#30 – “Red Hill Mining Town”
There’s a story that this Joshua Tree single was meant to be a key song on the tour, a centerpiece of those concerts, but that it turned out to be just too damn high for Bono to sing night after night. Which is a damn shame, because this is one of the best things that amazing album has to offer. This is a muscular, assured, mature song, and the way that the bass and drums come in with such authority after the intro never fails to thrill me. I read a comment on a blog yesterday that rang mostly true—the assertion being that U2 (or more accurately, Bono and the Edge, I guess) are not good songwriters. By this, the writer meant that, while a songwriter like Elvis Costello can sit down and write a song, from start to finish, as a focused musical and lyrical thought, U2 writes by jamming and noodling in the studio until musical ideas crop up that they want to explore. This method can produce amazing songs in the end, but it is a more haphazard, longer, and less reliable process and likely the primary reason the band can take so long to produce new albums. As the blogger noted, in the last ten years, there has been one U2 album. I relay all of this because, as generally fair as I think the assessment is, I would argue that they do have songs in their catalog that sound, at least, like more formally “written” songs. This is one. There’s a tightness, and a formality to the writing that really works well here. Listen to that aforementioned moment when the band kicks in as a unit—that sound is more than mere “jamming.” As far as those high notes go, there is some glorious singing here, and it’s a shame it couldn’t be replicated on tour—this is one of my favorite Bono vocals.
#29 – “With or Without You”
This was (I believe) my first introduction to U2. Released in March of 1987, it quickly became a heavy staple in the MTV rotation, which is where I first came across it. At the time, I was 12, and only just beginning to get interested in music. At first, the portentous, moody qualities of the video (more than the song) turned me off. All of that seriousness, and Bono spinning around with the guitar at the end. I didn’t get it. But as time went on, the song, one of only two U2 tracks to go to #1 in the United States, began to burrow its way into my consciousness. I’m sure it helped that, before I eventually got the album, I was bombarded by the song seemingly non-stop—that access probably made the difference in it turning the corner and really grabbing my attention. A ballad, maybe now tied with “One” as U2’s most-known ballad, the song starts with a soft drum beat, a high synth part, and then the dual entry of Edge’s “infinite” guitar and Adam’s anchoring bass line. That “infinite” guitar (very long held sustained notes) is a gorgeous effect, and the way the Edge uses those long, long held notes really gives the song a unique feel. Part of what makes this ballad such a good U2 ballad is that, while the verses are quiet and subdued, when the band gets to the bridge the music has a chance to soar and climax—making the song particularly effective live, which is, after all, where U2 really came to prominence as a band. I love how simple Bono keeps his singing here, staying for the verses in that comfortable low register, his voice filled with warmth. Then the chorus comes and we get the first “With or without you” in that same register, and then the next one up the octave in a gorgeous keening tenor. It’s only here that the Edge loses the infinite guitar for some ringing chords as the music gets to that soaring I spoke of earlier, climaxing in some passionate, open-throated vocalizing from Bono. It’s a very smart construction, and a very effective build, and it stays smart in the way that at the very end of the song it drops back down again, with a quiet few bars that lead to the outro. The Edge has talked about how his favorite moment in the song is that outro—how you expect to hear a big guitar moment and instead you get this quiet, shy, relaxed figure in the guitar. It’s very effective. Such a lovely song, and such a nice one to be the #1 hit the band had been gunning for.
#28 – “Unknown Caller”
Over the sound of birds you hear a hum. Then a repeated, two-note figure on keyboard. Then a plaintive echo of that figure on the guitar. These playfully bounce back and forth to each other before the drums and bass come in as Bono sings “sunshine” in a sweet falsetto. Only then does the song proper start, as that two-note figure asserts itself and the volume kicks up. “Oh, oh, oh,” Bono sings over a now fully developed riff. Then we get the first verse, over some gorgeously hesitant, pulsing music. I love all of this, but it’s only with the chorus that this becomes a top-30 song: “Go, shout it out, rise up/Oh, oh/Escape yourself, and gravity/Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak/Shush now/Oh, oh/Force quit and move to trash.” I adore this chorus, for the way it becomes this bigger, arena-sing along thing, shouted and joyful and passionate. Just thrilling. But the real pièce de résistance is the bridge, where out of nowhere we get this big, thrilling organ sound that just fills the room with light, soon joined by a French horn, and then finally by a short but immensely joyful Edge solo. Man. How people can have found No Line on the Horizon disappointing I will never know.
#27 – “Bullet the Blue Sky”
On the Joshua Tree tour, there was a chunk of the set list that the band called the “heart of darkness,” where they played some darker, angrier songs all bunched together. “Exit” was in that grouping. And so was this. This is perhaps U2’s heaviest, most furious song, and it’s been a set list regular since that first tour. It’s also just a great song. There are not many U2 songs that start with a naked drum beat. This does. Quickly added are some echoing feedback and a stern, martial bass line. Then the Edge lets loose with some big, slashed chords that threaten to turn into riffs but never do. Then Bono comes in with a growled, spitted vocal. “In the howlin' wind/Comes a stingin' rain/See it drivin' nails/Into the souls on the tree of pain.” After another verse, we get the first taste of the chorus, with some wailed “whoos” from Bono and crashing guitar chords. “Bullet the blue sky.” After the second chorus, we get a real U2 rarity: a spoken-word interlude where Bono delivers a monologue about U.S. fighter planes strafing small villages: “Outside, is America.” And then we get one of the few “traditional” Edge guitar solos in the U2 canon—“traditional” in the sense that it is less minimalistic, and more bluesy and melodic than the Edge almost ever goes for, Live, this solo became a highlight in any tour it was in (which was most), with the Edge coming up with new variations on the blistering solo for each new tour. It’s an electrifying U2 moment. I also love how the song ends, with a spoken coda that ends only moments after the band crashes to a halt.
#26 – “No Line on the Horizon”
I’ve talked in this series before about the importance of the album opener. The title track off of No Line on the Horizon is a stellar album opener. An electronic warble warbles for all of six seconds before we are slapped in the face with a fuzzed-out guitar chord backed by driving drums and a thrumming bass. After a few seconds of this riff we get a modulation up, then one back down. And then Bono—impassioned, impatient, excited: “I know a girl who's like the sea/I watch her changing every day for me.” Tight, focused, disciplined—this is a song that announces an aesthetic for the whole album. Then the chorus: “No line on the horizon.” Simple, direct, and assured. For the bridge we get Bono letting loose on a long, high, sustained note—as if to announce that his voice may be aging, but he’s not holding back. For the final verse the energy relaxes slightly, just so that it can kick back in with a vengeance for the final lines. This is a bared-back missile of a song, all forward-moving energy and lean muscle. It is a song that I thought would be HUGE on tour, and then . . . wasn’t. I don’t get my fellow U2 fans sometimes.
#25 – “New Year’s Day”
From the first four U2 albums the band released before they really exploded with The Joshua Tree, there are really only four songs that have remained vital and alive today—not just as live songs that the band likes to haul out on occasion (like “40”), but as singles. Songs that, if they were played in concert, would not be a throwback or nod to a song’s history as a live cut (like “Bad”), but just regular set list songs that are an indelible part of the U2 catalog. Those four songs are “I Will Follow,” “Sunday, Bloody, Sunday,” “Pride (In the Name of Love), and “New Year’s Day.” War’s “New Year’s Day,” with its piano, martial beat, and political lyrics (“Under a blood-red sky/A crowd has gathered in black and white”), is very much a War song, and yet it has an earnestness, and pulse, and beauty that has kept it vital for three decades. We all remember the piano riff, and the helicopter guitar, but it’s important to remember that bass line, which provides the energy and spirit that pushed the song along. Bono’s voice is youthful here, still a little boyish, but strong and impassioned. Still, for me it all comes down to that piano riff—listen to it at the bridge there, so simple, elementary almost, and yet so effective I the way it works with the bass. I will always remember the moment in the Red Rocks video where the Edge finished the piano solo and then grabbed his guitar to launch into the guitar solo. Of course a guitarist pulling double duty is not new, but as a young teen I found that fascinating, and I kind of wish the band today would look for more ways to translate their music like that, and rely less on under-the-stage keyboardists and second guitarists.
#24 – “Gone”
This is the underappreciated Pop’s big rock song, the bold “Gone.” A distorted riff starts things off, the feedback ebbing and flowing, before a big, fat bass brings in the rest of the band. In typical U2 fashion, the chorus is driven by the bass, not the guitar, but when the chorus comes we get, after some dramatic piano, a revved up guitar wailing out a high, seeking riff. “You changed your name/Well that's okay, it's necessary/And what you leave behind you don't miss anyway.” For a band with half its members using stage names that have surely supplanted their Christian names, this is a telling line. The song as a whole examines that sense of loss, and in its angry energy, its big rock sound, its fat drums, attacks that loss with a sense of real bite. Live, this song was a barnburner and it became a tour staple.
#23 – “Wake Up Dead Man”
Pop closes with this bleak, pained, and magisterial stunner of a song, leaving the listener on very much not an up note, but troubled and aching. A simple guitar figure in 2/2 opens up the song, and over that (and a distant rumble of newscasts coming in over a static-filled radio), we get these lines:
Jesus, Jesus help me
I'm alone in this world
And a fucked-up world it is too.
Tell me, tell me the story
The one about eternity
And the way it's all gonna be.
As I have discussed elsewhere in this series, U2’s reputation (well-earned) as a “Christian band,” can obscure the fact that sometimes their songs are about doubt—about that Christian faith cracking and failing. Look at that lyric—the narrator is begging Christ for some assurance that the misery, pain, and injustice he plainly sees in the world are for a reason, or that there is a light at the end of humanity’s long, dark tunnel. “Wake up,” he asks in the chorus, “Wake up, dead man.” It’s a cry to a supposedly risen Christ to fulfill his promise to affect change here on earth. The rest of the song continues in that vein, with entreaties to an absent Jesus to provide some guidance and succor. It’s important to note that Jesus never answers (let alone arrives), and that, even as the song escalates and the music gets angrier, thrashing out, we never get resolution. Finally, listen to that ending—and remember, this is not just how the song ends, it’s how the album ends. Not with a sign of uplift, but with a tired drum fill just petering out, as if exhausted. In this song, at least, the band is singing about a faith that provides, not strength, but doubt and worry. This aspect of the band’s identity as “Christian” is often forgotten. More’s the pity.
#22 – “The Fly”
When I wrote about “Zoo Station” I mentioned that I had already been exposed to how different this new U2 sound for Achtung Baby was through the first single—“The Fly.” And I can still remember the palpable sense of disappointment I felt on hearing it for the first time, primed as I was for something like another “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Little did I know that almost 33 years later I would be writing about it as my 22nd-favorite U2 song ever.
“The Fly” was a very canny choice as a lead single, and a brave one, in the sense that something like “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” sounded more like a typical U2 rock song than this did, and might have eased fans into the new sound in a more gentle manner. And yet the in-your-face choice of “The Fly,” really worked, even if the single didn’t hit with as much force as I’m sure the band was hoping (peaking at only #61 on the Billboard Hot 100.) A lot of the song’s staying power comes from that Edge riff, one of his all-time best, nasty and buzzing up and down like a pissed-off bee. The secret-obsessed, aphorism-laden lyrics help too; Bono gets off quite a few good lines here (“It's no secret that a liar won't believe anyone else,” “It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest,” “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief”). And of course there’s what the band dubbed Bono’s “fat lady” voice, a high, sweet falsetto he had rarely deployed before, but that with this album would become a key weapon in his arsenal. Finally, there’s that guitar solo, an all-time Edge great in the way it takes its time to toss out several discrete musical phrases—it has to be one of the longest Edge guitar solos ever put to record. Live the band really had fun with this song, especially with a newer version brought out for the All That You Can’t Leave Behind tour.
#21 – “When I Look at the World.”
Take a look (and listen) to this lyric—the chorus from All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s “When I Look at the World.”
So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world
When I wrote about “Wake Up Dead Man” a few songs back, I talked about how it’s about a crisis of faith—a plea for Christ to “wake up” and bring about the peace he has promised. Similarly, I have always read this song as a fellow crisis of faith. That chorus, to me, is directed at Christ—and about the singer’s frustration that trying to be Christ-like is, well, hard—impossible, even. “I can’t see what you see.” In other words, “I can’t see the goodness and hope in the world that you see.” It’s there in the opening as well:
When you look at the world
What is it that you see?
People find all kinds of things
That bring them to their knees
We mortals see pain in the world—all sorts of things that “bring us to our knees.” Why can’t we see what [Christ does]?
And that sense from “Wake Up Dead Man” of being tired of waiting for salvation and peace is here to:
I can't wait any longer
I can't wait till I'm stronger
Can't wait any longer
To see what you see
When I look at the world
And then there is the final lyric:
I'm in the waiting room
Can't see for the smoke
I think of you and your holy book
While the rest of us choke
Tell me, tell me, what do you see?
Tell me, tell me, what's wrong with me
“You and your holy book, while the rest of us choke.” An angry lashing out at the promise of salvation that has been broken? That’s my reading.
Of course, none of this would work without the music, and the music here is gorgeous—yearning, lifting, beseeching—a classic U2 song, but in a vein where the music seems to never be resolving, to always be in the process of modulating but never getting to the modulated. A great song to lead us into the top 20—at long last!