With or Without You: a troubled love song, a big hit

If there is one song that epitomizes TJT it is With or Without You. This song captures the mood and intensity of the album so eloquently. Quite simply, it is one of the most poetic songs in their entire collection. The harmony between the lyrics and melody is spectacular. It truly is a very beautiful song.

With two powerful songs released from the album: the anthemic WTSHNN and the revelatory ISHFWILF how could they possibly make lightning strike a third time? We all know that they did; but what was so special about WOWY that made it a signature piece of TJT, and of the decade?

No ordinary love song

In high school, my creative writing teacher said that ninety percent of songs are written about love. I thought it was an unbelievably high percentage, until began to look at it more closely. It turned out I couldn’t find many songs that were not about love.

Where most songs were about the joys of being in love or the heartache of a breakup, WOWY was about something else. Assuming that Bono is the person in the song, he finds himself in a place in between to different states: being with a person and away from them. There is a sense of melancholy and an ache that doesn’t subside by the end of the song. But, there is also a sense of trueheartedness to the subject, which I assume is his wife Ali, and an acceptance to the life he has chosen.

Shine Like Stars

There were hits from the eighties that were big, loud and ostentatious, and the very reason why they were hits. The eighties definitely were the decade for that. And the reason why WOWY was so successful was because it was the opposite of that. You always knew when it came on the radio when you heard Larry’s soft drumming followed by Adam’s soothing bassline. One of its best qualities is the restraint of Bono’s singing. There is a new layer—deeper and fuller—that was not present in previous albums. It’s obvious that producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno worked with him to explore other areas of his vocal range. The result was a far more dramatic performance that builds towards the crescendo.

I love the way the song just quietly slips in and builds to a climax and then slips back out. And the best part, no big guitar solo at the end. It is this structure that I’ve always found to be so brilliant. It is also no surprise that it went straight to number one here in the states.

The video

If the photographs by Anton Corbijn were an illustration of the music, then the video was the movie. The first time I saw it was very late at night, when music videos were played on television. There was a show called Friday Night Videos on NBC, but it didn’t come on until 1:00 am. I would stay up late just to record U2’s videos on my mom’s VCR. The challenge was that I did not know when the video would air. Sometimes it was the first; sometimes it was the last. So, it was an exercise in patience and stamina. There were times when I fell asleep—remote in hand—only to wake up in the middle of it. I cursed myself loudly whenever that happened.

However, I managed to record it and watched it many times. I loved the simplicity of it. It was dark and moody. The grainy images of shadows, branches and a woman wrapped in a white sheet were so evocative and a little haunting. To me, this is what the song looked like.

Many years later, when I finally got cable television—and MTV—videos from TJT weren’t aired that often. But when it did, I always watched it.

Looking back across the great expanse of three decades, I see a band that has changed so much. And yet, I am hoping that they haven’t changed at all.

Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is going to be freekin’ awesome.

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