#40 – “The Unforgettable Fire”
Strings and U2 are a rare mix. The Edge’s particular brand of effects-laden guitar work usually obviates the need for the sweep and grandeur rock artists often turn to strings to achieve. And yet there are a few songs for which the band has turned to some dramatic strings (real or synth?—my ears are too poor to tell. OK, probably synth.), and the title track off of The Unforgettable Fire is one. This is a moody song with a particularly interesting tone—not the anthemic joy or bigness of something like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but not a ballad or rock song either. The song opens with quiet keyboard and guitar, a quick feedback chord echo, and then heavy, almost-ponderous bass and drums. There’s a sense of landscape to the music, open deserts and long treks. The sense of drama is added to at about the halfway mark, when the strings make a more overt appearance at the bridge, declaiming with authority a simple, but more overtly theatrical than usual for the band, melody—it’s almost like an Andrew Lloyd Weber moment. And then that mood is broken with some orchestra hits right off of an old Casio keyboard that lead into an elegiac passage that’s always stood out to me as a favorite melding of lyric and music: “And if the mountain should crumble/Or disappear into the sea/Not a tear, no not I.” The song ends with an interesting progression of chords in the strings that only pops into place just when you think the fade out is complete. This is a fascinating detour for the band, and very effective piece of composition.
#39 – “Zoo Station”
I became a U2 fan right on the tail end of the Joshua Tree phenomenon. My fandom was enhanced and cemented by Rattle and Hum, both the movie and album, and so by the time 1991 came I had absorbed the band’s back catalog and was as familiar as any teen with the band’s “sound,” whatever that was at the time. So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I (and my sister, who I had dragged into my fandom with me), sat on my bed on the day of Achtung Baby’s release and tore open the cellophane on the cassette. We had already heard “The Fly,” and so had some inkling of the idea that this was not going to be The Joshua Tree II, but were still pretty unprepared for the squall of guitar that opened the album; or the dirtier, clanging percussion; or the electronic processing Bono’s voice was being put through. Listening to the album now, it’s hard to remember how foreign this sounded to us, and how many listens it took for it to start to make sense. But many years later, I’m pretty confident of the greatness of this song (and album), and of how smart it was of the band to kick off this new album with those sounds. When the chorus comes around that ringing Edge guitar is there, if still somewhat disguised, and I can hear that this is indeed the same U2 I fell in love with.
#38 – “Grace”
All That You Can’t Leave Behind provides us with another reflective album closer in “Grace,” a simple, gorgeous ballad about the idea of, well, grace. Opening with a simple repeated guitar riff and bass line, this is a song that takes its time. It’s odd for U2 to indulge in as extended an intro as this—especially one not about a quiet build but that is basically a complete musical thought in and of itself, without lyrics. We don’t hear Bono until 1:03 into the song, in fact, and the intensity doesn’t ratchet up once he enters—he stays with the low-key, quit vibe of that guitar and bass line, and while we get some accent notes and synth chords in the background, it’s not until the second verse that the drums kick in. And really, that’s it—this is not, like “The First Time” is, a song that uses a slow build to achieve dramatic effect. It is instead a simple, assured, sweet, and beautiful song about forgiveness and serenity. I make it sound sleep-inducing; it’s anything but. “Grace finds goodness in everything.”
#37 – “One Tree Hill”
This deeper cut off of The Joshua Tree was never a big single or hit (in the United States—in New Zealand it charted at #1), but it is a favorite of U2 fans and in its own way a centerpiece of the album. Written as a kind of eulogy for Greg Carroll, a roadie from New Zealand who died in a motorcycle crash shortly before the recording of the album, the song is a chugging, solemn, and yet not depressing ode to the land and the One Tree Hill peak in New Zealand that Carroll had shown the band years before. In typical Bono fashion, the lyrics are not specific to the landmark or Carroll, but instead are more simply about the land and the inevitability of life cycling over and over: “We run like a river/Run to the sea/We run like a river to the sea.” There is something vaguely tribal in the rhythm to the song, and the lilting, serene, rolling riff is an Edge highlight. My favorite bit may be the pain Bono allows into his voice at the end as he sings, over and over “raining in the heart, raining in the heart.” This is a beautiful, sweeping song, and a highlight of the album.
#36 – “Running to Stand Still”
“With or Without You” may be the ballad from The Joshua Tree that everyone remembers, bit this is really the ballad at the heart of the album. Opening with a plaintive, almost-country melody on an acoustic guitar, the song quickly yields to a quiet, mournful chord progression on the piano, with guitar quietly plucking on top. Over this somber bed of music Bono sings “And so she woke up/Woke up from where she was/Lying still/Said I gotta do something/About where we're going.” Bono has talked over the years about how the song is about heroin addiction in in Dublin's Ballymun flats, a public housing complex and the place described in the song as “seven towers,” and the refrain “running to stand still” is a wonderfully poetic way to describe the trap of addiction. While the song builds to a climax of sorts with the bridge (“She is raging/She is raging/And the storm blows up in her eyes”), it ends on a sad note of denouement, with Bono playing a mournful harmonica. This was a highlight of the live concert footage in Rattle & Hum, with the band really making the quiet, hushed song work in a big arena setting.
#35 – “Mysterious Ways”
“Mysterious Ways” was a big hit for Achtung Baby, and in the United States the band’s fourth-highest tracking song ever. This danceable, funky song is defined by two key elements—a hooky, short riff from the Edge that repeats throughout the song, and an insidious, sinuous bass line from Adam that doesn’t kick in until 40 seconds in. Live, this song became a centerpiece of the Zoo TV tour, with a belly dancer appearing on stage to entice Bono as he sang about a woman “mov[ing] in mysterious ways”—although it would be the Edge that fell in love with and married her. For me, the song rates as high as it does for the hypnotic, building bridge, which ratchets up the intensity before yielding back to the chorus. It is also important to note that this is yet another U2 song that conflates religion and sex, or love, with the obvious allusion to He that usually is said to move in mysterious ways. You know, people make fun of “You Might up My Life” for a lyrical conceit that U2 has lived off for years.
#34 – “Magnificent”
As I have said already, No Line on the Horizon seems to have gotten a reputation in the five years since its release as a failure that failed because it neglected to offer up the big anthemic U2 sound that made such a triumphant comeback with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This is such bunk that it almost beggars belief. This big, anthemic U2 song is exhibit A. The soaring chorus and airplane-taking-off guitar are there, married to a dance beat that’s much less of a dance beat than some of the Pop stuff. This is just a big, back-of-the arena U2 song, and I really can’t suss out why it made less of an impact than, say, “Beautiful Day.” It even has some of that conflating-God-with-the-terrestrial thing the band likes to do—“From the womb my first cry/it was a joyful noise.” I just don’t get it.
#33 – “I Will Follow”
Getting into some big guns. This is the first U2 song to hit big, still a live staple, and a song that will almost certainly lead out the obituary of both Bono and the Edge on the nightly news when they die. This is the first incarnation of the minimalist U2 sound, and apart from some triangle or light bell noise going on in the background is pretty indicative of the music the band would continue to make for the next thirty-plus years. It kicks off with an instantly identifiable Edge riff, still one of his most famous, and a great example of how the band would do more with less over their entire career. Just a machine-gun attack of a riff that threatens to oscillate forever until a final jump up the scale at the end. This simple figure repeats throughout the song, pinned down by youthful drums and a functional bass line. Over this alchemy Bono sings about the transition out of childhood and into adulthood, the theme of the album. This still may be one of my favorites of Bono’s lyrics: “A boy tries hard to be a man/His mother takes him by the hand/If he stops to think, he starts to cry/Oh why?” And then there’s the bridge, where the machine gun stops and we get a pushing bass line and some strummed chorus over the sounds of glass bottles clanking together. That moment when the machine gun returns? Pure poetry.
#32 – “Until the End of the World”
One of the few character songs the band would do, this Achtung Baby album and tour highlight is famously sung by Judas to Jesus. And while lyrics like “I took the money, I spiked your drink/You miss too much these days if you stop to think” and “In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart” make the point of view pretty clear, this is still a U2 song, and so barely qualifies as a real “character” song the way a, say, Tom Waits song might. It’s still a hell of a rock song, and was a live staple for a few tours. Tribal drums kick things off after some seriously electronically tortured Bono wails and then lead into a spiky Edge riff. The “chorus” is really just the one line (“You, you were acting like it was the end of the world), followed by the opening riff, but we do get a very nice Edge solo in between verses, longer than he usually allows, and one that really took off live.
#31 – “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
This Grammy-winning ballad off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind is another example of that album’s experimental nature. No, it doesn’t experiment with new electronic sounds or dance rhythms, but in its piano soul stylings it was as much of a departure for the band as was “Mofo.” Written in response to Michael Hutchinson’s suicide, in a kind of tough-love format (“You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight/These tears are going nowhere, baby”) the song has Bono wrestling with questions about what would drive someone to such a horrible act. And yet the song, slightly tinged with melancholy though it may be, is upbeat, with those soul and gospel piano chords doing a lot to keep the mood from turning sour. The coda, with its inspirational lyric of hope, is a lovely a thing as the band has ever written.
And if the night runs over
And if the day won't last
And if your way should falter
Along the stony pass
It's just a moment
This time will pass