#10 – “Bad”
You know, it wasn’t, obviously, planned that I would finish this series off the same week U2 finally released their new album, their first new album in five years. But the confluence has a nice kind of symmetry. Yes, it means there will have to be an addendum to the series to place the eleven new songs on Songs of Innocence, as well as the newer “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible,” in context with this ranking, but there’s a nice cadence to the finishing up the ranking of the old as we get new music. I can say this, though. I’ve listened to Songs of Innocence probably 15 – 20 times this week, and am very much liking it. But I would be very surprised if any of those eleven tracks knocked off any of the songs I am about to list.
So – “Bad.” I first came to The Unforgettable Fire’s “Bad” through the live version on Rattle & Hum, the film, not the album, where it forms a sort of centerpiece to the movie. Shot in black and white it’s a moody, wonderful recording of the song. And this makes sense, given that “Bad” was a live staple for a number of years. “Bad” is also almost the purest U2 song imaginable. By this, I mean that, as I have discussed numerous times in this series, there is a side of U2 that is very much a non-songwriting side, a side where, were you to put the notes on sheet music and run them into a computer to spit out the arrangement it would sound almost comically simple. There is something about the alchemy of the way the Edge’s effects work with the pulse of Larry and Adam’s drums that takes what are on paper very simple musical ideas and makes them into something much more.
This is the kind of song “Bad” is. For almost the entire song, the Edge plays this incredibly simple riff, really just two chords, with the guitar chugging away underneath and a high chiming tone ringing at the end of every measure. It’s a patient, unrushed song, and Bono’s lyrics of alienation and loneliness, as simple as the music, work beautifully. “If you twist and turn away/If you tear yourself in two again/If I could, yes I would/If I could, I would let it go.” It’s a mesmerizing song, and when the chorus finally lets go, with those falsetto “ooh-oohs, it’s just magic.
#9 – “Love Is Blindness”
U2 gets tagged as “dad rock,” these days—I read it just this week in some criticism of the new album. And they also get tagged as kind of mindlessly optimistic, all about uplift and soaring anthems of hope and redemption and sunshine and puppy dogs.
Achtung Baby’s “Love Is Blindness” starts with a solo, funereal organ, repeating a very simple, descending, then rising melody. Then Larry and Adam come in, with a slow, despairing rhythm. Then, over low piano chords Bono sings:
Love is blindness, I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night around me?
Oh, my heart, love is blindness.
As the verses come, instruments and textures are added, lowly reverbing guitar, low triads. And then the bridge (a bridge—even though there has been no chorus—or has there been nothing but a repeated chorus? Are those choruses or verses?), the music shifts slightly, we get some classic chord changes buried in the piano, and then these lyrics:
A little death without mourning
No call and no warning
Baby, a dangerous idea
That almost makes sense.
This is a dark, dark, despairing, and sorrowful song about suicide, about the loss of hope and will one can feel in the wake up lost love. That chilly bridge is then followed by maybe my second-favorite Edge solo. The way I remember reading about it back in the day was that Bono jokingly challenged the famously minimalist Edge to come up with a solo that was only one note. This haunting, jagged, heart-rending performance is the result.
This is dark, despairing music. And it is the song U2 used to close the ZooTV tours. THIS is the note that they sent those arena and stadium audiences out on. Remember that the next time someone makes fun of how U2 only has that one mode of uplift. Play them this song.
#8 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
OK—I didn’t say they didn’t record anthems. This song is famously about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., although, as is typically the case with Bono, it could really be about lots of other things—the reference to the assassination date is the only specific line tying the song to King. But what a song it is. There’s that iconic, uplifting riff, and the way the song opens with a series of chords that sound like bells ringing out victory. And there’s that simple solo, the repeated lines. And there’s, above all else, Bono’s youthful insistence on writing, and then singing, that goofily high vocal line. “In the name of love.” That high, open note on that “name”? That note IS U2.
#7 – “Beautiful Day”
It’s hard to believe that this song is 14 years old. While I was never one to write off Pop as any kind of failure, the album’s and tour’s less-than-stellar reception clearly spooked the band, and when they returned it was with a song that could lazily be written off as easy, or pandering. “Beautiful Day” is anything but. And the ubiquity it would enjoy, even if it was never a huge hit on the charts, is kind of astounding for a band in its third decade of making music. The opening teases you with its slow-burn, the singing over those echoing piano chords, and then the chorus comes and all four members of the band erupt and . . . well, it’s just magic. This is a really a remarkable song, and it contains some of Bono’s better lyrics as well. The poetry in the lyrics for the bridge is worth looking back on:
See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out
It was a beautiful day
A beautiful day
Don't let it get away
It’s a simple sentiment, of course. “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.” But that’s OK. That’s needed.
#6 – “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
When people say U2 is a “political” band, this is the song they are likely thinking of. A straightforward song about a bloody bombing in Ireland, it wears its politics on its sleeve.
Broken bottles under children's feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.
And yet it’s easy to forget, given the anger in the playing and the lyrics and in the singing, that it is a song of peace. “I won’t heed the battle call.”
I came to this song through the live version on the Under a Blood Red Sky EP. And it’s important to note how much this song has changed over the years. There’s the violin-accented, somehow jauntier original version. There’s the more muscular original live version. There’s the Rattle & Hum version, my favorite, which lets the first two verses play out with just the Edge playing that simple riff, no drums and no bass, before bringing the full band in in all of its furious glory. And there’s the Sarajevo live version, which keeps the full band at bay for the entire song, and turns it into a devastating Edge solo performance. And throughout all these iterations the song never loses its power. It’s a gorgeous piece of songwriting that never gets stale.
#5 – “Acrobat”
This song, the song on Achtung Baby that leads into that final devastating statement that is “Love Is Blindness,” has never been played live. I don’t know, maybe once. It’s a forgotten deep cut off of what may be U2s’ greatest album. And it’s one of the most amazing things they ever recorded. Skittish cymbals, feedback, a few guitar tones that sound like tuning up, and then the drums start kicking in, with this wonderful rhythm that ends each phrase in a big, meaty triplet—boom, boom, boom—alongside a furious helicopter riff from the Edge that rises and falls. Over this musical maelstrom, Bono sings of betrayal and loss.
When I first met you girl, you had fire in your soul.
What happened to your face of melting snow
Now it looks like this!
There’s religion here too—it’s not only a woman that’s betrayed him:
Yeah, I'd break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in.
'Cause I need it now.
And that solo—oh, that guitar solo. It starts off like words getting stuck in the throat, sounds that furiously refuse to coalesce into words, and then the guitarist finds his voice and spins out a beautiful, angry descending line as the drums clatter and crash behind it. This really may be Larry’s finest moment on records—those drums, and that boom-boom-boom really make the song and drive it somewhere special. Such a remarkable song, and so forgotten.
#4 – “One”
Achtung Baby is heavily featured in this top ten, and with good reason. And here we have its finest statement, and U2’s finest ballad. Some see it as a wedding song. Some see it as an elegy for AIDS. Some see it as song of loss. Whatever you see in its Rorschach blurs, I bet it moves you. A simple chord progression, really, and yet so moving, so sublime. And in the end, the message that we are all in this together is hard to miss. “We get to carry each other, carry each other . . . one.” That “get” may be the most important word Bono has ever written. “Get.” Not “have.” Or “need.” Or “want.’ “Get.” It’s a privilege—it’s what makes us human—that we get to carry each other. I suspect if people know U2 in 100 years, it will be because of this song.
#3 – “Walk On.”
And now we get All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s best statement. A tambourine, piano chords, and a whispering Bono:
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring...
And love is not the easy thing....
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind
And then? Glory. Guitar, bass, and drums, churning out a ringing, grasping figure that just takes my breath away—it’s those single notes reaching for the sky that kill me. And then some of Bono’s best singing over lyrics about a woman imprisoned in her home for the crime of wanting to speak for the people. And over the chorus we get that same reaching music—“walk on, walk on.”
What maybe I love the most, though, is how, after a wonderfully triumphant solo from the Edge, we get to the denouement, and these lyrics:
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind
Look at that last line. All that you can leave behind. Not “can’t.” So simple, yet so profound. A song about forgiving the unforgivable. Anthemic rock at its best.
#2 – “Please”
It’s not many U2 songs that I wish had jazz bands covering them. But listen to this song. Listen to that beat Larry hits, that groove he settles into, and tell me it’s not jazz. This is a moody, unsettled song, with none of the assurance of “Walk On.” You can hear it in the murky, subdued guitars. The bass and drums drive this sucker. There is a mood here, a tone, that U2 never caught again, and it’s a shame that the “failure” of Pop tainted this remarkable song. Elvis Costello does a great acoustic cover of this song, and he is on record as saying it was the song that really made him stand up and take notice of what U2 was doing, and respect them as songwriters. This is denser songwriting than U2 usually attempts; more murky, less black-and-white songwriting than U2 usually attempts, and more, frankly, sophisticated songwriting than U2 usually attempts. It’s really, really a shame that they abandoned this vein.
#1 – “Where the Streets Have No Name”
You knew it was coming. What else could it be? It’s no accident that this song has survived as a live staple for so long. It’s a stunning achievement. Almost symphonic in its build and effect, it’s U2’s masterpiece. That patient, beautiful opening, with the slow organ unfolding like the sunrise. And then that chiming guitar figure starts, slowly, softly, until it takes over and the bass and drums sneak in, until with a crash of cymbals the whole band is together. It’s 1:45 in before we hear Bono, and it’s his best vocal performance ever. Just impassioned, confident, and assured.
I wanna run, I want to hide
I wanna tear down the walls
That hold me inside.
I wanna reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.
I’ve been in arenas and stadiums for this song, and it’s a transformative experience each time. It’s everything music can do. It’s my desert island song, my sustenance, my lifeblood. It’s maybe my favorite piece of art ever.