Some Thoughts About “With or Without You”

Selected tracks from my Wicked Game playlist, which is basically the songs I fell asleep listening to on adult contemporary radio circa 1989 – 1991.  Some songs are older than that, but were still in rotation when I was 9, 10, 11.  

With or Without You – U2:  I knew of U2 before The Joshua Tree in whatever way a seven-year-old knew about such things in the 80s, but I don’t think I consciously knew any of their music before “With or Without You.”  Everything about this song is beautifully and earnestly straightforward, almost deceptively so.  Here’s what Edge has to say about his approach to the guitar parts: 

“Notes actually do mean something. They have power. I think of notes as being expensive. You don’t just throw them around. I find the ones that do the best job and that’s what I use. I suppose I’m a minimalist instinctively. I don’t like to be inefficient if I can get away with it. Like on the end of ‘With or Without You’. My instinct was to go with something very simple […]. I still think it’s sort of brave, because the end of “With or Without You” could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back.”  (Flanagan (1996), p. 43, via Wikipedia).

The same could be said for Adam Clayton’s baseline, which, while driving in time with Larry Mullen’s kick drum, is beautifully simple.  Taken together, the bass and guitar parts imply the D–A–Bm–G progression, and remind me very much of the D-A-G progression from “I Think We’re Alone Now.”  “With Or Without You” sounds nothing like “I Think We’re Alone Now” in any other way, but I like this little bit of consanguinity.  I don’t have the technical vocabulary to say much more about other parts of the composition: what Brian Eno is doing on synth, how Edge arpeggiates and sustains (how Edge is Edge), what Lanois is up to on other points of production. What matters is what we’re left with: each of these men being exactly who they are.  Bono’s vocals are reserved and retreating (matching the sparse but well-constructed arrangement) until they soar (while Edge trusts his gut and holds back).  The vocal melody matches the lyric (the longing, the turn from tentative to certain), the rhythm section carries us forward in much the same way,  the guitar ebbs and flows perfectly, instinctively. 

I love what Edge says about notes meaning something and costing something.  A perfect summation of his signature sound, perfectly evident here.

One thought on “Some Thoughts About “With or Without You”

  1. Wicked Game : Chris Issak live studio session: A Hammond B3 seems to be the base for the electronic keyboard. That organ takes me back many years! Way past your being age seven. Or even being.

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