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U2 Lists: Top 10 Bono Falsettos
August 31, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 29th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
Top 10 Bono Falsettos
Some people out there like a falsetto; some don't. If a man can get past that point where his voice switches over into falsetto and maintains a solid, intense note in a higher octave, it can make for an amazing sound in a feminine range but with an undeniable masculine quality. My dad doesn't like it, but I think he's just jealous that he can't do it. Some singers have played it up as a bit of a gimmick (think Frankie Valli or Del Shannon), but Bono has made his falsetto a central part of his vocal sound. The Edge has demonstrated an impressive falsetto of his own, and the above Del Shannon song undoubtedly inspired his use of it in the tribute version of "The Wanderer." While The Edge may be doing more of the heavy lifting these days, Bono's still the falsetto focus. Whether he's singing an entire song with it or just using it to cut through the rest of the noise like a knife, Bono's high range has a timbre to it that is one of the most truly unique sounds in popular music. Without further ado, here are Bono's Top 10 Falsettos.
Bono's exuberant "woo-oo"'s in "Elevation" set up a call and response live almost like a birdcall. The singer and the audience hoot back and forth at each other, building up the energy for one of the most playful songs U2 has ever written. Yeah, some of its lyrics are pretty nonsensical and it's not one of their heavy-duty tracks, but anyone who has seen it live knows that, in person, it's got such a foolishly enjoyable atmosphere that once Bono starts hooting at us, the listeners, we have to hoot back. It's nothing but fun.
Many people are familiar with Jeff Buckley's and k.d. lang's covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." All three of those singers perform it as a song of melancholy hope, as someone who has perhaps lost his or her faith but not his or her dreams. Bono's rendition is quite a bit darker. The verses are low, minimalist lines spoken over a rapid beat that feel lost in the shadows. When he comes to the chorus, though, he finds the melody again and lets out a "hallelujah" in a piercing falsetto that serves as a stark, narrow beam of light in the tar-like darkness that is the rest of the song. Other performers make the narrator seem as someone lost at sea, but Bono casts him as someone lost in endless night, with only the falsetto of the chorus to provide any guidance.
8. "Night And Day"
I consider U2's version of Cole Porter's "Night And Day" to be one of the best covers they've ever done. Similar to what Bono did with "Hallelujah," they take a song that is often presented in a softer, more welcoming light and make it very harsh. "Night And Day" is often presented in a swinging, Sinatra-esque style that makes it come off as little more than a song for people to dance to on a big band floor. U2 make it a dark, sinister, almost stalker-ish song. It's more about a sexual bloodletting in their version than a smooth declaration of love. Toward the end, Bono starts getting worked up like a dog snarling to be let off of a chain. It's the sort of passion that he expresses in the last chorus of "Pride," but it's lustful rather than political. His falsetto begins to rise above the music at the end, like the same trapped dog howling at the moon to be set free. The song fades off at the end like a storm blowing off into the distance ...
The story goes that Bono wrote "Sweetest Thing" as an apology song to his wife Ali for missing her birthday while working on The Joshua Tree. With the release of the single version a decade later, the song stopped being an energetic holler-fest and became more of a slow walk in a park or a swing under a tree. Making it more mellow and romantic actually heightened the playful feeling of love in danger. In the original version, the band sped up their playing during the bridge and final verse. The single version kept the slow tempo of the first part of the song and added some violins, over which Bono's falsetto soars gently like a summer breeze. It sounds to me like he's trying to play it innocent. Who could make such a delicate sound and be such a bad guy? Ali's look at the start of the music video is enough to say she ain't buying it, though.
It would be hard to argue that "Please" isn't one of U2's most affecting songs, and the live versions are no exception. Whether used as a minimalist escape in the extravaganza of PopMart or as an acoustic song of condemnation on the Elevation tour, "Please" is a combination of despair and accusation that is withering. U2's best accusatory songs are the ones that offer a way out, though, and on the PopMart tour Bono put his falsetto to brilliant use. "Please" progressed through Larry's militaristic drums, Edge's cold and shunning guitars, and Adam's rumbling bass to an end that featured Bono in an all-out war cry that was a mix of spastic fit and tribal bellow. When it was all done, though, over the turmoil came a high, clear, thin wail of "Please," like a child begging for it to stop. Bono's use of the falsetto was that of offering a way out, as small and hard to grasp as it might be.
"Numb" features Bono using the falsetto not as a child but as the fat lady. She sings about too much not being enough even as her very appearance signifies "it" being over. The Edge's quiet, rolling murmur sits in stark contrast to the fat lady singing her demands for more, more, more. It's the weariness of the addict who is tired of it contrasted with the enthusiasm and energy of the fat lady still in her addiction, and Bono uses his falsetto to show her neediness and greed.
4. "Electrical Storm"
The William Orbit mix of "Electrical Storm" shows how Bono singing the same lines with the same falsetto can produce such differing results, which to me is evidence of just how good Bono has become at using it. During the first chorus, where the song is still quiet and Bono is singing over the acoustic guitar and synths, he sings the words "Electrical storm, baby, don’t cry," in a quiet, soft falsetto, almost a whisper. By the end of the song, even though he hasn't changed his actual delivery much, the impact of it is more of yelling than whispering. He's got the full band behind him and the electrical-inspired synths and the same delivery has changed from "I'm sorry" to "I'm done."
3. "With Or Without You"
Bono uses his falsetto sometimes to cut through any sort of barriers the song may have built up with itself. "If God Will Send His Angels" or "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" both demonstrate this, but "With Or Without You" undoubtedly does it the best. He doesn't even say any words; he doesn't need to. The song has built itself up to this romantic, religious fervor, full of despair for something that is both hated and loved and the fact that the narrator is stuck in the middle of it all. At the end, though, Bono lets out this crystalline, clear moan. If it was rougher, it could almost be a cry, but it's clean, and clear. It's almost like someone calling out in the woods. Just as Edge has said he didn't want to get involved in a huge guitar solo at the very end of the song, Bono doesn't unleash a vocal explosion. He keeps it simple, which is exactly what the song demands.
2. "The Fly"
"The Fly" is really a mixed bag for me in some ways when it comes to the use of falsetto. In the album version of the song, Bono performs the falsetto and it comes out as a rich, textured contrast to the sleazy, slimy mutterings of the narrator. The fact that it is an "angelic" voice delivering lines like "Love, we shine like a burning star. We're falling from the sky tonight" adds to the corruption and the "phone call from hell" idea of the song. Unfortunately, when The Edge sings it live it has never sounded as good. U2's best live version of "The Fly" (and maybe best version period) was the version played on the Elevation tour where they scrapped the falsetto altogether and had Bono sing the whole chorus in his standard register. Taking all that into account, though, it's hard not to listen to the album version and hear the falsetto as a symbol of just how far the singer has fallen, and in that is a lynchpin to one of the band's best songs ever.
For me, "Lemon" is one of U2's true masterpieces, a glorious example of just how creative and yet coherent they can be, and Bono's falsetto is a big part of its success. He's not using it to be innocent or sleazy, but just because it works so perfectly in the song. Granted, the song was inspired by an old movie of his mother so it would be easy to imagine him singing it as a child, but there are sexual elements as well which complicate things, a la "Original Of The Species." Regardless, the contrast between the falsetto acting as id and lecturing Edge/Eno voices acting as ego are about as potent a vocal contrast as has ever shown up in a U2 song. There are times when I wish this song was performed live more often. I actually wish this pretty much on a daily basis. I think the big concern is: Can Bono still pull it off with how his voice has changed? The follow-up is: How would it sound if Bono sang it an octave lower? Would that diminish the impact of the song? Of all my U2 questions, this is one of the biggest. In the end, I think I'd want to see it performed even an octave lower, but man oh man, to see it in its full splendor ... there's no live song I want to see more than this by any artist.
© @U2/Ryan, 2011.