Late-Night Karaoke: Scratch
Despite their reputation as poltiical spokesmen and naive optimists, U2's strongest work has always centered on more personal issues of loss: the child's grappling with death at the heart of Boy; the drifting uncertainty that engulfs The Unforgettable Fire (Bono's mumbles and verbal feints-- what the band would later call "Bonoglese"-- not a lyrical dodge, but the most moving expression of a song's essence); the lyrical bitterness, pain and selfish rage that rubs up against the glam arrangements of their best record, Achtung Baby; the emotional hangovers of Pop and the gleefully fractured personality singing about "Vertigo." Darkness isn't a space they stay in-- they're not Nine Inch Nails, thank god-- but crossing through it to reach a brighter space is what gives their sense of community a real depth and resonance.
When I first heard this song, from their 2004 album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, it didn't do a lot for me: it was ok, but felt a bit bombastic. Interviews revealed that it was written for the funeral of Bono's father, as a tribute from child to parent, but that sentiment didn't register for me in the sound.
It wasn't until I saw this video a few months later that the tune began to take shape. I think what I like most about it are those opening moments of Bono walking down the street, singing along with his own recorded voice. His street voice is raspy and cracked, unrehearsed, singing some words while skipping over or just not hitting the notes on others. That spontaneous, almost karaoke-like quality, especially layered on top of the more polished recording, brings the song alive for me: in doubling his own vocal, almost haunting it like an nasty ghost, he really captures the lyrics' attempts to embody that feeling of pain and loss around the death of a loved one. He's writing on top of what he's already written, tracing and defacing it like a graffiti artist, adding to and enhancing what's already there. By the time he gets to the theater and joins the band, I really feel that desire he sings of to find a kind of release in singing and playing, to create a communal ecstasy: the reveal of the band together doesn't just feel like a commercial video necessity, but the literal expression of the song's title.