The 10 Greatest U2 Singles (Part Four)

7. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
“The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt.” – Bono, The Rolling Stone Interview, October 2005
Long before Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards made it the theme of both his campaigns for The White House, Bono developed this concept of The Two Americas, which was the working title for U2’s fifth album.  After spending time with his wife in Africa and Nicaragua in 1986, he saw firsthand the dark side of American foreign policy.
In U2 By U2, he observed, “I started to see two Americas, the mythic America and the real America.  It was an age of greed, Wall Street, button down, win, win, win, no time for losers.  New York was bankrupt.  There was a harsh reality to America as well as the dream.”
He also came to the realization that his lyric writing needed to move beyond “sketches” and into areas of more substance and emotional colour.  Reading became an obsession for him.  James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Charles Bukowski, Truman Capote.  He devoured them all looking for fresh inspiration.  After initially dismissing the blues to members of The Rolling Stones, they played him Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.  He immediately revised his opinion.  It was during those listening sessions that he made yet another discovery, as he related to Neil McCormick:
“That is when I realized that U2 had no tradition, we were from outer space.  There were no roots to our music, no blues, no gospel, no country – we were post-punk.  Our starting points were the NME, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Penetration and The Buzzcocks.  It was a strange situation.”
Musically, the song, like many in the U2 catalogue, started out simply as a jam.  They gave this one an odd name:  “Under The Weather Girls”, which sounds like a Before And After puzzle on Wheel Of Fortune.  While the title would not survive (someone’s idea of a joke?), an unorthodox drum part would.  The Edge was unmoved by the original take.
“It sounded to me a little like ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ played by a reggae band.”
But the band kept plugging away.  Daniel Lanois told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2004, “I remember humming a traditional melody in Bono’s ear. He said, ‘That’s it! Don’t sing any more!’ — and went off and wrote the melody as we know it.” 
Bono found the voice for that famous melody while playing around with it on the mic.  Like Pride, he was pushing his tenor to the very limit, hitting impossibly high notes that only he could.  In that moment, The Edge remembered jotting down a title earlier in the day, a phrase in need of a song to attach itself to.
“I tried it in my head as Bono sang, and it scanned so perfectly that I wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to him as he sang.  It was like hand in glove.”
While The Edge was fiddling around on his guitar one day, Bono heard the famous riff – “a couple of notes that worked for him”, the guitarist noted in U2 By U2 – that would be a major reason for the song hitting number one in America.
The gospel feel of the track was unlike anything the band had stumbled upon before (The Edge told Q Magazine in 1998 that the band were listening to that kind of music during the making of the album), and mixing it all together was tricky.  Steve Lillywhite, who produced the band’s first three studio albums, made the initial effort.  But, in the end, Edge and Daniel Lanois, working from the former’s own studio, added things on top of it, as he explained to Neil McCormick:
“We had a very unorthodox habit of mixing on top of a mix, adding a little of the same ingredients a second time to the blend.  That is what gives it the weird phasing sound.”
It would later be nominated for 2 Grammys.
Spiritual intimacy.  Bono used that phrase in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine when describing the songs that connect with him the most, songs that also maintain a sexual intimacy.  I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For achieves both.
It begins with confident, staccato guitar work.  A tambourine quickly follows and within seconds, The Edge is at his typically minimalist best.  Once again, he squeezes the most emotion out of the fewest notes, which he picks individually here.  No barre chords required, especially in his remarkably restrained soloing.  Larry Mullen Jr.’s distinctively off-kilter drumming is quite appropriate.  Its surprising rhythm exemplifies the adventurous spirit of the entire Joshua Tree album.  It’s as if the band is announcing through the music that unpredictability is the new normal.  All bets are off from this point forward.
Unlike Pride, where he reserves the high notes for mostly the chorus, Bono spends the entire song in a higher register.  Try duplicating what he does here.  See how far you get.  It’s unlikely you’ll make it to even the halfway point.  You’ll run out of energy very quickly and you most certainly won’t be able to match his limitless passion.  It is quite simply an astounding performance. 
As he goes on a 4-and-a-half-minute quest for spiritual satiation, we learn of all the ways he’s tried to find God and failed.  He’s wandered aimlessly through natural environments (“I have climbed the highest mountains/I have run through the fields”); he’s tried escaping the confines of urban life (“I have run, I have crawled/I have scaled these city walls”); he’s tried sex (“I have kissed honey lips/Felt the healing in her fingertips/It burned like fire/This burning desire”); he’s tried being nice (“I have spoken with the tongue of angels”); and he’s given into temptation (“I have held the hand of a devil/It was warm in the night/I was cold as a stone”).  No matter what he does, there’s deep unsatisfaction.  But the journey continues.
It’s a song that remains timeless.  It not only captures the emptiness of Ronald Reagan’s America, a period best known for greed, shady behaviour and general cluelessness, it is perfectly in tune with the Bush era which seems far darker and colder than the late 1980s.  Corruption is more widespread today, thanks to across-the-board misinformation, the new currency in media, along with incompetence and stupidity, which are now viewed as attributes, not weaknesses.  All in the name of absolute power.
Throw in a plea for racial and spiritual equality (“I believe in the Kingdom Come/Then all the colours will bleed into one”) and a thank you to a crucified Jesus (“You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame”), and the song ends as it began, with Bono still uncertain about what it is he’s after, what he so desperately needs in his life that he feels he’s missing. 
Like Mofo, there isn’t a resolution here, just hope for some kind of inner peace.  That is the ultimate irony of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  Amongst so much doubt comes so much motivation to find faith.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 19, 2007
4:47 p.m.
Published in: on July 19, 2007 at 4:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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