"We chose the name U2 to be ambiguous, to stay away from categorization."
Like A Song: Surrender
February 15, 2013
[Ed. note: This is the 75th 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.]
Bono loved playing up the idea that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was a reply to Boy during the Vertigo tour. The band threw bits of "Stories For Boys" into "Vertigo," dragged out hoary treasures like "The Ocean" and even used the cover of Boy as the backdrop on stage when they played "I Will Follow." When How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb came out, bands such as The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were at the top of their game and the top of their fame. I suspect U2 were delighted to be releasing a very well-received album at the same time as rock in general was experiencing a bit of a resurgence, even if only a few songs on the album harkened back to a garage-band ethos. Reminiscing about the four of them practicing in Larry's kitchen or cutting their musical teeth in dingy clubs around Ireland had to appeal to a band that was considered the biggest band in the world for the previous 20 years.
Thematically, though, I would argue that "Atomic Bomb" was more of a response to War than Boy. The concept of nuclear annihilation looms over both albums, although the earlier album was more concerned with it in a literal sense, the later album more figuratively. A few days ago, I was reading the @u2com Twitter feed. One user tweeted these lines from "Seconds": "And they're doing the atomic bomb. Do they know where the dance comes from?" What came to me next were not the following lines in the song, but rather these lines from "Atomic Bomb": "There in the desert to dismantle an atomic bomb. They know that they can't dance, at least they know." Where War took an angry 20-something's look at the Cold War and the posturing and callousness of world superpowers, "Atomic Bomb" focused on the emotional battles of personal relationships and the fatherly concern of a man in his 40s, a man who had just lost his own father, a man in a world surrounded by little wars rather than big ones.
I still remember quite clearly the first time "Surrender" hit me. I was sitting in my bedroom at my parents' house on a sunny weekend afternoon. I was still in school and Pop had just come out. It introduced me to the wonders of U2 and so I started working my way through their back catalog as I could afford it. When I heard the song, I immediately paid attention to it in a way I hadn't the rest of the album. I must have replayed the song for at least an hour, growing happier and happier the more I heard and understood it. "Surrender" had a different aesthetic from the rest of the album, and it wasn't just the cosmetic qualities like the backing vocals of The Coconuts or Edge's sliding guitars that signaled where he was heading on future recordings. In an album about war, protest, refugees and God, this was a much more immediate, personal track about literal and figurative suicide. To this day, musically and lyrically, it remains my favorite track off War, and possibly my favorite track from U2's first three albums.
Sadie said she couldn't work out
Bono chose to contrast the spiritual death and revitalization that often seems to come with a religious rebirth with the suicide and resulting freedom of poor Sadie. Evidently she was a girl who was repeatedly thrown into the dark corners of life, no matter how hard she tried to stay in the light. A veiled reference to prostitution contrasted with trying to raise a family explains the conflicts in the poor woman, who goes to the 48th floor of a skyscraper and finds out what she was living for. It would be very tempting to think she decided against the jump and went back downstairs, except that now Sadie's on the street. Not a pretty way to go. Towards the end, The Coconuts start singing: "Papa, sing my song." Is this a reference to the new song to God in "40" or to a literal father that Sadie lost? Perhaps it's the narrator's father...
The city's a fire, a passionate flame
After observing poor Sadie's fall, the narrator takes her lessons and applies them to his version of the city. He uses it as a representation of religious inspiration, a passionate flame. In the idea of the death of the self, of the sacrifice of personal desires, he decides he's found what he's got to do to live. U2 have always been an openly religious band, but in the War era the band had just escaped the Shalom experience a few years prior and it would be hard to believe that their religious intentions weren't still heavily coloring their work. The narrator looks all over the city for God, only to come to the conclusion that he won't ever find that inspiration in the streets. He's got to sacrifice himself to find it in himself.
The city's alight with lovers and lies
Neon heart, day-glo eyesA city lit by fireflies
U2 have performed songs about "love and community." They've written music about "Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and Berlin." They've only done two songs that I can think of about the city as a concept, though: "Surrender" and "City Of Blinding Lights." The angst-ridden, introspective qualities of "Surrender" grew up to be replaced with the adoring wide-eyed wonder in "City Of Blinding Lights." Poor Sadie, the girl who got off on the 48th floor, has been replaced by "you," who walks unafraid in the clothes she's made. The fear, confusion and loss has been replaced with ambition, energy and opportunity. Time did not leave the narrator as he was, but time did not take all of the boy out of the man either. Blue eyes were replaced by purple irises that gave him new perspectives and appreciations to replace the uncertainty.
And in the end, he seems to have found God after all in the blinding lights and traffic:
It's in the air, it's everywhere I look for you
The more you know the less you feel
Two complementary songs from two complementary albums I will never, ever tire of.
(c) @U2/Ryan, 2013