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Old 02-07-2005, 05:45 AM   #1
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Analysis: U2 and New York City*

By Dave Mance
2005.02



A sense of place has been prevalent in many U2 songs, a theme expressed either directly through the lyrics of the piece or more abstractly through the soundscape. In lyric, Bono's nod to place began with his description of Mrs. Brown's washing hung to dry on Cedarwood Road in Dublin in "Shadows and Tall Trees." He's gone on to directly reference Jerusalem in "With a Shout,” Dublin's seedy side in "Surrender" and "Running to Stand Still," the American West in "In God's Country" and "Heartland," "Pop's" nod to Miami and so forth. Examples in the soundscape category are more abstract in a verbal sense, but nevertheless are equally prevalent in U2's music. Everyone can recognize that the "Rattle and Hum" album, with its horns, iconic guest lyricists and famous bluesman— an American album. Similarly, "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" were very European albums. "Passengers" explored musical territory that was unmistakably Asian, as Bono put it to NME, ". . . the record feels like it were set on a bullet train in Tokyo."

What I'd like to comment on here, however, is the starring roll New York City has had in three U2 songs—“Angel of Harlem," "New York" off of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and the recent "City of Blinding Lights” from “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.”

U2 has never been afraid to re-explore themes, like heroin as Bono's muse in the "Bad"/"Wire"/"Running" phase or his continued exploration of world injustice in songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Mothers of the Disappeared." It's interesting to speculate why New York City though, as a specific place, has gotten so much love and lyrical ink from U2.

It's easy to point to the obvious answer here that it's only natural for U2, the biggest band in the world, to be infatuated with New York City, arguably one of the greatest cities in the world. While I've never heard it said, I'm sure it was New York City the young Paul Hewson was dreaming of while he stood in the ocean on "Boy."

Later, New York was where they landed their first US gig in 1980. Certainly this emotional "first time" connection plays a part in the band's special regards for the city.

Cynics could point to the fact that a calculated love affair with New York is in the band's best interest. After all, if you want buzz for a new album, driving a flatbed truck around, say, Buffalo, New York, and giving a free concert under the Beaver Island bridge doesn't quite get it done like Empire Fulton Ferry State Park in Brooklyn might.

The more I think about it though, and the more I listen to "City of Blinding Lights," I think that the third song in the New York City trilogy was created to finally get it right. As fans, we usually have three-to-five year intervals during which we are painfully aware of the perfectionism this band is a slave to. My contention is that U2 was uncomfortable with its first two offerings to the city and thus created “City of Blinding Lights” as the authoritative New York City love song.

"Angel of Harlem," for its considerable charm, is not a great U2 song. I won't spend time drudging up the old criticisms of "Rattle and Hum" but this song is a good example of everything that was right and wrong with the album: it was slick and catchy but ultimately disposable and superficial; was a fairly unimaginative radio single, a forebearer of the later bubblegum singles like "Discotheque," "Staring at the Sun" and "Vertigo."

The band tried again four albums later with "New York" but, alas, again got it slightly wrong. This song was ambitious, for sure, but it suffered from many things. The music itself was a mismatch of leftover "Achtung Baby" sounds superimposed on intentionally New York-ish riffs. The lyric was almost a parody of the place with Bono's silly Broadway crooning and unimaginative insights like "I just got a place in New York."

Thankfully, this time the band did get it right with "City of Blinding Lights." By resisting the temptation of cliché American influences, U2 was finally able to deliver an authentic U2 take on the city. The music is wonderfully evocative of the sprawling place; Edge's ringing notes create literal fireflies, the driving rhythm part a representation of the immense space described. And Bono reflects honestly on the place, he's so much better playing the wide-eyed, vulnerable poet than the megalomaniac rock star. It's a love song worthy of both the city and band.
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Old 02-07-2005, 06:54 AM   #2
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This article is lacking in the analysis department. It's also inaccurate.
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Old 02-07-2005, 11:08 AM   #3
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Amen
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Old 02-07-2005, 12:41 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally posted by aerofault
This article is lacking in the analysis department. It's also inaccurate.
How so?
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Old 02-07-2005, 01:49 PM   #5
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Bono said City of Blinding Lights was about the first time he went to London.

Im sure when the U2 show rolls into every town Bono will say the song is about the particular town he's standing in at the time.
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Old 02-07-2005, 10:29 PM   #6
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I heard that Bono said that The City Of Blinding Lights is about his first time seeing New York, coming in on a plane and seeing the city for the first time at night. That innocent child going into America. I have to say this person has no clue what they are talking about. Angel of Harlem is a great song and it was at the time that they were discovering American music, during The Joshua Tree and made Rattle and Hum to express just that.
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Old 02-08-2005, 12:35 AM   #7
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City of Blinding Lights is about a lot of things. The chorus belongs to the New York audience after 9/11, but the rest of the song is about growing up, losing your innocence and naivety and part of it is about Ali, I think.
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Old 02-08-2005, 06:14 AM   #8
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Staring at the Sun is NOT a "bubblegum single". Where did he get that? Also, The best part of "New York" is that it sounded like Achtung Baby, that is my favorite U2 album. I hoped they would go back to that more serious, moody sound. "Until the End of the World" is their best live song, IMO.
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Old 02-08-2005, 02:18 PM   #9
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I can't believe how he describes Angel of Harlem. Have you heard the lyrics and the energy in that song? It's stunning.
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Old 02-19-2005, 11:11 AM   #10
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I think he did a fantastic job! Keep it up Dave!
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