The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Three)

8. Beautiful Day
“When you hear a song like ‘Beautiful Day’ on the radio it sounds so effortless but to get that song to that place was hard, days and days of trying to put this jigsaw together.”  – Larry Mullen, Jr. from U2 By U2
Nothing has ever come easy for this band in the recording studio.  What should take seconds often takes minutes.  What should be done in minutes is usually done in hours.  What is supposed to be finished in days usually takes weeks or even months.  And when they set a deadline a year in advance, chances are they’ll need another year.
Is it any wonder Bono likens the process to making sausages?
But for all their stubborn, perfectionist tendencies, U2 frequently deliver the goods.  It is on very rare occasions that they release something mediocre.
After the Pop album, the subsequent Popmart tour and the first greatest hits package, the band went back to work hoping to pull back a bit on their experimentation which was becoming increasingly controversial.  Subtlety was the order of the day.
An early contender for their 2000 release, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was Always.  The very sexual track was never good enough in the eyes of the band.  (One line – “The soul needs beauty for a soulmate” – would be later recycled for A Man And A Woman on the How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb CD.  Another line – “Well, if you dream, then dream out loud” was lifted from Acrobat, an Achtung Baby album cut.)  Inevitably, the supposed artistic failure of the song would evolve into something far more substantial.
At some point, the band had a jam session in “the small room” in their Dublin studio.  It was a new start for a new song.  The initial effort needed a lot of work.  The Edge thought his guitar chords sounded too positive, but when Bono took note of a sour sounding keyboard part Edge incorporated the rhythm into his playing, altering the song to his satisfaction.  Then, there was concern about the actual sound of his guitar.  For the first time in years, he brought out the famous Explorer echo unit which became his signature sound in the 1980s.  Bono had doubts.  But it suited the tone of the song and the time was right to bring it back.  It stayed.
Much tinkering followed.  Parts added here, others dropped, some enhanced by technology.  Then came Bono’s lyrics.  In U2 By U2, he explained the inspiration for them:
“I was influenced by an Australian preacher I know called John Smith, who was a pastor for the Hell’s Angels at one point and who is a very eloquent speaker with a brilliant mind.  I remember him talking to me about how depression is a nerve end.  Pain is evidence of life because it reminds you there are things in your life that aren’t right.  So you should be thankful for it really and celebrate that there is so much to live for.”
Once everything was recorded, it took two weeks to settle on a proper mix, according to The Edge.  By accident, a couple of background vocals from Always ended up in the song.  Listen for Edge singing “always” in the background during the last two lines of the first verse.  (“You thought you’d found a friend to take you out of this place/Someone you could lend a hand in return for grace”)
In the end, the song was a worldwide smash.  It hit number one in Britain.  It went on to win every Grammy it was nominated for in 2001 including Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.  After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the song became even more poignant for listeners.
As for Always, it was issued as a B-side on the Beautiful Day CD single.
Transcendence despite depression.  Optimism in the face of tremendous adversity.  Deep appreciation for your own life while stuck in the dirt of human traffic.  Beautiful Day might feature the most ambitious series of lyrical ideas Bono has ever devised.  And with the full range of his vocal power put to good use, the words are given even more emotional resonance.
How appropriate that the human heart is so ably represented by Brian Eno’s beat box, so prominently heard throughout the song.  It’s already adrenalized when the song begins, but when Bono sings in that low, conversational tone of his, it pounds more forcefully, giving the track an added boost it would not have otherwise.  Throw in that classic, bitterly beautiful guitar sound by The Edge and the always dependable rhythm section, not to mention those terrific technological touches (including a drum machine, of all things), and you have a brilliant number that alternates between quiet contemplation and loud, emotionally charged outbursts of hope.
The opening line sets the tone.  (“The heart is a bloom, shoots up through the stony ground”)  Nature vs. progress.  Being born amongst so many dead souls.  It’s the first of many lines of contrasting images.
Stagnation, frustration and claustrophia fuel the rest of the opening verse.  Then, in the chorus, right after the Chicken Little reference, a sense of renewed purpose, all because of the weather.  How amazing that sunshine, unashamedly radiant in a sky of blue, can lift even the darkest of spirits.
The second verse sounds like a metaphor for U2’s struggles in the studio.  (“You’re on the road but you’ve got no destination/You’re in the mud, in the maze of her imagination”)  The creative muse, so difficult to track down amongst so much distraction and self-doubt.  The last line – “You’ve been all over and it’s been all over you” – is as universal as it gets.  Who can’t relate to that?  The chorus returns right on cue, urging the listener to not let such matters dissuade the potential joy a day of true beauty has.
After a hopeful plea for transcendence (“Touch me, take me to that other place”), we come to the best part of the song.  In a 2000 interview with Hot Press magazine, Bono revealed that during the “See the world in green and blue” section, he was writing from the point of view of an astronaut in space observing all the beauty and chaos of Earth.  There’s a strong environmental theme here which echoes the use of opposite images lyricized earlier in the track.  There’s the natural wonders of vegetation and oceans (“See the world in green and blue”) and what happens when man carves it up and pollutes it in the name of big business (“See China right in front of you”).  Similiar lines bring us to the reference to Noah’s Ark (“See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out”) and more urgent cries for personal fulfillment while seizing the day at hand.
The final section, so simple and direct, reminds us of the futility of greed and the reassurance that emotional fortitude and instinct can overcome gaps of knowledge.  (“What you don’t have you don’t need it now/What you don’t know you can feel it somehow”)  Another subtle reference to the band’s unorthodox style of songwriting and recording, perhaps?  Regardless, it’s like getting a personal pep talk from Bono directly.  You can’t help but listen intently.  You want his enthusiam to infect you personally.
Beautiful Day sweeps you in with its urgency.  It refuses to let your cynicism blacken its heart.  That it manages to do this in a little over 4 minutes is its ultimate accomplishment.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
1:15 a.m.
Published in: on July 17, 2007 at 1:15 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent choice! One of their best. We play this song live. It really is a simple song to learn, too. just a few power-rock bar chords, and a couple simple verse-riffs. music this elegant NEVER comes easy.

  2. Thanks, man.  I didn’t realize you still play live.

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