Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Where the Streets Have No Name"

It's not often that I rediscover how much I love a song. Being an obsessive, when I love something, I tend to suck it dry. I return to it so frequently that familiarity doesn't so much breed contempt, but indifference.

Earlier tonight, while I was working out at the gym, U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" popped up on my iPod's shuffle. It was as if I were hearing the song for the first time. I respect U2, and there was a time, years ago, when I listened to the band regularly. Tonight, the song halted me in my tracks -- literally. It came on while I was running on the treadmill. Two minutes in, I hit the machine's emergency stop button; I listened, out of breath, and sweat-soaked; the song ended, and I played it again and again and again -- three times! -- while awkwardly standing in place. Who cares what the employee behind the counter thought? We were the only ones left in the gym. And I was having a moment, thank you.

Maybe it was it was the increased circulation of blood through my brain, maybe temporal distance, maybe a random instant of aesthetic enlightenment. Whatever the reason, I was able to discern and appreciate the various elements of the song anew, and when I put them back together, I was in awe. So this is why people love U2. Suddenly, it all made sense.

The song begins with the signature cicada hiss of a Daniel Lanois production (a co-production with Brian Eno, in this case). A crescendoing, synthesized church-organ drone emerges, followed by The Edge's iconic delayed sixteenth-note guitar arpeggios, also with a crescendo, in 3/4 time. Both give the the impression that the listener is approaching a song already in progress, implying perpetuity and timelessness. The quarter-note pulse of Adam Clayton's bass and Larry Mullen Jr's kick drum enter the mix, and the meter abruptly shifts to 4/4.

The intro, almost two minutes long, feels like the slow extension of a tight metal coil that wants to fight back. Atop the rhythm section's frenetic stuttering, with a cymbal crash underscoring it, the vocal finally enters: Bono declares: "I want to run! I want to hide!" Release.

The verse brings increasing forward propulsion, and more stuttering. A tighter coil is pulled. Bono's sibilant vocal ("our love turns to russsssst!) soars over a swirling and glorious cacophony. Then, the chorus: the titular lyric ushers in another, greater liberation. Musical voices drop away, yet everything gets louder. The Edge' chiming, descending three-note guitar lick somehow makes the anthem more anthemic. Bono, open throated, sings of burning down love. Beneath him, the music is both lithe and fat. Stutter, stutter, stutter. Repeat verse and chorus.

And it ends as it started, back to 3/4, a drone, and The Edge's arpeggios. Decrescendo. A swift retreat from a song that will seemingly play on forever.