"Some people expect U2 to come on like a political band. . . . Other people see us as prophets. Some see us as pop stars. . . . And we're not any of those things. We're probably all of them. I don't know what we are."
Like a Song: A Sort Of Homecoming
January 13, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 63rd in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
This is not the first "Like A Song" that has been written about "A Sort Of Homecoming," and I doubt anything can compare with Scott Perretta's account of getting to play the song onstage with U2 in 2001. I was planing on going to that Oakland show but didn't, and to this day I regret not doing so. That night, when I saw the setlist online and realized that it had been played, all the people around me were treated to a long string of curse words. My not going to that show is one of those little regrets in life that may diminish with time, but will never disappear.
I'm part of the camp that believes 1990s U2 is superior to 1980s U2, and one of the main reasons is because Bono's lyrical imagery and creativity were at their peak with albums like Zooropa and Pop. The U2 of the 2000s has had moments of lyrical quality that compare with what Bono created in the 1990s, although not as consistently. In the 1980s, though, it was much rarer. A few songs, such as "One Tree Hill" or "Surrender," gave clues as to what levels his lyrical talent could rise to, but they weren't as common as the following decades.
"A Sort Of Homecoming" is the one song from the 1980s that can truly hold its own with the best lyrics Bono has ever written, in my opinion. There is a lyrical ambition that grabs my attention and holds it fast every time I hear the song. To me, the song is about a dead soldier whose body is being sent back to his family. The song is filled with images that are brutal, explosive and devastated. The song speaks of a land and a people that have been ravaged by war, but in a contrast between the invading soldier and the invaded country. Whereas "Bullet The Blue Sky" uses lines such as
You plant a demon seed You raise a flower of fire See them burning crosses See the flames, higher and higher
You plant a demon seed
You raise a flower of fire
See them burning crosses
See the flames, higher and higher
to describe the violation of the fertility of the invaded land, "A Sort Of Homecoming" uses
Tonight we'll build a bridge across the sea and land See the sky, the burning rain She will die and live again Tonight
Tonight we'll build a bridge across the sea and land
See the sky, the burning rain
She will die and live again
to create the motivation of a foot soldier, one of the expendable people of a ground invasion, who has been convinced of the nobility of his actions. This is not a song created by one of the generals who is well safe behind the front lines. This song is from the point of view of one of the young idealists who is still romantic enough to have such poetry.
Larry's drums and the Edge's guitar effects create a sense of moving very quickly over terrain. When Bono sings, "Oh, on borderland we run," I don't know if it is the narrator literally running or moving in armored vehicles of invasion. However, Bono's style of delivering the lyrics in never-ending waves, combined with Larry's rolling percussion and Edge's guitars making sounds like the listener has passed by something at high speed, make for a song that clearly communicates rapid forward movement.
The lyrics speak of crossing borders, of destroying protective walls, of ravaging a land and the people who live in it. The weather itself works against the people crossing the war zone in the beginning of the song, as the the earth wants all of the destruction to be over. There is a specific line, "The land grows weary of its own," that ranks among the best Bono has ever created. The idea of a region that has seen so much destruction that it rebels agains the very people who have called it home strikes a particular nerve with me. Humans show a remarkable willingness to destroy the very things that give them life, and the idea of the earth tiring of such ingratitude is a profound one.
What really makes the idea stand out is that the song contrasts it with the idealism of the narrator. A land that wants nothing more to sleep and be reborn gets trod on by the invaders moving through it at what they perceive to be high speed. What for the soldier is a great velocity is about is an ant's crawl across the vast surface of terrain he is violating. Yet in spite of their tiny size, the ants are able to create such violence, destroy the valleys and hills themselves, that the land and its people have become dislocated and suffocated, separated by a smokey barrier of ruination. The land lies there, waiting for the chance to heal and move on, but it has run out of patience and time.
The contrasting viewpoints of soldier and earth converge at the end of the song. The soldier is killed and his body is sent home to his family. The rain and skies of mourning at the start of the song are the foreign land crying for itself and all the death that has happened. The rain and skies of mourning at the end are those of the soldier's homeland mourning its fallen son. In the land that was invaded, the earth itself rebelled against the intruders. In the soldier's homeland, the earth and the soldier are soon to become one as he is buried. Rather than it being time to go to the lights of war in the distance that start the song, at the end the soldier is able to rest as his body is taken to the lights of his family's house. He is dead, but finally able to go home, where the land accepts him as one of its own.
© @U2/Ryan, 2012.