Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Music To Write By: "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" by U2

Why Listen? For a near-perfect structure; excellent exposition; to see how to make the personal universal.

Few bands polarize like U2. On the one hand, dedicated fans act as though Bono and friends do no wrong, while on the other detractors rip them as being pretentious poseurs long past their prime. In reality, though, neither is quite correct. U2 faces an entirely different dilemma, one with which every artist must contend -- inconsistency. For every pitch-perfect hit, one can count a half-dozen lesser tunes with weak hooks or muddy lyrics. Yet occasionally the Irish act knocks the proverbial ball out of the park, and those songs deserve our attention.

"Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" from 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is one of these. It begins with Bono crooning over crystalline guitar riffs and muted drum-and-bass work, then slowly and relentlessly crescendos through the final chorus. A near-perfect structure for a painful subject, namely a broken relationship with a father. The topic could easily plunge into sentimentality, but Bono keeps things on the level by using subtle allusion and indirect exposition: "And it's you when I look in the mirror, / And it's you when I don't pick up the phone." With such lines, "Sometimes" makes the personal universal.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

This reminds me of a discussion I had with a writer friend the other day, about action scenes.

Great action scenes, we agreed, require inspiration. But good, solid, engaging and thrilling action scenes--the kind that work well enough and serve the narrative--merely require a deep understanding of music.

This song may be an exception that proves the rule. Obviously, I can't think of a song more mis-suited to an action scene. Yet the rhythm is the same as that for a great scene of violence.

It starts with suspense and conflict, builds in intensity, and is filled with tension and reversals. It even ends with a final euphoric, emotionally-conflicted burst of energy: the full-throated scream starting "Can you hear me when I sing" nails the listener to the floor precisely because of the restraint showed earlier.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(Warning: I'm about to get excessively philosophical)

I've also been reading a lot about cognitive psychology lately--the latest book is a 1980's classic, Metaphors We Live By. In it, Lakoff and Johnson claim that our language is rooted in a number of deep metaphors. One of the deepest is violence; we structure our experience of the world often in terms of a fight or war. (In an argument, one attacks, retreats, counters, targets weak points, &c. &c. So perhaps it is natural, come election time, to hear that there is a "war against women," a "war against the family," &c.)

I think part of the fascination with genre-fiction is a fascination with a world in which these metaphors are particularly literal. Deep in our hearts, there is a pattern of violence. Even someone who's never gotten in a true fight in their lives resonates with the energy and pattern of physical struggles. Yet the literature of violence can also serve a cautionary measure; the costs of violence are often high, and such stories can complicate our understandings of the metaphor we use elsewhere.

Loren Eaton said...

... the full-throated scream starting "Can you hear me when I sing" nails the listener to the floor precisely because of the restraint showed earlier.

Bingo. It's such a beautifully structured song. I wish more writers would put their stories together with that much care.

dolorah said...

A good song; I enjoyed it, thanks.

I know what you mean with that hit-and-miss concept. I wrote a couple really good short stories, then the next few fell totally flat with no plot. I can take inspiration from U2's journey though.


Loren Eaton said...

Glad you liked it, Donna. I think the concept of compositional failure is one we can all relate to.