Monday, November 17, 2008
With Or Without You by U2
The 1980s were a time of great musical exploration. Synthesizers became widely used to create new musical landscapes while an unseen variety of musical genres came over the popular music horizon. New and unique voices shook the foundations of rock music. Bruce Springsteen reintroduced America to the workingman. Metallica explored the depth and darkness of rock and U2 showed us possibilities in music that few had imagined.
Like Springsteen, U2 expressed the conflicts of the human heart, refusing to speak through the trite and derivative lyrics that characterized so much of the rock music of the 1980s. “With or Without You” is one of U2’s most well known songs and was featured in their critically acclaimed 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. It is a simple song in its structure and in its ingredients however there is nothing simple about the feelings this song expresses.
“Without or Without You” has the same chord pattern repeated throughout the entire five minutes of the song except for a short break before the last instrumental section. The chords are outlined in the bass line pattern, which is the four different notes, each played eight times. The kind of musical structure is a chaconne. One of the most famous chaconnes is the “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel. Many blues musicians also utilize forms that have repeated harmonic structures but not repeated bass line patterns. The momentum and creativity of this song come from the musical development and exploration of other instruments within the framework of the baseline. While other bands would fail in the chaconne form, U2 succeeds through the artistry of Bono and The Edge.
The voice of U2 is Bono and his singing is pure rock ‘n roll gospel. It’s one of the most soulful and dynamic voices in popular music drawing from the great traditions of soul singers like Otis Redding. This voice is able to draw the listener with a whisper in the beginning of the song, dig into a rich well of warmth when singing “with you” at the end of the first stanza, and break out into a unbridled scream of agony at the climax of this song. He holds nothing back and expresses a level of vulnerability that in some ways almost makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s like watching a son give a eulogy for his mother’s funeral. It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard, it’s beautiful and we can’t help but let it speak directly to our souls.
If Bono is rock gospel then The Edge’s guitar is his choir. The Edge (the guitarist for U2) has one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in rock music. The constant background arpeggios (broken chord patterns) throughout the song create a distinctive layer of motion like a rolling river. The Edge utilizes the “infinite guitar” which is guitar effect created by Michael Brook which allows guitar notes to be held for seemingly infinite amounts of time. Throughout “With or Without You” The Edge uses the “infinite guitar” to create long notes that seem to enter like beams of light. The Edge also responds to Bono’s singing to crashing guitar chords that echo and resound like splashes of color.
U2 takes the thought “I can’t live with you, but I can’t imagine living without you” and examines the different facets of this statement. The lyrics initially explore the dichotomies in the relationship.
See the stone set in your eyes
See the thorn twist in your side
I wait for you
Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait
And I wait without you
With or without you
The beginning comments on beauty in the person’s eyes contrast with the much uglier statement of the thorn. “Sleight of hand” is a trick that misleads our eyes while a “twist of fate” moves life in a different way that you expect. The first two lines comment on the person that Bono sees explaining is why he is willing to wait, but it is the circumstances in the second stanza, which is why he must wait without her.
Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I’m waiting for you
With or without you
I cant live
With or without you
Through struggles they reach a better place and he acknowledges how much she gives him. In the next lines it is no longer about waiting for her but the fact that he can’t live with or without her. Then Bono repeats “and you give yourself away.” She keeps giving and it tears him up inside that all her effort isn’t enough. It’s not necessarily her fault and that is why it torments him so much.
At three minutes into the song Bono lets loose in a scream anguish and conflict. It’s like he’s been holding it in and he is finally allowed to be free with his emotions.
After the climax of the song, there is about a minute of instrumental music without words. This space allows us to reflect on what has just happen and leaves us with a sense of peace. The conflict may not be settled but there is a feeling a relief from finally getting something off one’s chest. There is freedom in saying what you feel even if that feeling is of entrapment.
Feeling trapped comes from the emotion of fear. It is being scared of losing what one has to face the uncertainty of the future. Though not every one of us can relate to the being a relationship in which we cannot live with the person but can’t imagine life without them, we can all relate being uncertain of the future. The bass line reflects the stability in our lives and reminds us that there are things that are constant in our lives.
We all have in fears in our life. I’m afraid of losing the people around me to tragedy. I fear the uncertainty of the future and I am not comfortable with my own mortality. “With or Without You” is about facing our fears. The song is not about finding solutions but finding understanding. It is only through facing our fears ad truly understanding ourselves and the people around us that we can us appreciate life and reflect on the beauty and peace that is there right in front of our eyes.