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May 15

U2 – “Beautiful Day”

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#877, 21st October 2000

u2beautiful A theological detour. The rise of New Atheism – Dawkins et al. – seems to have made it somewhat infra dig for lifelong unbelievers like me to admit there are things we respect and admire about religions and the religious. But of course there are. For instance, one of the things I find most admirable – perhaps I just mean enviable – when I meet it in Christians is the sense of faith as a reserve of redemptive strength. The feeling that, no matter how bad things are, no matter how bad you are, Jesus loves you. The fact I don’t believe in him doesn’t invalidate the testimony of millions who have found this kind of grace when they needed it – any more than their belief invalidates the experience of those who reached for it and could not find it. I believe what they’re taking is a placebo; they believe it’s the real thing. Whoever’s right, they get a chance at the benefit, and I don’t.

Or don’t I? That kind of feeling saturates “Beautiful Day” – one of U2’s most obviously Christian singles, full of grace and floods and doves and no-room-at-the-inn. And I feel this song well enough. I think it’s the most honest and moving record Bono and the crew have landed at Number One – the one where the reliquaries of rock’n’roll and the baggage of experiment are jettisoned, and Bono sings a big, slick modern rock song about faith. Sings it well and cleverly, too – the quiet, beaten-down tone of the opening verse, that halting gap on “lend – a hand”, the breakdown into gutterals on some of the closing chorus lines; these things dramatise the idea of a man on his last chance. “Reach me – I know I’m not a hopeless case”, he pleads: there’s a need I can relate to sometimes. You don’t need to feel God is your judge to understand the urge for redemption. Irony abounds, of course – Bono’s performance here rests on him selling the idea of himself as a man of great humility. But sell it he does.

U2 are Christians, not Christian Rockers (though, like indie, that’s a genre defined by distribution and audience more than content). They are careful to make sure “Beautiful Day” is also about a lover, or a shitty week, or anything a worldwide audience wants to make it about. But I hear religion in the song’s bones. And in any case, religiosity is rarely far from the surface of stadium rock. I once wrote a piece for Pitchfork about rock music as “secular gospel” – something that harnessed the sense of yearning, awe, and the numinous in religion and translated it into a folk idiom, like soul music slyly borrowed the tactics and techniques of Church music to sing about earthly desire.

But these strategies come with a price. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in ghosts – that when you borrow from the spiritual, other inevitable associations might make the journey and haunt the music. So soul music drew on gospel to describe love and lust, and often became, at its strongest, a music about sin and the terror of judgement. Rock music harnessed the scale and awe of religion, and brought upon itself the imp of reformation – the itch to purify, refocus, be born again. In the 80s, on a song like “Bad”, U2 took a track’s length to build up a questing, burning fervor. On “Beautiful Day”, that big, stadium sized music is out of reach at the start of the song – it flares for the chorus, but dies: they have to earn it back.

Perhaps, after the exhausting – and exhausted – mess of Pop and its tour, humility came easier. U2 needed that purification themselves – though you could argue they’ve never moved significantly on since. Bono apparently objected to The Edge’s guitar tone – too retro, too close to the band’s new wave roots. But “Beautiful Day” isn’t, and isn’t trying to be, the kind of spontaneous small-band performance The Edge’s move might indicate. From its glimmering keyboards to its slightly arid drum sounds, this is as meticulously crafted and fretted over as anything on their 90s records, it’s just ended up somewhere more straightforward. It takes smaller bets than Zooropa or Pop, and they pay off: the sudden cut-ins of backing vocals on the chorus (and bits of the verses) are a good, effective example, giving a sense of the singer shored painfully up as he contemplates his life. “Beautiful Day” is a success, but U2 have become what – for better and for worse – they never used to be: a band that knows what they’re good at.

The biggest risk “Beautiful Day” takes is its sudden expansion of scale in the middle eight – “see China right in front of you”, and so on, accompanied by a ripple of William Orbit style keyboard. It shows its protagonist all the kingdoms of the earth – OK, the song isn’t all humble – not as temptation, but as a reach towards a more redemptive view, one that acknowledges the problems and error of the world but wants to love it anyway. Whether this planetary point of view is global or simply globalised – the airy take of a jet-setter with the ear of the mighty – it’s the emotional crux of the song, the turning point at which the singer shrugs off his own narrow troubles and gets that shot at redemption. If it works, the rest of “Beautiful Day” falls into place. And, for all my grudges about the man and his band, it does work. It earns the urgency of the coda – “if you don’t know you can feel it somehow”, a singer willing himself back to stardom. I am no closer, I think, to believing in God. But for a few minutes here, I can manage something quite as unlikely: I can believe in Bono.

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Comments

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  1. 126
    Mark M on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Re124: Ah, but that’s a whole different issue to why they were considered a bad thing in certain circles in the 1980s. In the ’80s, we weren’t comparing them harshly to e.g., the Incredible String Band or Soft Machine. And (in mid-’80s indie/parts of the music press) like the VU was often accompanied by an enthusiasm for properly pop ’60s pop (The Ronettes, Shangri-Las, Lovin’ Spoonful etc).

  2. 127
    Tommy Mack on 2 Jun 2015 #

    U2’s ‘blues’ phase was fixated on roots and authenticity which always grates on me: musicians who do this never seem to capture much of what made their source material thrilling in the first place. Probably not least because the artists who recorded the original stuff weren’t thinking about authenticity and such when they did it.

    As late 60s rock bands go I wouldn’t say The Doors’ sound was much indebted to the blues though clearly they thought of themselves as ‘bluesy’ as, if nothing else, their choice of covers shows. I suppose by LA Woman, they’d become quite blues-rock in a way that was ripe to get swept away by punk. Perhaps more damning was the idea of Jim Morrison as the obnoxious template for every preening 70s frontman, the very image of everything punk condemned about the old rock.

  3. 128
    Phil on 2 Jun 2015 #

    #127 – yes, by the late 70s Jim Morrison was seen as a kind of cross between curly-haired* Roger Daltrey and fat Elvis; zero credibility either way.

    It’s easy to forget the anti-performance ethic of punk and post-punk. Looking at old footage of Johnny Rotten/Joe Strummer/Ian Curtis you see somebody putting on a terrific performance, but that’s absolutely not how we saw it at the time. Everything was real, down to what Rotten & Strummer wore on stage – sure, you wouldn’t wear that stuff walking down the street, but they did (or so we believed).

    *If I’d said ‘post-perm Daltrey’ I bet everyone would have known what I meant, but in fact the guy’s naturally curly – he was perming it flat in the early days.

  4. 129
    Mark M on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Re: 127 It was ludicrous, as U2 soon realised. I’m assuming it all started with this track from the Sun City* album – certainly in the King documentary Bono says it was Keef who turned him on to BB.

    U2’s essential non-blueiness is very clear in the film It Might Get Loud, which is meant to be a sort of cross-generational guitar god summit between The Edge, Jack White and Jimmy Page**. It’s very clear when they start jamming that The Edge does not speak the same musical language as the other two.

    *Should point out that the Sun City album was the Artists Against Apartheid record aimed at convincing their peers not to play at the resort in the South African ‘homeland’.
    **Hastily points out that I saw it because I was reviewing it. I in no way condone films with jamming in them.

  5. 130
    Andrew Farrell on 2 Jun 2015 #

    #112: I think being from 50 miles from Liverpool is also a crucial distinction!

  6. 131

    Tommy, it may not be clumsy 12-bar Thames Delta blues but Morrison is roaring and Krieger is bending notes like crazy and when he’s not being baroque Manzarek does that thing with near-simultaneous minor and major thirds that keyboard players do, and he does it a LOT: the Doors are bluesy in a way that’s very much their own but they *are* bluesy

    Adding: if/when I ever finish my epic essay on Rattle & Hum I’ll have a LOT to say about all this — however even in very unfinished state it’s abt 40,000 words long already, so this may not been soon :( :( :(

  7. 132
    Andrew Farrell on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Even-I-can’t-remember-if-I’m-trolling challops: Rattle & Hum is the peak of U2 not taking themselves seriously – they just didn’t feel the need to correct others for doing so.

  8. 133
    Phil on 2 Jun 2015 #

    #130 – speaking as a Mancunian, Manchester’s a long way from Liverpool. So much so that I had to read your comment three times before I realised that was what you were saying (“Cheap Trick were from 50 miles from Liverpool? Should that say 5000 miles?”).

  9. 134
    Izzy on 2 Jun 2015 #

    U2’s album trajectory is very odd: it goes smash, interesting dud, smash, interesting dud (in very different ways*) for a long time, right up to Zooropa. I can’t think of a discography quite like it. What I think it shows more than anything is a band who aren’t afraid to fail. It’s very Bono.

    * calling The Unforgettable Fire a dud is a bit much, except that commercially they were surely set up for a radio smash, and listening again it’s nearly all much too vague to get close.

  10. 135
    Andrew Farrell on 2 Jun 2015 #

    #133 – not compared with America, as regards acceptability of claiming the Beatles as an influence, though.

  11. 136
    Phil on 2 Jun 2015 #

    I honestly don’t see it – it wouldn’t occur to someone from Manchester that they had anything in common with a scouser. The only thing Noel Gallagher shares with John Lennon (in his own head) is that they’re both geniuses.

  12. 137
    Inanimate Carbon God on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Once again I’m ridiculously late to the party (sorry, my home wi-fi’s still stuck in the mud – literally, I’m in London today though) but I have a soft spot for this one. Think Tom nailed it .

    The great irony of U2’s that for all the slating of Bono as an arrogant git, their best singles aren’t when he plods around stuck in moments and still not finding what he’s looking for, but when he speaks directly to you with tough love, like the voice of an old friend who’s a bit of a git, but a loveable git all the same. A high 7. A bit like the “It’s when you’re down but you gotta get up / Even if some guy’s trying to blackmail you..” song from Baseketball where it’s on the car radio speaking directly to the listener. I won’t link to Youtube though as the title’s “Warts On My Dick…” that would be a bonanza of horrible thumbnails :-/ Seriously, though, I did have one of these almost cinematic moments when I first heard this in the car – it was two weeks after my mum and dad separated so my confidence was at a low ebb so after various misfiring boybandery and dance tracks not as good as Groovejet, such grown up, autumnal frankness just really clicked. “The traffic is stuck” verse especially as it was around the time of that mass fuel strike and I really feared it would last till Christmas by which time we’d be reading by candlelight and living off powdered eggs..

    It was a template for a lot of horrifically MOR stadium indie of the next decade though… After the flood all the Scripts come out. But morelateronwhenwegettothemanwhonamedhisdaughterafteracomputersystemonlyformedievalsavageskthxbai.

  13. 138
    Inanimate Carbon God on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Sorry Tom if I broke your formatting with the last long word, didn’t mean to do that. You’ve got past the Manics now though and moreover thank our lucky stars album 3, track 2 was never a single :)

  14. 139
    Inanimate Carbon God on 2 Jun 2015 #

    P.P.S. I actually liked this even more when I first heard it as I thought it was Semisonic. Please feel free to crown me Mr King of prematurely middle-aged dullards UK 1985-2015.

    (Oh maybe I thought it was Eels. A band who maybe I need to give more time and did another very good record with “Beautiful” in the title this year but nothing I’ve discussed here has packed the punch of “Soul jacker Part 1.”

  15. 140
    Andrew Farrell on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Oh for God’s sake, look at comment 112 which I was responding to – do you honestly think there’s no difference in the reception an English and an American band would get to having Beatles influences? I’m sure you have trouble stooping to consider a Liverpudlian a compatriot – it’s a fairly common point of view elsewhere.

  16. 141
    Phil on 2 Jun 2015 #

    #140 – apparently I was answering a question you didn’t ask, which was about how the bands saw themselves, presented themselves & wanted to be seen. Seen from London, sure, there might seem to be a certain legitimacy in one group of gobby working-class Northerners claiming to have picked up another one’s baton. But from Oasis’s own standpoint in Manchester, Liverpool was (is) just another city where they speak English; the sense of a common identity doesn’t go much further than that.

  17. 142
    swanstep on 3 Jun 2015 #

    @134, izzy. It’s never occurred to me to think of The Unforgettable Fire as a dud! It sold a ton (if not quite as much as War), Pride (In The Name of Love) was a #1 single where I was, they were simultaneously getting poppier and also more cred. thanks to Eno, people *loved* album tracks such as ‘Bad’ and ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ (and liked their live versions on the tour E.P. Wide Awake in America even better). The upshot was that in 1985 U2 was clearly a band still very much on the rise even as all sorts of new popsters were breaking up and flaming out all around them.

  18. 143
    Izzy on 3 Jun 2015 #

    Thinking about it a bit more, I’d say it’s the order of that three-album run that makes it seem strange. If they had gone Fire – Joshua Tree – War it’d look like a band focusing their power for massive commercial impact; if it had been War – Joshua Tree – Fire it’d look like they were honing their craft and creative vision to superb effect. As it is, going from War to Fire, and then sort-of marrying the two, feels strange – unless you look at Joshua Tree as a refinement of the dud(!) Fire, which I can just about see.

    On the other hand, it may be that this is all infected by the knowledge that Rattle And Hum comes next, which makes no sense in any context.

  19. 144
    James BC on 3 Jun 2015 #

    Oasis have a Liverpool connection. When they were starting out they went to Liverpool and found the scene a lot more supportive to an up-and-coming band than in Manchester. Apparently they got a lot of help from The Real People.

  20. 145
    Auntie Beryl on 3 Jun 2015 #

    Oasis sounded a great deal like The Real People, early on.

  21. 146
    Ed on 28 Jun 2015 #

    “The band is unified in its belief that the songs are more durable than the last batch”.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/kot/ct-u2-interview-united-center-bono-20150622-column.html#page=1

  22. 147
    Ramzi on 26 Jul 2015 #

    Very glad to see its use in ITV’s The Premiership noted in your comment (football being the other other religious experience in Britain). While the programme was obviously a poor imitation of Match of the Day, it was the first of its kind I knew, becoming interested in football in the summer of 2002. The actual programme was forgettable, but I’ll always remember the opening titles. In my mind, Beautiful Day is linked with the childish excitement of waiting for the football to start.

    Yesterday I was at the Emirates Cup, a pre-season friendly tournament held at Arsenal’s stadium. Arsenal were the team I used to support when I first started watching football. This song came on the PA just before kick-off. The sun had come from behind the clouds, and the feel of the new season was in the air. I felt quite emotional.

  23. 148
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Jul 2015 #

    Re groovy teachers – Brian May was a science teacher at my school. Beat that!

    (Mind you, he left a year before I got there…)

  24. 149

    Jesus wept. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/strictlycomedancing/entries/29bfb417-442d-4f02-af05-d767b2e57281

    What next, Legs & Co re-uniting for a routine of Taylor Swift – Bad Blood to re-enact the cover of Dwarves’ Blood Guts and Pussy?!

  25. 150
    Mark G on 16 Oct 2015 #

    And last but not least, Peter and Janette will dance the Tango to New Order’s Blue Monday.

  26. 151
    pink champale on 19 Oct 2015 #

    Entertaining attempt at the Blue Monday vocal from the Strictly house band.

  27. 152
    Turn on 12 Feb 2017 #

    “Beautiful Day” is a fine pop song, and in a sense this phase, a conscious return to their former ‘sincere’ image as a collection of tropes, is a refinement rather than rejection of their ‘nineties strategy – as though Bono had acquired enough self-awareness to realise that, while pop may not be kitsch, U2 are, if by ‘kitsch’ you mean ‘specious sincerity’ or ‘performance of “guilelessness” whose artlessness resides solely in its failure to conceal its own calculation’. As music, a 2, as an embrace of their own intrinsic contrivedness, a 6.

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