"Music expresses the inexpressible. All our songs are about that, about inarticulation."
U2 Lists: Top 10 Favorite U2 Bass Lines
March 20, 2013
[Ed. note: This is the 48th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
In a rock band, the singer is the face of the group. The lead guitar part is easy to pick out because it soars above the rest of the instruments. The drums keep time and hold the band together. But what about the bass? It is perhaps the least appreciated element of the standard four-piece rock band setup. For me, especially because I am a music theorist, the bass note (the lowest note in the texture) holds the most significance because it is the harmonic foundation upon which everything above it is built. To put it into not-so-technical terms, without the bass, the chord progression of the song wouldn't function as we know it.
The trouble with making lists like this is that songs always get left off that could and/or probably should be included. Here are five that were close to the top 10 (and frankly, could be substitutes for spots Nos. 8-10 on any given day): "Zoo Station," "In God's Country," "Unknown Caller," "Two Hearts Beat As One" and "Lemon."
So, grab a pair of decent headphones (preferably something better than the pair that came with your MP3 player or smartphone) and focus your attention on the lower frequencies for a while. Here is a list of my Top 10 Favorite U2 Bass Lines. Some are included for their technical and theoretical qualities; others simply because I like them.
The introduction of the song alone (0:00-0:33) reveals why this song's bass line is on my list: The contrapuntal relationship to the lead guitar (how the two lines interact with each other while maintaining separate melodic qualities) reflects how Adam serves as a perfect musical foil to The Edge. What I like most about this bass line, however, is that it gives the listener a glimpse of what is to come from Adam: bass lines that are powerful yet understated, soulful and integral to the band's musical signature.
"Kite" serves as a great example of Adam's line being emphasized through contrast, particularly in the verses. The lead guitar is playing slow, long sliding notes, while the bass is rumbling down low playing a much more rhythmically varied part. It is a subtle and unobtrusive line, giving "Kite" a necessary deep, thundering low end. The first verse and transition (0:14-0:57) illustrate this "emphasis by contrast" to a T.
Despite its mixed reception, there is no denying that NLOTH has its fair share of musical highlights. Among them is the bass part in "Magnificent." Like a fine wine, Adam seems to be getting better with age, as evidenced by the figures and slides he uses in this song. 3:03-4:02 of "Magnificent" is one of my favorite stretches of Adam's entire career.
7. "Some Days Are Better Than Others"
The bass guitar part is rarely a featured layer in a rock song. It is used mainly as harmonic and rhythmic support for the lead guitar and the vocals. In "Some Days Are Better Than Others," however, Adam's bass line is not just the featured layer, it is the heart and soul of the song. A seemingly minute detail that stands out to me is the last note of his first entrance (0:04-0:06). It is cut off and shorter than the last note of subsequent entrances. It may just be a coincidence, but knowing just how meticulous the band is, I'd safely bet on it being intentional.
6. "Red Light"
With heavy, politically charged songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," it's easy for a song like "Red Light" to get lost in the mix. But a closer listening reveals a sophisticated bass line that provides a bit of funk and playfulness on a very serious, heavy record. It also foreshadows some of the techniques and figures Adam incorporates on the band's next album, The Unforgettable Fire. For example, compare the passage from 0:59-2:17 to the No. 1 song on this list.
Much like "One," "Please" is an angry song that is an exercise in subtlety. Unlike "One," the bass line in "Please," with its consistently undulating contour, is much more active and chromatic. It serves as the antithesis to the near-monotone delivery of Bono's vocals, particularly in the verses (0:36-1:04, 1:52-2:20). Additionally, the straightforward yet unrelenting rhythm — a steady stream of eighth notes — is the musical equivalent of the lyrics "Love is hard and love is tough / But love is not what you're thinking of."
4. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
From a technical standpoint, there is nothing really noteworthy about this line. It is not hard to play and the chord structure is dead simple. But I love this line because of its prominent presence in the song's texture. It is the bass that provides the forward momentum and sonic "punch." To prove this, turn down the bass frequencies (<1 kHz) on your home theater/computer/player equalizer (if possible) and listen for yourself at how empty, shallow and static the song sounds, especially in the introduction (0:19-0:28).
The bass line in "Gone" seems to be cut from the same musical cloth as the line in "Please": They're both active and dynamic lines with lots of notes that propel each song forward like a locomotive. What I like especially about the bass part in "Gone" is its aggressive character and tone (the opening slides at 0:12-0:14 actually rattle my headphones!), along with its rhythmic variety (compared with the bass in "Please"). The very last section of the song, 3:52-end, is a favorite passage of mine. Starting with the bass, it is U2 at their angriest and most intense.
2. "Until The End Of The World"
The ultimate good vs. evil, action-and-consequence, guilt/conscience song, UTEOTW is amazing on a variety of levels, including the bass part. There's a sensual, rhythmic groove about it that could represent Judas' heartbeat, his duplicitous actions, his selfish motives or all of the above. In concert, Bono and Edge choreograph a back-and-forth between Jesus and Judas. Musically, this exchange occurs in the interlude (2:00-2:33). Here, Adam and Edge put on a counterpoint clinic, with the bass (Judas) and guitar (Jesus) dueling it out with opposite ranges and contrasting contours.
Thanks to the encouragement of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Adam lets loose on this track. As a result, his (musical) personality is firmly established and his talent and musical sensibilities shine through as never before. Listen to 1:50-2:20 and you'll hear a bass line that includes some improvisation as well as elements of dub. Whatever it is, in my book, this is the mother of all U2 bass lines.
(c) @U2/Endrinal, 2013.