17. Song with a Number in the Title
“40” – U2
I’m not sure if it’s OK even to whisper U2 these days, but did I mention that 1987 was the year I started to notice music? U2 were everywhere that year. When I got my first guitar, it wasn’t because of Johnny Marr or Nick Drake or Bert Jansch. Not yet. That Christmas all I wanted was to be The Edge. I even bought a hat.
Looking back further, back to, say, the Red Rocks gig in 1983, it’s striking just how strange a proposition U2 were. For a start, the politicking is relentless. Refugees, Solidarity, nuclear disarmament, Northern Ireland: every other song identifies with a specific cause. In fact, I don’t find it tiresome or objectionable here in the way that it would become. There’s an element of risk about it, it seems, not merely the opportunism and self-regard that characterise Bono now. But the strangest thing about early U2 is that they are genuinely, explicitly a Christian rock band. One of the songs has a chorus in Latin, for Christ’s sake! How did they ever catch on?
“40” is the closer on War, and it’s a psalm setting – Psalm 40, hence the title. (All of which reminds me of Patrick Kavanagh’s line about how King David is the greatest of the war poets.) I love The Edge’s work as an arranger on those mid-80s albums: a guitarist without ego (there’s plenty of that elsewhere in the band) and one who’s not afraid of space – the two-note guitar break between verses here is positively demure. Meanwhile, the drone harmonies point at both Gregorian chant and more well-worn New York influences. Simple and slight, it’s the album’s most clearly religious song, but also its least preachy. I find it rather strange and quite beautiful.
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