"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll."
-- Bono, on playing chess
U2 Song 'Peaks': Listening for That Magic Moment
July 07, 2017
It’s late in the day in 1984 at Windmill Studios as a young, scrappy band struggles to find the song in Bono’s lyrical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
In the middle of laying down the drum track, Brian Eno gives the “cut” sign. Larry Mullen Jr. stops playing and everyone gathers in the sound booth for a conference.
Edge: “I didn’t feel like we ‘peaked,’ necessarily.”
Eno: “Do you want to go out there and peak, then?”
— U2 Go Home: Live From Slane Castle DVD, 1984 (13:00)
Fast-forward to the present day. In light of the last two albums this band has put out, the answer to Eno’s question, at least from this diehard U2 fan, is an absolute “YES! Get out there, boys, and PEAK!”
What did Edge mean by “peak?” In music theory, most songs have at least one culmination or climax when the music reaches an emotional high or “peak.” Edge and Eno were wise enough to realize U2 hadn’t reached that point yet.
This exchange got me thinking about what U2’s definition of a “peak” in a song might be.
To “peak” means to reach the summit — the point of greatest development, value or intensity. According to the website Rhythmic Canada, the climax is “a part of a musical composition where music reaches its highest tension. The listener’s attention is attracted mainly to this part. Human perception is more active at the beginning of a composition. The best way to support a listener’s attention is to achieve a climax at the time when a listener’s perception is deadened enough.”
So how often do U2 achieve that climax, or peak, in their songs?
I’m no expert in musical theory, but can read music, sing, and have been playing the piano since I was 7. I’ve read everything I can about the band, and attended many U2 concerts, starting with the Vertigo tour in 2005.
I started analyzing my favorite U2 songs for their peaks, listening for the magic moment when each song reached its greatest development, the part that really got my attention.
Easy, right? I’ll just pick the loudest point in the song. Such moments, I noticed, usually occur in the middle of the song, after the bridge, when the catchy musical hook and/or lyric comes back in. But a musical climax isn’t always the loudest point in a song, like the 3:03 mark in “With Or Without You” when Bono wails while Larry and Adam keep the downbeats steady. Peaks can also occur when the song quiets down, keeping the listener in suspense, like the 3:17 mark in “Exit” before the main theme returns.
According to Rhythmic Canada, a musical climax can last less than one minute or carry out to the conclusion of a song. Also, a song can “have several points of climax, creating emotional ups and downs that focus the listener’s attention” (like in U2’s “Tomorrow”), but “there is always the main one.”
Other songs, the site says, “start from a climax, then musical emotions abate, and become calmer. After that, a composition finishes on a quiet note.” (Think of the album version of “Streets” or “Bad.”) Or some songs save the climax for the end, as in “Until The End Of The World.”
I decided that the peak Edge and Eno referred to is the emotional climax when the song pops — when the sky rips open and God walks through the room. A shiver runs down your spine, reminding why you’re listening to the song in the first place, and why you’ll never get tired of listening to it.
In some U2 songs, a peak does last several minutes, such as the best Edge solo EVER starting at the 3:46 mark of “All I Want Is You” and continuing to the end of the song.
In other cases, the peak lasts less than one minute. Next time you’re listening to the album version of “Mysterious Ways,” at the 2:23 mark, recall ZooTV: Live From Sydney to move your feet like The Edge. The 3:18 mark truly is a “Beautiful Day,” and Bono’s Paul McCartney scream at the 2:33 mark in “All Because Of You” from HTDAAB never fails to recapture my attention, bringing me back into the song.
These moments affect the overall quality of each album, so I started listening for them in every U2 song.
Identifying the peaks in U2’s early albums was a challenge. Instead of making it easy, jamming up to the loudest point after the bridge to an identifiable peak, then fading out to the end, U2 explore quiet philosophies and multiple layers of music.
I’d never noticed the low siren sound of Edge’s guitar in “Twilight” from Boy at the 2:52 mark, or the superfluous trumpet in “Red Light” from War, at 1:55. Or when Larry bangs those drums at 2:03 in “Rejoice” from October. And one minute into The Unforgettable Fire’s “Promenade,” listen to Edge’s atmospheric guitar accompanying Bono (although I want to hush him because his singing ruins the effect).
These old-school U2 albums continue to hold up because each song has an identifiable peak that encourages the listener to return, again and again, to re-experience the magic.
When I got to The Joshua Tree, I knew I was in trouble. The “greatest album of all time” is one giant tree-sized peak. Identifying the musical climax for each song is near impossible! Every song rockets up to the sky, never coming down: Bono’s harmonica in “Trip Through Your Wires”; Edge’s solo in “Bullet”; the quiet, soothing melody in “Mothers Of The Disappeared” (again, not all peaks are loud).
Then came Achtung Baby and Zooropa with Bono’s fat-lady voice, the emotional ups and downs of “Dirty Day,” the entire bridge of “The Fly.” All these mild, squeaky-clean peaks were easy to find (thanks, guys!), ending with “Love Is Blindness,” another great example of Edge delaying his brilliant climax until the end of the song while MacPhisto weeps.
I know the lads disagree, but Pop is a solid album from beginning to end, and I hope they never go back to change it. Here, peaks include the “boom-chas” in “Discothéque” that never fail to wake me up; Adam and Larry’s entrance at the 1:27 mark in “If God Would Send His Angels”; and the overall sexiness of “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” at 3:18, when the main musical theme returns.
On the “renaissance albums,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Bono proves he’s the man on “Kite,” at the 2:35 mark, while Edge rocks the 2:52 mark in “Elevation.” Listen for Adam’s industrial revving at 2:25 in “Vertigo” and Larry’s steady drumbeat at 3:14 in “One Step Closer.” In “Yahweh,” the 2:56 mark is another example of a middle-of-song-peak, while “Grace” takes its time, not reaching its climax until 4:37, with only one minute to go until the end.
Everything is great until you get to the two most recent albums. I apologize to all U2 fans who might disagree when I throw this question out: “Where are the peaks?” Every song on both No Line On The Horizon and Songs Of Innocence struggles to get off the ground. I tried to listen and analyze, but found myself zoning out. My listening perception remained “deadened,” never “reawakened,” for both albums. I found myself cracking jokes about these “root songs” that obviously needed more work. Try as I might, I just couldn’t climactic points to attract my attention.
What happened? At what point did U2 forget the need to “get out there and PEAK”?!
I've compiled a track-by-track analysis of every U2 album from Boy to Songs Of Innocence. The number in the “Time/minute” column indicates where I believe the peak occurs. “What’s Occurring” refers to what’s happening at this point in the song. I’ve also included favorite U2 singles. Since “Lady With the Spinning Head” was the root song for three future U2 songs, it has three peaks. Beat that, “Iris (Hold Me Close)!”
(Note: This would make a great subject on the @U2 forum or a future podcast!)
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Your definition of the peak of any U2 song probably differs from mine. Listen to the 1:58 mark of “Do You Feel Loved” and turn that peak into your own prayer. Or on “Hawkmoon 269,” sing along with Bono, who spends at least two and half minutes rocking those similes. As All That You Can’t Leave Behind reminds us, these peaks are bigger than any big idea.
(c) @U2/Llewellyn, 2017