U2’s career can be divided into two tidy segments: There was the band in the early 1980s, and then there was the band writing on the back of The Joshua Tree. This is interesting because it holds a stronger first half, especially the first three tracks, which are flavoured with the rock trappings that is completely absent from the second half.
The third, and best, track is ‘With Or Without You’, which was a strangely romantic song from a band who seemed happier discussing their inhibitions than their excitements in life. It was largely written by Bono, a man of shared Protestant and Catholic heritage, and many of his songs invoked the stoicism of the Protestant faith with the jubilation of the Catholic religion. It’s these disparate strands that pad out ‘With Or Without You’, enabling the singer to let out one of the most impactful vocals of his career.
The lyric shows his internal dichotomy as he tries to reconcile the rockstar (Bono) from the man (Paul Hewson), bringing together a person who is excited and repulsed by the monster he has unwittingly created. “I was at least two people: the person who is so responsible, protective and loyal and the vagrant and idler in me who just wants to run from responsibility,” he explained in the book U2 by U2. “I thought these tensions were going to destroy me but actually, in truth, it is me. That tension, it turns out, is what makes me as an artist.”
Like the majority of U2 songs, Bono served as its writer, but the other three make their mark on the track, from Adam Clayton’s bass work to the choppy guitar licks that soak up the song during its exhilarating chorus. The Edge claims that the simplicity of the arpeggios was appropriate to the foundation of the song, and proudly showcased the chords in a retrospective about the making of the album.
It didn’t seem appropriate to imitate his inner Jeff Beck during the instrumental fadeout and chose to play a series of choppy power chords that cement the lyrics together.
Behind the singer comes the rumbling sound of a drum exhibition, as Larry Mullen Jr. plays from all over the kit, throwing caution into the wind with a collection of crisply recorded demonstrations. He’s excellent, showing that he is the most accomplished and assured musician in the band. As Bono grows more impatient, the rolls get more powerful; as the song gets more mindful, the cymbals come to the forefront.
He’s always been one of the more overlooked percussionists of his generation, but this might be his finest hour, and it’s the combination of the spirited vocals and the barrelling drums that makes the song so memorable.
As is often the way with U2, the band were loath to explain the meaning behind their songs, but the tune is all the better for its ambiguity and mystery. The song permits listeners to let their perspective and truth fill in the blank spaces in the work, and the song is so indebted to the world’s problems that it allows them an opportunity to re-create the essence of their problems.
Bono was growing in confidence as a vocalist, having cast off the shackles of David Bowie and Mick Jagger, creating an entirely new voice that was his and his alone.
The video featured Morleigh Steinberg, a dancer who would appear on stage during the 1992 Zoo TV tour, belly dancing to the sultry ‘Mysterious Ways’. She married bandmate The Edge in 2002, which suggests that there really was a mysticism at play during the recording of The Joshua Tree.
The song was an immediate hit with live audiences, leading Bono to scat some additional lyrics onstage. Bono later conceded that the song emanated from a sense of guilt that came from talking to other women, which might have stemmed from losing his mother when he was little more than a boy.
All these years later, the song still holds up as one of the band’s most thoughtful.
Subsequent anthems that have shown the band singing from their gut- ‘One’, ‘Lemon’, ‘Miss Sarajevo’ – have been seen by critics as a continuation of the band’s work on ‘With Or Without You’. And if there was ever any doubt over the band’s abilities over their first four albums, The Joshua Tree silenced the naysayers entirely, creating a work that was equal parts anthem and cerebral.
‘With Or Without You’ has a lot of ‘yearn’ in it,” producer Daniel Lanois said. “What I get from it is you’re ready to accept but you’re ready to leave something behind, much like life itself. Something comes your way but there’s a sacrifice and you have to leave something else behind.”
Stream the U2 song ‘With Or Without You’ below.