There’s nothing quite like divorce to focus the mind. Sometime in 1990, before he left for Germany to commence the recording of Achtung Baby, The Edge and his first wife, Aislinn O’Sullivan, came to a painful understanding. Their 7-year marriage was over.
“It was a grim period for me, finally looking failure in the face and seeing this was something that could not be redeemed. We tried. We went to counselling. I think it had gone too far,” he noted in U2 By U2.
Despite the emotional turbulence he was experiencing from the separation he threw himself into songwriting and became completely devoted to U2. Unsurprisingly, Achtung Baby ended up becoming a very dark record with a number of songs featuring indirect lyrical references to his personal life.
As with every album U2 have made there are plenty of songs left over from the sessions that are not only unworthy of being included on a full-length release but also as exclusive bonus tracks on CD singles. Down All The Days is an example. Adam Clayton told Neil McCormick, “The song didn’t really work but the instrumental backing was interesting.”
After Achtung Baby was completed and released to tremendous critical acclaim and commercial success the band launched their equally applauded Zoo TV tour. In February 1993, the band found themselves with a lot of free time on their hands after spending a year on the road. They were 3 months away from the final leg of the tour which would keep them in Europe and Asia for the rest of the year. It was suggested that they could work on some new recordings, just enough to fill up an EP. But Bono convinced the others to make a proper album instead.
As a result, old ideas were dusted off and new ones were created in the studio. Ultimately, Down All The Days was given another chance.
According to Adam Clayton, Brian Eno added some keyboard work to the original backing track. But the song was missing a fresh set of vocals and lyrics. Enter The Edge.
“The lyric came very quickly and tapped into many of the ideas behind Zoo TV, the sense that we were being bombarded by so much information that you find yourself shutting down and unable to respond. I wrote so many verses I had to cut two out,” he explained in U2 By U2.
Bono agreed with him wholeheartedly about the “too much information” aspect while also remarking that the song captured his state of mind after the end of his first marriage.
“It is a relentless portrait of what he was feeling at the time and what a lot of people were feeling in the wider world about media. He was in that spot but it became a great metaphor for the media overload generation incapable of feeling anything for the pictures you see,” he observed in the same book.
According to Alan Cross, The Edge thought about Bono doing some kind of rap over the music. But at the time, The Edge was the only one in the studio. In the end, he made history. Numb is the only U2 single that features The Edge on lead vocals. (He also takes the reigns on Van Dieman’s Land, an album track on Rattle & Hum, and Seconds, an album cut from War, where he shares vocal duties with Bono.) Larry Mullen Jr. sings one of the first “I feel numb” lines while Bono’s Fat Lady vocals make a triumphant return.
Despite all the various effects, vocals and instrumentation involved, putting the whole thing together was unusually simple.
“The mix was the easiest thing in the world. You just put up the faders and let it go,” The Edge remarked in U2 By U2. All in all, “[i]t was a few hours’ work and [required] a lot of editing.” (For the record, Robbie Adams did the actual mixing.)
In an unusual move, the song was issued as a video single (exclusively available on VHS), something the band had never done before and haven’t since. The 4 minute and 18 second track, the first release from Zooropa, furthered the themes established on Achtung Baby, as did the incredibly silly video which features The Edge miming to the song while trying not to crack up as various people annoy him in numerous ways. (By the way, it’s Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington who press their feet into his face near the end.)
Later that year, The Edge performed the song all by himself during the MTV Video Music Awards. Playing it completely straight, as he does on the recorded version, it turned out to be one of the weirdest live performances in Television history. (His blue ensemble didn’t help matters.) During his 1993 Al Music special for MuchMusic Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of the song. He replaced the original words with sections of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs And Ham.
It opens with a hooky drum loop, followed by electronic effects and a woman’s voice, faintly heard, talking about “psychic friends”. Then, The Edge begins his mono rap. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. aren’t far behind with their traditional bass and drums, respectively. And that’s just the first minute.
Numb is the most unlikely U2 single. Bono’s not the lead vocalist here. The Edge’s guitar is notably absent. The melody line features exactly one note. And it was released exclusively on videotape. (The audio version can only be heard on the Zooropa album.)
And yet, it is one of their greatest achievements. Over a decade since its surprising release it has aged remarkably well. One could make a very strong case for it being the band’s greatest overall song, an opinion I held for much of the 1990s.
The lyrics are the strongest element. Today, a number of lines perfectly describe the hypocritical, modern-day, neoconservative, ultra right-wing philosophy and declining movement, whereas in 1993, it was conceived as a satire on the state of the media and a commentary on The Edge’s emotional status after his divorce. A number of the “rules” rattled off by The Edge have frequently been broken by The Republican Party. (“Don’t cheat”, “Don’t hoax”, “Don’t spy/Don’t lie”, “Don’t project”, “Don’t leak”)
It’s right there in the first verse: “Don’t move/Don’t talk out of time/Don’t think/Don’t worry everything’s just fine.” It reflects a corrupt government’s viewpoint. We’ll handle the boring job of running the country. You stick to keeping quiet and looking the other way, especially when we’re up to no good. Or how about other lines in other verses, like “Don’t hope for too much”, “Don’t grieve without leave”, and the aforementioned “Don’t leak”, which might as well be describing the Bush Administration’s “lowered expectations” strategy, their long memory for those who criticize or “betray” them, and the idea of staying “on message” without giving away their real motives and actions, respectively.
That being said, this laundry list of rules, made up mostly of actions and feelings you should never express or else, has a striking fascist streak about it, even if there is a subtle sense of exaggeration. They sound like orders from an imaginary dictator given to a typically oppressed citizen programmed to embrace his lack of freedoms in favour of loyalty to the state above all else. Initially, in an environment like that, fear would swallow you whole. But the longer you’re stuck there the less you feel and the more likely you are to embrace this unnatural state of affairs, as indicated in the chorus of the song. (“I feel numb/Too much is not enough/Gimme some more”) It’s like being an addict. Living in a perpetual state of peril inspires you to seek comfort any way you can, even if it means sacrificing your own humanity, sanity and individuality in the long run. Nine Inch Nails did something similiar in 2007 on the Year Zero album. One song has a section that goes, “Persuasion/Coercion/Submission/Assimilation”. That sentiment wouldn’t be out of place on Numb.
The Edge’s droning vocals are perfect but not without precedent. John Lennon was known for writing parts of melodies that used exactly one note. (Think Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds or Strawberry Fields Forever.) The U2 guitarist takes that idea as far as it will go by using the technique for an entire song. Call it an anti-melody. By using the lower end of his register he nicely overemphasizes the robotic quality of those silly rules. Through that one note he persistently and stubbornly plays you understand how he feels. It’s inhuman to live a life under so much restriction and repression. You don’t even have to know that he was still reeling from his divorce. The theme he expresses here is universal.
We can’t forget the music, though. Brian Eno’s keyboard solo is instantly memorable, simple and moving. Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming is funky and loose, a nice, ironic touch. Adam Clayton remains the unsung hero here with his steady bass playing. And Bono’s Fat Lady vocals on the chorus is an effective contrast to The Edge’s low, flatlined rap-sing.
Never a staple on Top 40 radio, Numb is another one of U2’s lost singles. It’s their own fault, really. When you don’t issue the song on CD, what do you expect? Who would want to buy the video when they can just wait for it to reappear in a greatest videos collection? Not the smartest strategy, fellas. And remixing the song for The Best Of 1990-2000 instead of including the original version? Also stupid. There was nothing to fix.
Nevertheless, it remains a vibrant example of U2’s best work. It’s soulful in an environment of endless emptiness.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 27, 2007