"U2's records take a long time to make not because the band members are stuck for ideas but because they never stop talking about them."
-- Brian Eno
Like a Song: Disappearing Act
April 14, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 55th 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.]
I am a firm believer that Bono is at his lyrical best when he's writing condemnatory lyrics. When he's frustrated and angry and has his hackles up, he can create beautifully scathing, bitterly poetic music. When his lyrics inspire a rapid-fire, bullet-shot delivery rather than falsettos or crooning, he really shines in delivering what he's created.
Over the past decade, he's become a much more happy, introspective lyricist. I think this is a large part of why the band's more recent albums don't touch me lyrically as much as some of their earlier work. We get the occasional anger in songs like "When I Look At The World" or "Crumbs From Your Table," where Bono is willing to write lyrics that call people out for their f-ups, but they're so sparse that they don't have the same impact lyrically as albums like Pop or Achtung Baby.
That's why "Disappearing Act" was such a bolt out of the blue for me. It was tucked away on the bonus disc of the remaster of The Unforgettable Fire, so I didn’t see it coming at all. U2 took the musical skeleton of a song from the 1980s, fleshed out the instruments, and then Bono laid over it some of his best lyrical work in ages. There are dark, wintry evenings where I can turn this song on and listen to it for an hour straight, just because it is so cutting and biting.
It starts out as a bit of a con. It's got playful little "duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-oh"s, a classic Edge guitar opening, and it sounds like it's building into an inspiring, standard U2 track. Then Edge launches into the same infinite guitar that showed up on tracks like "With Or Without You" or "Deep In The Heart," and the song takes a dark, somber turn.
The narrator starts listing characteristics that lead to isolation: silence, cunning, exile, alone. He's talking to someone who has embraced being alone and has closed himself off from the rest of the world. The lyrics are talking to someone who has built himself up an armor to keep the rest of the world away. They're trying to explain to the listener that it's not the only way to go about a life. The narrator acknowledges that perhaps there was appeal in the isolationist path at a previous time, but that time has passed. The safety of silence, the ambition of cunning, the sacrifice of excising something, and the final price of being alone: These leave the subject of the song alone, hungry like the poor dog of a starving artist. The subject has the tools of jealousy and envy at his disposal. He has used them to do a remarkable job of sealing himself off from the emotional dangers of the world: love, pain, ups and downs.
I'm not sure if the narrator is talking to himself about all this. I don't think he is. He sounds more like someone who's been through it all before and is trying to convince another person it's not the way to go. Bono does use the term "baby doll," but I think it's a distraction. This doesn't seem like an amorous analysis. It seems much more platonic. There's a distance from the subject and a slightly patronizing harshness that doesn’t seem like it would be aimed at a lover. Phrases like "Envy gets you where you need to be: alone," and "All of the lepers you let in your head. Is it empty now?" come off in the condescending way that an adult would use when talking to a child who isn't taking the hint. If this is being delivered to a lover, then the mood between the two has definitely gotten ugly.
The narrator feels he knows a better way, though, and he's trying to explain it to the subject. He knows the destruction this attitude can cause: The ripping, the tearing, the tragedy. He knows that it can leave the person in a dark, haunted graveyard that will eventually make the person decompose emotionally. It's a river that will wash the subject away, a bed that was full so many times but was always left empty, hungry dogs that are barking and snapping underneath the window of a cold house. The subject thinks that all he needs to do is find someone who will be his object, be his tool, be his home. He doesn't realize that he'll need to build his home himself. The narrator is offering the subject a way out of all of this, but you can tell from his tone that the narrator has his doubts about whether the subject will take him up on the offer.
The Edge and Adam use their instruments perfectly to convey the dark shadows of the subject matter. Adam's walking tempo and Edge's echoing guitars during the verses create the feeling of walking through dark shadows. In my mind's eye, the shadows aren't caused by anything. They're just hanging there, drowning out all the light in the distance. Edge's infinite guitar warble creates the feeling of a long hallway that doesn't seem to end, or a cave whose darkness no light can pierce. The Edge (I'm assuming it's him) finishes the song with a piano piece that is similar to the end of Faith No More's song "Epic" and Bloc Party's "One More Chance." The piano parts in all three songs leave the listener with a feeling of uncertainty. The problems in the songs will not be resolved any time soon.
Edge also plays another interesting role in the song. In the first chorus, both Bono and Edge are singing "You do your disappearing act," and it comes off as kind of weak. For whatever reason, Bono's voice takes away some of the weight from the statement, even though his voice adds so much weight and density to the rest of the song. On the second and third chorus, though, Edge's voice is the one that's brought to the front. Edge has a thinner, less rich voice than Bono, but this results in the second and third choruses sounding more cold and bitter, which absolutely suits the tone of the whole piece. Bono's singing of the first chorus feels a little halfhearted and wobbly, but Edge's voice cuts straight to the quick.
I guess what really makes me love this song is how snarky it is. Bono's lyrics are sarcastic while being cruel. They comment on how the subject was a whore; maybe emotionally, maybe sexually, maybe both. The person's bed and head are both empty. The person has a path to cross across the cold, freezing river, but chooses not to take it, and so the narrator shoots him completely down. The narrator has seen this behavior before and even has a name for it: the disappearing act. It's the avoidance of all personal responsibility in order to get self-satisfaction, rather than stepping up. Why does it talk to me so much? It's Bono at his best; He's talking about me. This has been me at points in my past, maybe even points in my present, and it's about that worry that it could be me in my future as well.
© @U2/Ryan, 2011.