I don't like music unless it has a healing effect. I don't like it when people leave concerts still feeling edgy."
Like a Song: Mercy
February 09, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 53rd 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.]
Talk about an embarrassment of riches. No one has heard a proper studio version of "Mercy" yet. I've got a studio outtake and a live version and that’s enough for me to say this is one of the best songs U2 have ever done. It baffles me that a completed studio version of this song hasn’t seen the light of day yet, but I keep my fingers crossed.
I remember when the outtake leaked around the time How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb came out. He now says he doesn't know how it came out, but I remember the buzz was that he handed it to a fan to spread out at a Vertigo tour stop. It struck me as a cold, icy song the first few times I heard it. I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about until it had sunk in for a week or so. That's when I realized the ice was beautiful.
Edge's shimmering, crystalline guitars give me a mental image of a vast, glittering ice sheet on some forsaken tundra, with the ice almost shimmering to the rhythm of the song. Beneath the cold, hostile surface a massive heart or engine is moving. This is clarified by Bono's lyrics in the first verses, especially when he says, "If you were ICE...," and then lets the word hang in the freezing air for a second. "If you were ICE I'm water and with your telescope, I can see further." The narrator is an explorer in a blistering, emotionally Arctic situation.
Bono's comparisons between the narrator and his lover are all about the contrast between the power of affection and the danger of a lack of self-control. Some lines in those first verses that are amongst the best Bono has ever created, in my opinion. "We're binary code: a one and a zero. You wanted violins and you got Nero." The comparison of everything against nothing, the mathematical potential of infinity versus the mathematical proof that nothing is an option. A desire for the beauty of music, only to find the music horribly corrupted by the fiend playing the instrument. I've been listening to those lines for half a decade and I still fall in love with them again every time I hear them.
By the second verse, it's changed. The Edge's guitars are not the same. He's got a different effect on them, and the shimmer is gone. It's now just the machine, churning repetitively (comfortingly?) underneath the surface. Bono has stopped with the analysis and has started begging. Both sides of the relationship realize how needy and potentially destructive it is, but it sounds like they're both willing to go along with it. It's also interesting that by the second set of verses, the narrator has stopped glorifying the object of his affections and has started saying that she (and I just use he and she because it's probably Bono and Ali) has her own issues as well. Going from a line like "If you hunger, baby let me feed it," to "If your heart is full, baby let me bleed it," gives a vampiric, parasitic quality to the relationship. ("I was drinking some wine and it turned to blood.") It's one where the vampire and the victim are equal partners.
The live version largely keeps the same lyrics for the verses, although it unfortunately drops the zero/Nero lines from the original. The outtake version does have some bloat, mainly around the bridge, but I'm not sure why they decided to chop up the verses. Even if they had just made the bridge less rambling, it would have made the song much more manageable. Ah well.
It's the verses where the two versions really separate. They're musically similar, although the live version doesn't have the little "When I was ripping the stitches..." intro, which makes the jump from verse to chorus a little abrupt to my ears. The outtake version's lyrics are much more academic. They're an emotional yet analytical study of the love the relationship has created. The narrator is taking stock of what the love has done for him and making a list, as Bono is wont to do. He loves his list lyrics (think the repetition of lines in the verses of songs like "Miss Sarajevo," "A Celebration," or "Hawkmoon 269"). I do think the live version suffers from not having the little dash of hope Bono delivers at the end of the outtake version: "I am alive. Baby, I'm born again and again and again..."
With the live version, though, Bono goes for a more real-world assessment of the relationship. There's the same basic used/user relationship between the narrator and the subject, but it's much more tangible. "You wanna kill me and I wanna die...I'm not sorry, you're not going to cry." It covers the subject’s anger and stubbornness and the narrator's foolishness and lack of compromise. It's the same messy relationship from the outtake version, just from a different angle. Not to say that there isn't still an abstract romanticism about the live version. "Like time in a bed of rust, like the rhyme love and lust" is a brilliant addition. It reminds me a bit of the "I could never take a chance of losing love to find romance" of "A Man and a Woman."
What really differentiates the live version is the couple of lines at the end of the chorus: "It's just us. Because we can, we must." That goes right back to the vampire/victim heart of the song. What really catches my ear in this part is the musical change from the studio outtake version. I can't exactly say why, but it has kind of a big-band punch that reminds me, oddly enough, of a James Bond theme from the 1970s. I can really feel it when I think of "Nobody Does It Better", by Carly Simon. Normally, I wouldn't want to really associate U2 with an old James Bond tune (I do love "Goldeneye"). However, it gives the song a different flavor that I wouldn't want to hear on a studio album, but that works extremely well in the live setting. The chorus of the live version loses both the ice and the machinery of the verses of either version, but it gets a bombast I honestly would not have thought possible for the song. That's why I love U2, though. They never stop surprising me.
Back to my embarrassment of riches comment. U2 have given us two versions of this song, neither "done," yet both amazingly rich and rewarding. I really, REALLY want this to make an "official" appearance on an album. It's too damned good to languish in outtake/limited-release land. That’s one thing that worries me about the fact that it's on Wide Awake In Europe: U2 may feel like it's already been released, so it doesn't need to be on the next album. It definitely does. It should have been on No Line On The Horizon. It would have made the whole album much more coherent. Even if it doesn't ever see mass-release, I still count myself as fortunate to have ever heard it. Sometimes I fall a little out of love with U2's music. Then I hear a song like this randomly, listen to it nonstop for the next hour, and wonder what the hell I was thinking to fall a little out of love with this sort of creation.
© @U2/Ryan, 2011.