32. U2 - One

U2 had been critical darlings for some time when they released the documentary and soundtrack album Rattle and Hum in 1988.  But the response to both was unenthusiastic by most critics.  Rolling Stone actually liked it, saying, "In its inclusiveness and rollicking energy, Rattle and Hum caps the story of U2's rise from Dublin obscurity to international superstardom on a raucous, celebratory note."  But other reviewers weren't drinking the Irish Kool Aid.  Allmusic.com's Stephen Thomas Erlewine was much more blunt in his criticism.  He called the movie "disastrous" and says that U2's sound was paralyzed by their new status as "rock's most important band."  He sums up with:  "Rattle and Hum is by far the least-focused record U2 ever made, and it's little wonder that they retreated for three years after its release to rethink their whole approach."

And rethink it they did.  They thought a lot - like a philosopher on a rainy day with a triple espresso after his wife just left him lot.  The band had become the biggest rock band in the world, but they knew they weren't the best.  If they were to become the best, they had to start over, to a certain degree.  At the end of the Lovetown tour that U2 did with BB King, Bono said on stage that this was "the end of something for U2.  We have to go away and (...) dream it all up again."  And they did.  The album that was the fruit of those dreams was 1991's Achtung Baby, who many consider U2's finest work.  (For me, The Joshua Tree is my favorite U2 album, but I have no trouble saying Achtung Baby is their best all-around effort.)

There are other songs on Achtung Baby that are more fun to listen to, like "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious , but "One" is the song that moves me the most and makes me think.  And for all that I like rockers and uptempo songs, it's the ones that go deeper that are the really Great with a capital G ones.  These are the Oscar contenders to the action summer blockbusters.  They resonate beyond the first few listens.  Not to denigrate the other songs on Achtung Baby, it' one of the greatest collection of songs ever, it's just that "One" rises to the top.

Starting with that wonderful guitar that The Edge is known for, it sets the tone for a song that is rooted in melancholy and disappointment, but with a touch of hope to keep it from being overly melodramatic.  Edge is the mad scientist of guitar sounds, but they always serve the song first, which not all guitarists who love the sounds guitars can make are able to keep at bay.  Similar to the chef who thinks more ingredients with more complex preparations make for the best meal, those guitarists can't quiet their imagination at the cost of what's important - the song.  And although it's a cool sounding guitar that Edge brings to the table, the base of the song is the acoustic guitar and the song structure.  To prove it, U2 often performs "One" in concert with just that, acoustic guitars.

As in most solid songs, the rhythm section is left with the vital yet seemingly pedestrian task of holding down the fort.  They don't get to go out and destroy the enemy, they just get to make sure that the defenses hold.  Both bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. get to flex their musical muscles a bit, but more often then not, they're keeping the supply lines clear and giving support so the band as a whole can shine.  The rhythm section is the best friend fullback to the star high school quarterback of the guitarist and lead singer.  He does the grunt work while his friend gets all the glory and attention.  Without the fullback blocking on those key plays, though, the star is on his ass with a linebacker on his chest.  To be able to sit in the background, holding things steady is perhaps the hardest thing to find in a musician while keeping your ego in check.

U2 has been blessed throughout the years to have band members who put the music first - always.  And the results have been consistently at a world-class level for decades without any breakups or new members.  The Beatles couldn't do that.  Not The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Van Halen, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Eagles.  None of them could keep from imploding or produce music at the level U2 has for as long as they have.  Even Simon & Garfunkel couldn't keep it together, and that's only two!  Solo artists (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna) have a much easier time since the only opinion that matters is theirs.  A band had to contend with multiple members' input, ego, songwriting, etc. that complicates matters exponentially.  So the lyrics of the song work in any personal relationship, not just the significant other interpretation that most people see in this song.

One love
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don't care for it

So the lyrics apply to a band just as much as they do to a husband/wife relationship.  And if U2 hadn't cared for it, they'd be another band that used to be great and can only do greatest hits tours now (sorry Keith & Mick and Pete & Roger).  When you stop working on the love in a relationship it starts to die.  It slowly strangulates to death:  discomfort followed by pain as the panic increases, then comes the arms flailing and eyes bulging as the last breath leaves the body.  It's horrible to watch and the damage in its wake is often incalculable.  It happens in bands as well as in relationships. 

Lead singer Bono is at his best when he's singing about relationships.  He's never been the most talented singer around (I'd put his vocal track for the original recording of "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl" up as one of the worst recorded vocal performances of all time), but he more than makes up with it in soul.  Every ounce of his being is poured into every single performance, especially live.  So when he sings the following lyrics, your heart aches for him:

Did I ask too much
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it's all I got

Since Bono is U2's lyricist (99.5% of the time), he can add his voice to his own poetry and bring his inner Dylan (both Bob and Thomas).  He sings about situations we've all been in when our love is put to the test.  We're too tired, too talked out, too apathetic to do the work that needs to be done.  "We're one, but we're not the same."  In relationships across the board, everyone has experienced these emotions and the choice is up to us to put our heads down and plow through the tough stuff to get to the good stuff.

Too many people in today's world just aren't ready to do that.  The divorce rate is 50%.  I'm living proof.  I'm on my second, and thankfully, my best.  With my wife, Jennifer, I learned that doing the hard work that a husband/wife relationship needs can't be dismissed.  If you put in the hard work, as I think we have, then it's easier to get through the hard spots (like being in the hospital while your wife and boys are at home) and come out shining.  I've failed before, but I'm not going to do it again.

We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

(Fun Fact #534:  Bono has said that his guitarist is "a man so cool, even his mother calls him - The Edge.")
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