Some songs you never really understand when you’re young and innocent. When U2’s Achtung Baby! was released in 1991, “One” was an immediate standout track. A co-worker at my summer job in 1992 was talking to me about music one day, and said that he hated U2 but loved “One”. I said I liked it, but didn’t think it was the best song on the album. “You’ve never had your heart broken, have you?” he asked. I hadn’t yet, but later when I did go through an especially messy breakup, I tracked him down and said, “I understand “One” now.” During that period, I latched onto “One” thinking that somewhere in the bitterness, anger, and sadness of the song there was a hidden answer to all my questions about love and loss. I was wrong about that, but it was comforting to know that others felt the same pain I felt at the time.
“One” is a hauntingly beautifully song. It’s understated musically, serving as a soundtrack to Bono’s equally reserved vocals. For a band that made its name shouting out political anthems, the restraint used here makes the song even more effective. Bono’s lyrics are some of the most pointed and brilliant of his career. It’s difficult to listen to lines like:
“Did I ask too much, more than a lot? You gave me nothing now it’s all I got.”
“You say love is a temple, love the higher law. You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl. And I can’t be holding on to what you got when all you got is hurt.”
and not immediately place them in the context of a hurt you’ve suffered. Every thing about the song suggests the nights when you sit alone, staring at the ceiling, replaying the conversations with your lost love over and over. Evaluating, deciphering, and tearing apart every word in an attempt to find an explanation for the pain you feel. There are thousands of breakup songs, but few are as effective as “One”.
Even if “One” wasn’t one of the best songs of the post-punk era, it would be tremendously important in the mythology of U2. In 1990 the band was based in Berlin and working on the tracks for Achtung Baby! They were the biggest band in the world and felt the pressure to explore new musical avenues. Bono and the Edge became enamored with the burgeoning electronic music scene that dominated German clubs. They kept pushing the band down a more modern, synthetic sound for their new songs. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen did not have the same connection with the new sounds. They were rooted in early R&B and classic rock and roll. They felt there was little room in the new sound for a traditional rhythm section. As tensions escalated, the band began to discuss throwing in the towel. The four had long had an agreement that if they ever reached the point where they couldn’t make music together, they would chose friendship over the band and put U2 to rest.
Then, one day, while working on yet another song that seemed to be going nowhere, Edge picked up his acoustic guitar and starting playing a riff he had been working on. Larry and Adam listened for several minutes, then joined in. Bono began improvising lyrics. By the next day, “One” had been written and recorded. It was the first song during those sessions that spoke to each member of the band. From there, they ripped through the remaining tracks, and soon they had the second masterpiece of their career. In addition to being one of their finest moments both musically and lyrically, “One” may literally have saved the band.
I was lucky enough to stumble into free tickets to the Elevation Tour stop in Kansas City in November 2001. It became the most incredible concert experience I’ve ever had, largely because of “One”. After almost two hours of new songs, classics, and a few unexpected rarities, Bono gave a brief speech about how honored they were to be touring in the US in this very strange time, just ten weeks after 9/11. He held a single finger up in the air, and Edge strummed out the familiar opening riff. As the band eased into the song, the names of each person who died on 9/11 began to roll on the video screens behind the stage. Flight number, building, FDNY, NYPD, etc. served as the identifier for each group of victims. As each group was honored, applause rang through the arena. Along with “Bad” and “I Will Follow”, “One” was a song I HAD to hear that night. Quickly, my desire just to stand and sing along with Bono went away. Like 14,000 other people, I could only stare at the names. They went on and on and on. For some reason, nearly 5,000 deaths had lost its impact after viewing the footage over and over again. But as the list continued for nearly five minutes, even when displayed three columns across, the gravity of the loss came back. Suddenly, the song wasn’t about someone who broke your heart in college (when you’re supposed to break your heart). It was about the terror of that day, of mourning, and of coming together. A song written about the end of a relationship ended up being as uplifting as any forced, feel good song written in the immediate aftermath, “One life but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other, one….” It was a truly profound experience in a night full of memorable moments. As the final names rolled off the screen during “Peace on Earth” looking around Kemper all you could see were palms pressed against cheeks as people wiped their tears away. For a long time afterwards, when we would hear it, S. would ask me to skip to the next song because she couldn’t help but think about the concert and the seemingly endless list of names. For me, the memories of that lost love have been replaced. Now when I hear “One”, I think of the emotional impact of that night. I think of the unity that was in the crowd. And I think of how a breakup song is really about collecting yourself and moving on. Thus, “One” served as a perfect theme for the months after 9/11.