Analysis : The First Time *

August 29, 2003

By Abigail E. Myers

This is the second in my most recent two-part lyrical analysis series. In my last essay I explored one of U2′s best known love songs, Rattle and Hum‘s "All I Want Is You." Many U2 fans believe that this song has a musical and thematic counterpart in another song– "The First Time," from 1993′s Zooropa. The melody of the song, and more strikingly the bass line, is very close to those of "All I Want Is You," and some people have observed that you can sing either set of lyrics to either of the two melodies.

I fear this analysis may be a bit controversial, as I tend to view the song much more optimistically than most people with whom I have discussed the lyrics in the past. However, I readily admit that I am a hopeless romantic, and prefer to read "The First Time" as a much gentler and more hopeful response to "All I Want Is You." After all, it is difficult not to. The song opens with one of the most beautiful first verses in U2′s lyrical catalog:

I have a lover
A lover like no other
She got soul, soul, soul, sweet soul
And she teach me how to sing
Shows me colours when there’s none to see
Gives me hope when I can’t believe
That for the first time
I feel love

The "lover" that the narrator refers to here is obviously not the same lover he mentions in "All I Want Is You." She might be the same person, but she is changed — instead of offering him material goods and making lavish promises, she has "taught him how to sing" and "given him hope." This seems to be what our narrator wanted all along: the spiritual gifts of a lover, given simply and unselfishly. He says it quite plainly in the two lines that serve as something of a refrain in a song with no clear chorus: "for the first time, I feel love." This is the love alluded to in "All I Want Is You," brought to a pure and mature fruition.

The focus of the song changes in the second verse, however. The narrator has been blessed in another way as well:

I have a brother
When I’m a brother in need
I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me
When I feel myself going down
I just call and he comes around
And for the first time
I feel love

The "brother" figure here could be an actual brother, or it could be a close friend. The "brother" is an example of platonic, but unconditional, love — the sort of love that the Greeks referred to as "agape." This love is often identified with the love of Jesus Christ, as is often discussed in more conventional interpretations of this song (as I will discuss later). The "brother" is the ideal of this kind of love, as the "lover" figure in the first verse is the ideal of romantic and/or erotic love. "He spends his [time] running after" the narrator; "he comes around" whenever he is needed.

The speaker in this song, then, seems to be pretty lucky. He has a wonderful "lover" and a devoted "brother." But it is the third verse that often throws listeners — myself included — for something of a loop:

My father is a rich man
He wears a rich man’s cloak
Gave me the keys to his kingdom coming
Gave me a cup of gold
He said, "I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see"
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key

This verse is very difficult for two reasons. First, it is the verse to which many listeners refer as the obvious flashpoint for the Biblical and religious allusions in the song. While these listeners are certainly not incorrect, it is also not the only way to read the song. It is also difficult because it does not match the "lovefest" tone of the first two verses; it is slightly bitter, and it would seem to leave the song without the happy ending that some listeners might have been expecting. Neither of these challenges, however, are incompatible with my current interpretation of the song. One can still read the song from both a secular and a hopeful perspective.

The narrator states in this verse that his father "is a rich man" who "gave [him] the keys to his kingdom." This could be a father figure of some sort, or a literal father, who (like the lover in "All I Want Is You") is more focused on the material gifts of love. The father might not be a bad or shallow person; he’s just missing something. Nevertheless, by this point in the song, the narrator knows the romantic love of the lover figure and the "brotherly" love of the brother figure. He knows that what the father is offering him here is not what he wants. Thus he leaves "by the back door" and "throws away the keys" –presumably to return to the simpler, purer love of the brother and lover figures. This is confirmed by the quiet, fading repetition, after the verse concludes, of "for the first time…for the first time…I feel love."

As I stated previously, this is not the traditional interpretation of "The First Time." But rewriting the old interpretations is unnecessary at best, and pointlessly derivative at worst. However, for the benefit of first-time (no pun intended!) lyrical explorers, many readers have pointed out the obvious connection of each figure in the song to the Holy Trinity: The lover of the first verse is the Holy Spirit (often conceived of as a feminine force in art and literature); the brother of the second verse is Jesus Christ (who often addressed his followers as "brothers" and is of course the epitome of unconditional love); and the father of the third verse is God the Father (the owner of "many mansions" and the overseer of the "kingdom").

Most pointedly, the third verse recalls both the literal God the Father and the father of the Prodigal Son from what is possibly the most famous of Jesus’s parables. "I have many mansions/And there are many rooms to see" is a direct, almost word-for-word reference to Jesus’ promise to His disciples that He was "going to prepare a place for them" shortly before His death: "In my Father’s house there are many mansions; if it were not so, I would not have told you. I go forth to prepare a place for you." Additionally, the action taken by the narrator in the third verse closely mirrors the actions of the Prodigal Son, who ran away from the father who loved him dearly and gave him whatever he wanted. This interpretation is certainly not unlikely, given Bono’s deep religious commitments and his Biblical allusions in many other songs. It is, however, not the only possible way to read the song — particularly if one reads "The First Time" as a sort of sequel to "All I Want Is You."

Regardless of how one chooses to take the song — as a rejection of materialism for true love, or as the result of a religious commitment, "The First Time" is a gem, often overlooked in the "bang and the clatter" that marks much of Zooropa. For someone who refuses to read the famous Niall Stokes book of lyrical assertions, I continue to read "The First Time" as a hopeful song about a lover who grows up, a brother who never had to, and a narrator at the heart of it who learns what love truly is.

Review : Book :

August 29, 2003

By Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Author: Oscar Wilde

Herod said, "I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?"

This month I

The Month in U2 : July 2003 *

August 26, 2003

By Carrie Alison – Chief Editor

7/2 – A modern take on the classic children

Stats and Sales : The Best Of 1990-2000 Roundup *

August 26, 2003

By Martijn Janssen

For some, the event may seem quite recent, for others it might be ages ago. However, no matter how fast time flies, U2′s second Best Of volume was released approximately seven months ago. Titled The Best Of 1990-2000, the album was packaged in two editions. Like the first volume, The Best Of 1980-1990, this compilation had a regular 1CD edition with the best of the ‘regular’ tracks of the decade and a 2CD edition which included B-sides and remixes. This time the compilation featured a bonus DVD with 2 videos, a short history of U2 in the ’90s and a trailer for their The Best Of 1990-2000 DVD.

The first volume with the Eighties tracks had been a huge success, selling over 16 million copies worldwide by the end of 2002. That compilation featured the epic rock that made U2 one of the most popular bands in the world by end of the 1980s. In their second decade as a band, U2 was trying to expand their musical boundaries – flirting with many different musical styles. It had resulted in some albums that were highly successful and
appreciated by fans and critics and some albums that elicited a varied response.

The compilation capturing that period would face a different task than The Best Of 1980-1990. Whereas the first volume had been a trip through memory lane for many buyers, the second volume had to show the audience that U2 had more to offer than just jukebox anthems. Released on 4 November 2002 (5 November 2002 in the USA), the album entered the charts in most of the countries on 16/17. In other countries (Italy for example) the album entered the charts a week earlier due to street date violations. In those countries the album was sold before the official release date and in sufficient enough quantities to make it appear on the charts.

This roundup will cover the charts in three countries: the USA, the UK and the Netherlands. The USA is the biggest market for music in the world. Performing well in that market can result in the sale of millions and millions of records. The market in the UK is much smaller. However, it has a very active singles market and the albums market can reveal the trends for the time to be as the British are very sensitive to what’s going to be in fashion. As for the Dutch market, I’ll explain that another time.


As was the case with the compilation of the first decade, the achievements of The Best Of 1990-2000 are divided into the 2CD edition with the B-Sides and the single disc edition. The reason for this division is that, according to chart rules, there is a significant difference between the two editions; they also have a different barcode, so they are also scanned separately. As the charts in the USA are based on over-the-counter sales scanned by the shops and collected by the Soundscan system (in contrast to charts in other countries which are sometimes based on reports made by selected record shops), it is not difficult to report the two editions.

The Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides
So how did the compilations do? The Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides debuted at #3 with sales of 184,000 copies. Sadly, this was its only week in the Top 10 although it was understandable – after the first week, buyers could also choose the cheaper single disc edition. This strategy of having two editions always will result in some sales of one compilation trumping the sales of the other edition. The trend of this compilation was, however, pointing down the whole time, even though sales held up quite well. By the way, don’t mistake chart performance with sales performance as they report two different developments. For example, while the compilation was dropping all the time, it did get the benefits of the holidays shopping season. The year-end holiday season is always a time of high sales, for all albums on the charts. Still, after 12 weeks, the 2CD edition reached the end of its chart run, as it dropped off the Billboard 200 the next week.

Below is the chart run of The Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides on the USA Billboard 200:

The Best Of 1990-2000
The single disc edition had a lengthier chart lifespan. One week after the double disc edition, The Best Of 1990-2000 debuted on the Billboard 200 on position #34. This may seem very low, but you have to consider that many had already picked up the edition with the B-Sides. Furthermore, compilations generally do not debut high. They are steady sellers, quietly shifting many copies over a longer period. Whenever somebody wants to check out U2, or if a person who likes U2 is thinking about a gift for one who needs to be introduced to U2, they can buy that convenient compilation which has all the best songs of the decade on it. After its first week this edition also experienced a drop off, like most albums do in their second week. However, it then lingered around position #55-60. Trends like these are always welcome, as it means the album flows along the general market trend. Having a stable chart run also extends the life on the charts, as an album with a very seesaw-like behaviour (meaning high peaks and deep lows) will probably not have a good basis for steady sales. Still, after around eight weeks this album suddenly dropped and although it did not drop as steep as the double disc edition, it could not reverse the trend. The Best Of 1990-2000 stayed in the charts for 14 weeks. Nevertheless, on 31 March 2003, the RIAA certified the compilation as platinum, meaning that more than one million copies have been shipped to stores.

Below is the chart run of The Best Of 1990-2000 on the USA Billboard 200:

There is no record after the initial drop off the charts. So it is unknown whether or not the compilations reappeared somewhere in the bottom 100. The most recent info, from the week ending 22 June, did not show any sign of the two compilations. You have to understand that All That You Can’t Leave Behind stayed in the Billboard 200 for almost two years, leaving the charts only a few weeks before the release of The Best Of 1990-2000.


The Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides
In the UK, the two editions of The Best Of 1990-2000 also charted separately.
The Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides debuted also quite impressively at #2. In
contrast to the USA, the compilation was able to more or less hold its position as it dropped only four places to #6 the week later, the week the single disc edition was released. In the weeks ahead, the album did not suddenly drop off, but slid down gently, every now and then stabilising for a few weeks before sliding down a bit. This happened until the 14th week and then we lost sight of the UK charts for a while. A few weeks ago, the British chart came into sight again. Surprisingly, the compilation is still on the charts. On the chart of 29 June 2003 (the most recent data) the album rose to #48, a position it possibly hadn’t reached since it’s 9th week. Of course, we don’t know exactly what happened in-between the early and the most recent info. Judging by the fact it was certified double platinum (meaning sales of 600,000 copies) on 13 June 2003, it probably did quite well. However, one has to take into account, that, strangely, the certifications in the UK are based on sales of both the single disc as the double disc edition combined.

Below is the chart run of The Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides on the UK
Album Top 200 (a ‘?’ indicates a week where no info was available):

The Best Of 1990-2000
Not only did the 2CD edition sell strongly in the UK, the single disc edition also performed quite well. Released a week after the 2CD edition hit the streets, The Best Of 1990-2000 debuted at #38, again indicating that most of those interested in buying the compilation early opted for the 2CD edition. After the debut the compilation hovered between #43 and #48 for five weeks, before slowly sliding down in the charts. Again, there is the mysterious period where there is no information about the positions of the compilation on the chart. The data for the single disc edition also has a few more additional weeks where no data is available. The reason for these omissions is that sometimes data for the total UK Album Top 200 is available, while only the top 100 is given in another week.

Below is the chart run of The Best Of 1990-2000 on the UK Album Top
200 (a ‘?’ indicates a week where no info was available):


The final country in this roundup is the Netherlands. The relationship between U2 and the Netherlands goes way back. In fact, the Netherlands was one of the first countries after Ireland and the UK where U2 made an impression. But recounting that history is for another time, as the present is just as interesting. On 16 November 2002, The Best Of 1990-2000 debuted at the highest position possible, #1! It was U2′s 8th number one album as every album since The Joshua Tree has reached the top position. A week later they could hold onto that #1 position as sales of the single disc edition kicked in. In contrast to the USA and the UK the sales of the two editions are combined in the Netherlands, they are considered as one album. This resulted in higher chart positions compared those countries. For 12 weeks the album stayed in the top 10, including the important holiday weeks (in the Netherlands those are the week before 5 December and of course Christmas). After those 12 weeks, it hovered between #17 and #38 for another seven weeks after which it slowly descended on the charts. In total it managed to stay on the Album 100 for more than half a year, but after 27 weeks the album had to bow down and leave the chart. Unfortunately, no sales or certification information is available. The Dutch charts company and the Dutch equivalent of the RIAA (USA) or BPI (UK) do not publish certification data. One can only guess if the album has reached gold (40,000 copies), platinum (80,000 copies) or an equivalent of it.

Below is the chart run of The Best Of 1990-2000 on the Dutch Album 100:

World-wide view

Eight months after its release, The Best Of 1990-2000 is a very successful U2 compilation. It debuted high in many countries, even going #1 in some and over the course of time it went on to sell millions of copies. In 2002 it was awarded two European platinum awards (for the sale of two million copies), while the album has also reached platinum in the USA. And then we haven’t talked about the rest of the world yet! Canada, Australia, Ireland and Japan, the list of countries where U2 is popular is endless, so it seems. Still, for many fans this album is just a stopgap for the new record, rumoured to be released early 2004. Nevertheless, it must be reassuring for the band that even their stopgaps can go to the top of the charts.

P.S. For questions, remarks and suggestions you can always email me at

U2 Fan Profile : Bonochick *

August 26, 2003

By Devlin Smith

We know each other

Next Page »