
Only poppies laugh under the crescent moon
The road refuses strangers
The land the seeds we sow
Where might we find the lamb as white as snow

As boys we would go hunting in the woods
To sleep the night shooting out the stars
Now the wolves are every passing stranger
Every face we cannot know
If only a heart could be as white as snow
If only a heart could be as white as snow