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Verse Chorus Verse: U2 – “Cedars of Lebanon”

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Some songs are great from their first to their final second.  Other songs have blinding moments of brilliance that spring up in the midst of mediocrity (or worse).  “Cedars of Lebanon” would be in that first category for me, but there is one part – two lines, really – that stand out for me.  So many individual lines resonate and they all fit together, tightly, telling a story and painting a deep, emotionally complex picture of the world in 2009. 

When I started this piece, I was fixed on the line “This shitty world sometimes produces a rose.”  We'll call today's entry "part one" because there are a lot more lines in the song worth coming back to discuss.  Bono isn't the first person to say it (or something like it) but there's something about him saying it and the way he presents it that sticks with me. 

For one thing, it's very un-Bono.  It's not in his nature to see a shitty world with the occasional rose.  Bono is more of a rose garden with the occasional weed kind of guy.  There's the saying in journalism that it's not news when dog bites man but rather when man bites dog.  Bono has fallen into pessimism before, but U2 has built a career by singing anthemic songs of possibility.  “Cedars of Lebanon” is not one of them.

There is a seductive weariness and despair in the vocal – on that line and throughout the song – almost but not quite to the point of resignation.  The character in this song is stuck in a personal and global quagmire and isn't sure if he's staying because he wants to, has to, or because he doesn't know what else to do or how to go back to his old life.  He's not sure if he's making a difference or if anyone can.  He's losing himself.

For all U2's glorious bombast, they are capable of moments of great delicacy and nuance.  “Cedars of Lebanon” is one of them. 

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://pwinn.tumblr.com/ Phillip Winn

    This is a song that has among the best and worst lyrics on that album.

    “A soldier brings oranges that he got out from tank” is just a clumsy line.

    But yeah, overall, an interesting song. The “gonna last with you longer than your friends” is worth much meditation.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh Hathaway

    I actually don’t hate that line, Phillip. I bet it’s something war correspondents like the character in this song have actually seen. It’s not great poetry but I think the juxtaposition of the war machine and humanitarian aid in that line serves the song well.

    As for the ending of the song, 11 and I were talking about that. It’s the most interesting part and does demand some meditation. 11 thinks it is a warning and neither of us think it’s an accident they ended the album on that note. It’s a great song, easily the best on the album to me.

  • Jon Stroop

    My favourite line is the definitely the last, and I agree it’s a very intentional closing lyric.

    It’s a thought that’s been on Bono’s mind since at least 2005: in the podcast/interview he did for Rolling Stone he said: “Your enemies will define you, so make them interesting.”

  • Tristan M

    This song has some of Bono’s finest lyrics. I sometimes feel that he lapses too much into abstract sentiment in other songs, but this song is concrete and realistic.

    I love how there are three intertwining layers to this song: the political, the personal, and the spiritual. Everything the speaker says about one level can be applied to the others. Also, his marital crisis coincides with a political crisis and a spiritual crisis, and they are all tied together. The uniting theme is a sense of homelessness and exile; he does not feel at home in war-torn Lebanon (as depicted by the sad image of the soldier bringing a poor child an orange), with his wife (“I am here cuz I don’t wanna go home”), or in the world itself (“this shitty world”, “unholy clouds”). So, when the refrain implores him to “return the call to home”, it is a call to return to his fellow man, his wife, and ultimately God. We all more or less face a similar sense of exile when we examine the state of our lives and the world around us.

    Also, unlike many U2 songs, this song is incredibly subtle. It is implied that the speaker has been having an affair (“You say you’re not gonna leave the truth alone”), and that he is overcome by guilt (“I am here cuz I don’t wanna go home”). This sin and unresolved guilt is what makes him feel exiled from any sense of home; in fact, that effect is the essence of the doctrine of the Fall and original sin. Because of humanity’s fallen state and original sin, we can never feel completely at home in the world or in our natural relationships, though these can all be means to knowing our ultimate home, God.

    I love how perfectly this song ends the album, especially considering how the album begins. The album begins with “No Line on the Horizon”, which is an optimistic and extroverted plea for transcendence. “Cedars of Lebanon” is a pessimistic and introverted plea for imminence. The speaker wants God to be imminent in the world, not just transcendent, as he reveals when he has the epiphany, “You’re so high above me, higher than everyone; where are You in the cedars of Lebanon?”. In other words, he feels so distanced from God. Without God to enrich the world with His meaning and presence, any worldly goodness becomes merely transient (as the example of the rose shows), the speaker can only rely on enemies, and the world does not feel like home. Relatedly, the speaker makes passing reference to the sacrament of confession in one verse (“The worst of us are a long drawn-out confession”). It may seem that he is speaking of confession in a different sense than that of the sacrament, but the guilt present in the lines that immediately follow shows that “confession” may also have the sacramental meaning. The idea of a sacrament is a natural or man-made thing imbued with Godly presence. This may be a hint to how the speaker can seek the imminence he desires.

    Of course, these thoughts are all inspired by the upcoming Christmas holiday, which celebrates how the Incarnation unites imminence and transcendence.

    It is amazing that we have not even scratched the surface of this song! Merry Christmas everyone!