"This image of 'the unforgettable fire' applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of 'A Sort of Homecoming,' but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin."
Like A Song: Magnificent
May 16, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 67th 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.]
Despite its mixed critical reception and relative lack of commercial success (at least by U2's lofty standards), I really like the No Line On The Horizon album. It's a good collection of songs that, unfortunately, has been given little chance to mature. Rather than promote U2's latest studio album, the last few legs of the 360 tour turned into a greatest hits parade, with only two or three songs from NLOTH on the setlist.
Admittedly, it is not the band's most immediately accessible album, nor is it the most radio-friendly. It took me a handful of listenings to appreciate the entire record. Prior to the album's release, I had downloaded the "Get On Your Boots" single and was ambivalent about it. I did not dislike the song, but wasn't completely blown away by it either. So, when the limited-edition box set of No Line On The Horizon arrived that fateful Tuesday in early March 2009, I was a bit skeptical about it. But hearing "Magnificent" for the first time changed that.
"It was a joyful noise"
In fall 2000, I had heard "Beautiful Day" on the radio and was excited for All That You Can't Leave Behind. I remember liking the album's first three songs, but absolutely loving "Walk On." At the time, I still hadn't quite fully warmed up to Pop, so when I heard Edge's guitar enter in the second part of the introduction to "Walk On," I was overjoyed. "U2 is back!" I exclaimed. I had a nearly identical experience with "Magnificent" and NLOTH nine years later. The title track did not do much to assuage my initial worries. "No problem," I thought. "This is only the first track of my very first time through this new record. Give it a chance." During the opening of the second track, "Magnificent," I remember thinking, "Hmm, this is interesting. I wonder how this song develops?"
My curiosity quickly turned to excitement as the song's texture gradually filled in. First, Edge's guitar enters softly -- almost innocently -- in the background. Then, a synthesizer comes in, followed shortly by Adam's bass guitar, then Larry's snare drum. By the time the introduction is in full swing (around the 0:46 mark), I'm hooked. The instant The Edge's guitar echo entered, I smiled widely and said out loud, "Ah, there it is. There's the U2 I know and love." All my worries about the record vanished in that moment and, before I knew it, my list of favorite U2 songs had expanded by one.
One of the first things about "Magnificent" that stood out to me was the song's title. "Magnificent" is a wonderful word, but it is not used very often in song lyrics, likely because of the number of syllables or the fact that it is not the easiest word to use in a rhyme scheme. That U2 use the word as the title of the song was an attention grabber in itself, but the fact that Bono actually uses the word in the song is a credit to his songwriting skills.
Musically, "Magnificent" stands out from the rest of album in that it sounds like "old U2" and "new U2" simultaneously. The long, building introduction is reminiscent of "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "City Of Blinding Lights;" the guitar riff, with its copious amounts of echo, reminds me of "One" and "Walk On." But "Magnificent" also incorporates its fair share of new sounds, like the electronic "boops" and synthesizer in the introduction as well as Edge's seldom-used slide guitar in the interlude. The song successfully manages to break new sonic ground while retaining the essence of U2's unique sound.
"This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue"
As I listened to "Magnificent" a few more times, I thought back to my initial reactions to the band's previous release. It did not take me long to fall in love with 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. In particular, "Vertigo," "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "City Of Blinding Lights" have taken their places among my all-time U2 favorites. HTDAAB set an incredibly high bar: eight Grammy Awards, an iPod advertising campaign, and tons of radio airplay. I knew it was unfair and foolish of me to hold NLOTH to that standard, but the combination of U2's consistent success over the course of their long career with the popularity and acclaim of their previous release left me no choice but to expect NLOTH to be a great album.
"I was born to sing for you"
Along with The Edge's guitar echo, Bono's voice is perhaps U2's most immediately recognizable sonic characteristic. On "Magnificent," he displays much of the wide vocal range and power that has become part of his musical signature. Singing is not easy, to say nothing of singing well. To hit high notes with the kind of force and authority that Bono has for almost 40 years is nothing short of amazing. "Magnificent" starts out in the high part of his tessitura, but it is toward the end of the song, on the second syllable of "only" in the line "Only love unites our hearts," that always sends shivers down my spine.
In addition to Bono to being on top of his game, Adam's bass playing has rarely been better than it is on "Magnificent." The bass line entrance in the introduction gives the song its foundation and groove, and the slides he incorporates in the linking section between the second chorus and the interlude add yet another layer to an already complex texture. More than the technical aspects, though, his bass line sounds like it would be loads of fun to play.
"I didn't have a choice but to lift you up"
A little background before I conclude: I wrote a music theory dissertation on U2's music, so my deep connection to U2 runs along both the personal and professional veins. At the risk of sounding cheesy and overly dramatic, when I hear U2's music, not only are my heart and soul stirred, but my brain as well, which explains why I so often write about elements like bass lines, vocal range and guitar effects.
Because of these interesting musical technicalities and theoretical aspects, "Magnificent" means a great deal to me. It helped reaffirm my career choice as a music theorist, and more specifically a popular music analyst. When U2 released NLOTH, I was in the middle of my first year as a full-time assistant professor of music theory, living alone in a brand-new part of the country, in a city where I knew exactly zero people. Add to that the fact that I was in a long-distance relationship and you've got the ingredients for a very tough transition from graduate school to full-fledged adulthood. But one of the things that helped me through that period was a new U2 album. I had something to keep my mind and my heart occupied so that I wouldn't dwell on how much I missed my friends or how I wished the temperature would climb above freezing.
"Magnificent" not only reaffirmed my love of U2's music from an intellectual perspective, but also from an emotional standpoint. It is an uplifting song, and that is precisely why it captivated my attention almost instantaneously. My favorite aspect of the band's music in general is the inherent, unabashed hopefulness it exudes. These are trying times, with economic uncertainty, political discord and social tension casting clouds over just about every aspect of our daily lives. It is comforting and inspiring to know that, despite all the negativity in the world, people are still creating music that is unapologetically hopeful and positive. Times as low and as dark as these need music as buoyant and as bright as "Magnificent."
© @U2/Endrinal, 2012.