September 03, 2002

U2's Top Ten Lyrics

Cross-posted from @U2.

U2's lyrics are so often second fiddle to the manner in which they are delivered that making a list of their "best" scrawlings is almost wholly dependent on assessing the quality of Bono's performance. In many cases, especially on much of their '80s material, the actual words and phrases are so awful and cliched as to elicit embarassment at the least, and jealous hatred from sniping pseudo-poets (who don't get as much attention for their self-conscious "art") at most. More often than not, Bono's stage presence, and seemingly total conviction in what he's bellowing out, helps even his worst lyrics over the hump.

In my opinion, Bono has hardly bested his lyrical compositions from the early '90s material; in terms of pure pop song lyricism, Achtung Baby has far and away the best ratio of winners to duds, and is thus very disproportionately represented here. For the purposes of this list I'd define "pop song lyricism" as words that do more than nail down the mood of a song -- they also have to be slightly allusive to something else less direct and/or easily interpretable to anything any listener might read into them. Also -- and this is the obvious but easily overlooked part -- there's got to be a great lyrical hook for the chorus. Of course, the best ones break all those rules anyway, and since making "best-of" lists is ultimately divisive and futile, I'll merely present my personal favorite U2 lyrics. These choices might not look like those of a "real" U2 fan, but they're not those of a casual one either. To wit, and in no particular order:

"Until the End of the World"
Someone somewhere in U2 or their organization loves this one enough to ensure its appearance on each tour since its creation. Someone is right on the money (it flat out rocks every time); even if you don't care for or don't get the now-infamous Judas to Jesus dialogue, this lyric still has a multitude of phrase-turning zingers and some oral sex for good measure. It's direct, coming from the first person, and that either makes for a homoerotic spin on some biblical-scale envy or a wild peek into the psyche of a jilted lover.

Bono is lyrically at his best when condensing well-known epics down to a personal scale that's easier to relate to, even if it's to the ultimate turncoat "down the hold just passing time." Judas reveals himself as jealous and self-centered, obsessed with the man that he betrayed in much the same way that prisoners become consumed by the intimate details of their crimes ("I took the money, I spiked your drink"). Bono creates a superficially simple character that reveals a complexity equally passionate, if not more so, than Jesus' fullest flights of glossolalia. The mild black humor of lines about drowned sorrows learning to swim and bent truisms like "you miss too much these days if you stop to think" illuminated a narrative that, on first listen back when it was released, was really bizarre to hear coming from Bono of all people, if you believed all the pious media caricatures. My rule about a knockout chorus hook has already been broken, but I don't care -- Wenders' film title had to fit in somewhere in this, pound for pound, arguably one of U2's very best songs, and it works. Runners-up in the "I hate you but I love you" category: "One," "So Cruel."

"Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"
I didn't think so highly of this one until I got why Bono was singing it while hiding behind those twin devils of MacPhisto and the Mirrorball Man. It's a first-person exhortation from Satan! No really, all you need to do is picture MacPhisto singing lines like "the day is dark as the night as long" and "feel like trash but you make me feel clean/I'm in the black [of Hell], can't see or be seen," and the whole lyric congeals into a pretty desperate narrative. Why do you think that the nightly Zoo TV prank calls immediately preceded this song?

Okay, well maybe not, but other allusions are there: the "love [that's] like a secret that's been passed around" is the devil's bent misinterpretation of God's ditching him for Jesus (instead of what really happened). Still, even more of a giveaway happens in the live '93 version -- MacPhisto singing "Help!", pleading "help me get my feet back off the ground," corrupting the Lennon/McCartney line into a plea for returning to past glory. He's on a really heavy nostalgia trip ("I remember"), begging to go back to heaven -- he wants God ("Baby") to light the way back to favor and paradise.

Ultraviolet light is a great metaphor here, alluding to the invisible light of God's love that can also burn you if you get too close. The third verse/bridge (you can't tell thanks to Edge's arpeggiations) is again the peak of the whole thing, crashing down into another great chorus hook. I've read other critiques that place this song more along the lines of Job, and I suppose that works too. Of course, when delivered as a vaguely personal relationship breakup, it doesn't get bloated by pretension. Then again, if you really want to have fun, imagine the South Park Satan singing this in faux-R&B style. Just don't read Milton or Dante while listening to Macphisto -- there's just too much bad mojo. Runner up (just barely!) in the "wacky collect call from hell" category: "The Fly."

"The Wanderer"
According to B.P. Fallon's book, this lyric was subjected to a quick deadline -- the imminent arrival in Dublin of its chosen vocalist, Johnny Cash -- and I'm of the opinion this was a very good thing. The other three U2s had reportedly gone bonkers waiting for Bono to finish lyrics, so a finite cutoff probably did him good here by forcing a first-thought-best-thought, get-out-yer-best-stuff-now way of composition. What resulted was full disclosure of the whole shebang, the spelling out of what the whole three year Achtung Baby/Zoo TV/Zooropa marathon was all about (and apparently wasn't enough, as half of Pop demonstrates).

The despicable wretch narrating "The Wanderer" (as oppose to the baritone Voice of God singing it!) has bet the farm on one of the worst moral paradoxes in history, that of sinning to salvation. "You" is explicitly God here, and our hero moves through some treacherous (in his eyes) "city without a soul" -- a Gomorrah-like moonscape (or is it merely the Great Plains?) decimated by nukes and acid rain, seeking infinite mortal sensory overload. The kicker line is Cash's monologue: "I went out there in search of experience, to taste and to touch and to feel as much as a man can before he repents"; before attempting to attain that inhuman perfection seemingly espoused by Jesus.

At the same time, the lyric exposes the hypocrisy of this perspective -- the harsh judgmental opinion the narrator holds for the "citizens" who "don't want God in" their "kingdom" clearly betrays his adamant disdain for anyone who disagrees with his harsh ideology. Bono may have merely passed by that fork in the road and saw it as a dead-end off-ramp from the Zoo highway, but he was curious enough about what might be down there to send a figment of his imagination off that way. Maybe Bono thought the only way that poor jerk would survive would be if he had Johnny Cash's voice. Honorable mention in the "let's spell it all out for the morons" category: "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," "Mofo" and "The First Time."

"Running to Stand Still"
If I had to choose a favorite Bono-heroin song, this is it. Though it doesn't come close to the vivid desciptions of orgasmic blissed-out stupor flaunted by Trainspotting, or even the visceral bluntness that Lou Reed conjures up, "Running to Stand Still" certainly bests Bono's two previous entires in this category -- "Bad" and "Wire" from The Unforgettable Fire album -- relatively weak lyrical efforts supported by terrific tunes. While those two lyrics attempted to evoke the pleasure and pain of heroin use (or what Bono thought of as heroin use, through the vicarious experience of acquaintances) in very broad strokes, "Running to Stand Still" brings the intensity down a bit with a few personal references sprinkled in the mix. The dead-end "seven towers" -- the projects of Ballymun -- surfaces as an image of finality and despair, and a better developed third-person narrative allows Bono to describe what he sees in a more honest way (but of course leaves plenty of room for his precious hyperbole). I think my favorite line is when "she is raging and the storm blows up in her eyes" qualified by "she will suffer the needle chill," a good simple balance of figurative imagery supported by literal reality.

The song and lyric took on new life during Zoo TV, as an uncomfortably mild interlude between the crush of "Bullet the Blue Sky" and the release of "Where the Streets Have No Name." Dressed as the Vietnam junkie-commando, Bono's theatrical role-playing and his rising cries of "Hallelujah" (a biblical praise offered up not for God, but for the feeling of the drug's progress through the body) build up to a climax almost as powerful as "Bad" before it's shot down by Larry's snare and eulogized by Bono's own harmonica. Another measure of a good lyric is its adaptability to different moods and perceptions, and adding that one perfect touch to the song matured it from a piece of empathy into a full-blown personal epic. Honorable mention in the "U2 sings about heroin?" category: "Bad" and "Wire."

"Gone"
This overlooked Pop song managed to fight its way into the Elevation tour set as a stronger companion piece to "Stuck in a Moment" before eventually complimenting the better "Kite." Handing the lyric over to the ghost of Michael Hutchence seemed a natural step after it had been similarly used for Princess Diana in a few PopMart shows, but both reinterpretations miss the original and more insightful topic: Bono's measured response to the indie-fascist arbiters of cool that view commercial rock & roll success as a morally bankrupt and degenerate enterprise. What could come off as an out-of-touch scolding instead hits all the right targets -- the unending guilt about getting something (money, fame) for doing relatively nothing (pop music), the desperate fear of losing one's personal identity and the ultimate disconnection from reality that results from worrying too much about the guilt, pressure and fear. Bono follows the meteoric trajectory perfectly ("taking steps that make you feel dizzy but you learn to like the way it feels"), and the mania to succeed that drives the famous ("you wanted to get somewhere so badly you had to lose yourself along the way") like he's describing someplace he's happy to have left.

Bono also exposes the inherent hypocrisy of the puritannical anti-success stance ("what you leave behind you don't miss anyway") and the delusion of power itself ("what you thought was freedom is just greed"). The chorus ("I'm not coming down!") indicates the narrator's desire to never return to that mindset and remain trapped with his own ego. Bono may have thought that the original feeling was a bit smug and superficial (in my opinion the only real criticism of it), so he allowed it to grow by stretching the interpretation out to cover the travails of success and celebrity in general. Runner-up in the "I'm glad that's not my problem anymore" sweeps: "Last Night on Earth."

"Mysterious Ways"
Ostensibly about John the Baptist in the same way as "End of the World" corralled Judas. The thing about Bono's writing that you have to remember is that he seems to love making his own spin on one of his favorite pieces of literature (take one guess), and his best stuff is when he extrapolates off the formula he discovered with the October album -- replacing God with You. Perhaps by the time of Achtung Baby he'd realized the way to make these biblical musings more personal was to flesh out a kind of rock and roll historical fiction, with a slight twist on what the listener thinks they know -- in this case, God as a "she."

Of course, all of that doesn't matter when you hear Edge's contorted wah pedal and Adam's effortlessly, masterfully minimal riff pulsing though the tune, but Bono makes his case on top of that with a hell of a hook. That chorus was supposedly so good that they wouldn't let it go back in Berlin, and aren't we lucky. Anyway, Bono gives us an updated Johnny, tucked away in monastic exile and "eating from a can" in some post-nuclear godless wasteland, so busy "running away from what you don't understand -- love" that he can't grasp contradictions like "if you want to kiss the sky you better learn how to kneel." Again, that interpretation isn't much to stand on when the tune itself is so good, but that's how you can tell it's good -- if the lyric can actually hide its deeper meaning and not actually pretend to be so profound, it's a real winner and sure to have a wide appeal. Runner up in the "sexy song with a cool biblical allusion" category: "Salome."

"Bullet the Blue Sky"
"Bullet the Blue Sky" is U2's greatest and most preposterous stab at the fury of Revelation. The lyric, a true piece of brimstone-hellfire preaching, chronicles an epic showdown between extreme good and extreme evil. The imagery is laughably simple on first glance, but the use of grand elemental slabs of allusion works well precisely because it keeps pace with the apocalyptically stomping music.

Bono's delivery is delirious with fervor, answering the bizarre carnage in El Salvador that he saw first-hand with some white-hot truth. It's very harsh, totally one-sided, vehemently uncompromising, and (unfortunately) completely humorless, 'cause to him this stuff really wasn't funny at the time. The "howling/locust wind" and "stinging rain" are direct and rather obvious references to apocalypse and the plague, and as the lyric goes on, the blunt indictment of the destructive 1980s American cowboy-diplomacy (gee, sound familiar?) rings just as true now as it did then.

There are some great lines in here, like "see the face of fear running scared in the valley [of the shadow?] below!" The best line -- "you plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire" is a terrifically poetic description of the dubiously practical and dangerously lazy American tendency to install foreign dictators in convenient locations around the world. This lyric is also an extension of what Bono merely scraped the surface of on albums like October; one does indeed babble with the gibberish of prophecy when the finger of God presses firmly on one's head, and it would appear that one gets mighty cranky when this doesn't change anything. Runner-up in the "dark heart of America" category: "Exit."

"Acrobat"
Hey, bring it on. You try and build a lyric around a gut-slashing blister of a chorus like "don't let the bastards grind you down." It's Bono's best refrain ever, and the rest of the lyric isn't exactly slouching either. The poor guy must have felt really backed into a corner up in that posh Sydney penthouse suite during LoveTown's Australian trek.

No really, if you can get beyond the superficial irony of someone in Bono's contemporary position writing something like this, it surely comes off as a personal best. Hell, if I were a lead singer/lyricist armed with this, there's no way it would have been the only one from that album to not see live performance. The unrelenting list of cynical commands and delirious disorientation ("and you can build and I can will...and you can smash and you can seize...in dreams begin responsibilities") perfectly illustrates the simple metaphor of the celebrity balancing act, almost like a diary, but what makes it click is the setting on the very personal scale of a dissolving relationship. The whole thing is so forceful by the end -- the one-two punches amass into a giant freeway pileup of venom -- that the song effectively ends the album; the only thing that could follow it is the bitter, quiet aftermath of "Love is Blindness." Runner-up in the "you mortals will never understand" category: "Dirty Day."

"Kite"
I like to slag off most of All That You Can't Leave Behind, fairly or not, but this is the only song from that album that still holds my attention. Bono's relatively simple fable about the acceptance of death as a part of life hit home long before its defining performance after the passing of his father, but it was uniquely clarified at that point much better than when Bono offered a muffled description onstage in Boston. His assertion that this "goodbye song" could be from almost any point of view speaks to his tendency of creating open-ended anthems out of very personal subject matter.

The narrator in "Kite" is either hopelessly resigned to fate or totally at peace with himself, and despite (presumably) Bono's desire for the latter, I'm inclined to believe otherwise. "I want you to know that you don't need me anymore" is an awfully tender kiss-off, assuming that the narrator is amazed to discover this fact for the first time. The simple metaphor "of a kite blowing out of control on the breeze" actually says more than any bit of detail that attempts to support it; the fragility and unpredictability of life that is so often shrugged off by someone who is childless is brought into sharp focus once kids come into the picture. The narrator seems newly in touch with his own mortality, a refreshing perspective despite the natural impulse to make it as profound as possible. The lyric's last couplet about new media being the big idea unnecessarily dates it, and isn't really much of a counterweight to the universality floating through the rest of the song, but that's relatively easy to forgive when everything comes together as well as "Kite" does. Runners-up in the "death is not the end" category: "Tomorrow" and "One Tree Hill."

"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"
No fancy allusions here -- simply another great direct polemic about one of Bono's many pet ideas: a vague cross-breeding of rock star as dictatorial messiah superhero. Maybe that's why he thought it would work well with Batman Forever; it certainly bested Marilyn Manson's feeble "Antichrist Superstar" swipe at the concept, though Manson might get a C- for effort.

"Hold Me, Thrill Me" is almost like an update for "The Fly," as sung by, say, MacPhisto; the peak here is at the bridge (who says choruses have to be the nucleus?): "they want you to be Jesus, to go down on one knee, but they'll want their money back if you're alive at thirty-three." It seems like the one contradiction that Bono doesn't want to be at the center of is the one that involves the most self-absorption, the one that no one knows they've strayed into until moments before they exit this life. The now-formulaic celebrity death-by-fame was splashed all over the PopMart screen in Warholian proportions while U2 performed this song, triggered by hacking coughs and expletives from Bono (my brother swears that Bono says "fuck this!" before careening into this song during the PopMart Mexico video). The character he jumps into for this song is literally teetering on the edge of the abyss, doing that sublime tabloid two-step for all to see, and maybe Bono had to get this sort of creature out of his system before he ended up that way. Its sounds silly, but his insight into Michael Jackson's bizarre adventures of a decade ago shows that Bono can easily tune into that wavelength, even if he doesn't like what he hears. Honorable mention in the "stage is but a platform shoe" category: "Even Better Than the Real Thing," "Discotheque" and "Elvis Ate America."

General honorable mention goes to "One," mostly because it is fantastic despite being overanalyzed and played to death. The fact that a song about U2's deteriorating relationship with each other in Berlin can be taken to mean pretty much anything speaks to either Bono's pathetic vagueness or his eminent sensitivity. I think it's both. Kudos also to "Please," the second best song on Pop and infinitely better in every way than "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

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