How to dismantle a U2 song

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Irish Times

As he turns 50 next week Bono has much to celebrate, not least achieving world domination as the frontman of U2. But are his lyrics worthy of celebration and will they be relevant in another 50 years, asks TONY CLAYTON-LEA

CONSUMERS OF pop music are fussy about lyrics; the examples of good and bad are far too numerous to list (this writer's favourite clunkers include "there were plants and birds and rocks and things" from America's Horse With No Name , and the geographically unsound "Coast to coast, LA to Chicago" from Sade's Smooth Operator ), but you can guarantee that one person's rounded gem of a lyric is another person's dog-eared phrase.

For more than 30 years now, Bono's lyrics have been on the receiving end of brickbats and bouquets; his detractors might point you to the likes of: "Some days are slippy, other days are sloppy; some days you can't stand the sight of a puppy" ( Some Days Are Better Than Others ), while his fans might direct you towards this example from So Cruel: "You don't know if it's fear or desire/Danger the drug that takes you higher/Head of heaven, fingers in the mire/Her heart is racing you can't keep up/The night is bleeding like a cut/Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot."

The Vatican, meanwhile, extols the spiritual quality of Bono's lyrics. Earlier this year, in L'Osservatore Romano , a newspaper viewed favourably by Vatican officials, Italian music critic Andrea Morandi argued that references to religion (via the Psalms, Habbakuk and the Magnificat) can be discerned in almost every U2 song. "What Bono is writing is very sophisticated and often misunderstood," noted Morandi, implying, perhaps, that the mixture of the two can often lead to an appealing level of enigma.

Another religious publication, the somewhat more evangelical Christianity Today , states that, "for many Christians of a certain generation, combing through the lyrics of U2 songs in search of biblical images or references to Jesus Christ and his teachings is almost a sport".

It is little surprise, then, to discover that at various Church of England ceremonies (known as "U2-charists") Bono's lyrics take the place of traditional hymns. Originally devised in 2005 by American Episcopal priest Rev Paige Blair (who has since advised more than 150 churches of U2-charists in over 15 US states and seven countries), the lyrics used are culled from songs that include When Love Comes To Town, Mysterious Ways and Elevation .

"Methodist hymn writers once wrote contemporary music," Blair has noted. "Are we worshipping Bono? Absolutely not. No more so than we worship Martin Luther when we sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God ."

Don't talk to acclaimed US music critic Dave Marsh about such matters, though. In 2009, in the political newsletter Counterpunch , he wrote an article in the wake of Bono withdrawing from a public debate ("Celebrity politics - a complete failure?"). Marsh, possibly suffering from a residual surge of humiliation and hubris, opined that: "It can't be denied that Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and the Edge can still make fascinating music.

"Bono's yelped vocals are another matter, his hollow lyrics - where every platitude yields to an obscurantist pretension and back again - yet another."

So, on the cusp of Bono's 50th birthday, where does all of this leave us with regard to what he writes and how it's received? He's no Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave or Elvis Costello, but neither is he a Noel or Liam Gallagher. Bono has himself said that the first two lines of Where the Streets Have No Name are "inane".

In the 2005 publication Bono On Bono he also said: "With the cadence and the way the melody falls, they can be more articulate than any purely literate response. Pop lyrics, in a way, are just a rough direction that you sketch for where the listener must think toward. That's it, the rest is left up to you. When U2 songs are written, I don't write them in English. I write them in what the band call 'Bongelese', I just sing the melodies and the words form in my mouth, later to be deciphered."


Bono has got a great eye for detail. Look at the lyrics in Bullet the Blue Sky : "Across the tin huts as children sleep/Through the alleys of a quiet city street/Up the staircase to the first floor/We turn the key and slowly unlock the door/As a man breathes into his saxophone."

He has also a simplicity of language in lyrics like "all the promises we made/From the cradle to the grave/When all I want is you". I agree that when you take away the music, it's something else and maybe a little less profound, but it all works in unison.

He's a great lyricist, but maybe not a great poet. They are two very different things. Most songwriters aren't overly concerned with how words read on paper, the words work around the melody, and the sound of U2 would be completely different if he was trying to fit colourful language into such strong melodies.

Bono isn't as poetic as Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen, but he has a unique instinct for what works in a song. He also has a sense of humour that he's not afraid to use, like in No Line On The Horizon : "Every sweet tooth needs just a little hit/Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot/How can you stand next to the truth and not see it."

Favourite Bono lyric : It's from Bad : "If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind/Leave this heart of clay, see you walk/Walk away into the night and through the rain/Into the half-light and through the flame." It's more like an anthem, isn't it?

Least favourite lyric : It's from Elevation : "A mole digging in a hole" Actually, the whole song drives me mad.


I never considered U2 as the type of band that came from a school of great lyricists. I always saw their appeal as something else, so it's never entered my mind that Bono would consider the lyric as a really important thing in the songwriting process.

That's not to say that U2's songs are forgettable; it's just most songs of theirs that I know are geared towards that one line that is anthemic. The lyrics never really profoundly touched me. In fairness to him, he hasn't really put himself up as a great lyricist, so perhaps he's more aware of his flaws than other people, and if this is so, then that's a good trait. You know, he might have come to the conclusion that all the songs need are the words he gave them, and nothing else.

When you take some songs apart, like those by Leonard Cohen, you can publish those in a book of poetry; every single one that I know of his would stand as poetry. But not all songs are like that.

So for me, U2 are about the overall sound, not the words. The atmosphere, say, of The Unforgettable Fire , really brought me into the band, but I subsequently discovered that was more to do with Brian Eno than anything else.

I think U2 have reached a level now, creatively, that works for them. It's almost as if they have a type of song and they've been writing that type of song for a long time. How can you go on that long writing the same type of song? Someone like, say, Scott Walker, has certainly changed over the years.

I don't think Bono has changed that much since the very, very early days.


"The first time I was conscious of Bono as a lyricist who might be capable of an excellence that's rare enough in popular songwriting was as early as the song Bad on The Unforgettable Fire . The litany of "this desperation/dislocation/separation/ condemnation/revelation/in temptation/ isolation/desolation/ let it go" marked the first indications of a gift for the incantatory that has stood him in such good stead. We see it right the way through, in the great combinations of religious iconography and raw eroticism in With or Without You, I Still Haven't Find What I'm Looking For or Mysterious Ways . In this last, Bono invests William Cowper's hymn God Moves in Mysterious Ways to move us in ways even more mysterious.

While it's the combination of lyrics and music that makes U2 such an extraordinary band, there's no doubt that Bono is becoming a better lyricist per se than ever. One need look no further that the mesmerising One Step Closer on How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb or, on the most recent album, No Line On The Horizon , two of his best songs to date.

I'm thinking of Magnificent , with its really envy-inspiring turn on "justified till we die, you and I will magnify/ the magnificent".

A similar regard for wordplay that enters the realm of "serious fun" is to be found in Moment of Surrender , in which Bono refers to "a vision of a visibility", a vision brilliantly grounded in the image of his own reflection staring back from an ATM.

Moment of Surrender also includes a verse with one of the most haunting slant rhymes I've come across in a while: "The stone was semi precious/We were barely conscious."

The "surrender" to which the song refers again combines the sexual with the spiritual, but it also signals a regard for the profound sense of artistic humility to which I'm certain Bono subscribes. He's willing, I believe, to allow the word to make of him an "instrument", an idea that all of us who imagine ourselves to be writers would do well to foster.


I'd question whether anyone's lyrics, with the arguable exception of a Bob Dylan or a Leonard Cohen, would stand up to scrutiny outside the confines of a song. That's the context they're written for - they're not poetry.

Bono has written some clunkers, true, but then so do almost all rock stars. He also wrote One , which coupled with the music, is a genuinely moving work. Something from Oasis, for instance, like "See me walking down the hall/Faster than a cannonball" is an awful piece of writing per se, but it still sounds rousing being sung by a stadium. That's what it's built for.

The same applies to Bono's lyrics, with the same successful result.

He's never put himself up as being a great wordsmith, so I think he does self-deprecation very well. I would rather hope that at this point he really neither reads nor cares what his detractors think. He is a rock star, not a poet. And he's not done too shabby a job of being the former. In fact, I would say his approach, whatever it is, has served him very well over the years.

He hasn't got too many reasons to change it, has he? I'd similarly posit that as a songwriter, he's written his share of proper tunes - most artists, whether they like U2 or not, would trade an appendage for the hit quotient of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby alone.

Favourite Bono lyric : One , as previously noted. I also think he wrote some of his best lyrics on No Line On The Horizon .

Worst lyric : New York and Peace On Earth could make the hardiest soul cringe.

© 2010

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 8, 2010 8:48 AM.

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