Recently, I wrote about the flurry of activity that always seems to accompany a new release from U2. Nearly a decade ago (holy cow!) U2 celebrated the release of their eleventh LP How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (HTDAAB) with another release, The poorly named Complete U2 digital set from iTunes. One of my personal favorite aspects to The Complete U2 was the portion of the collection which included previously unreleased tracks, like “Smile” and “Levitate”.
According to the liner notes that came for the release, “Smile” “simply arrived too late” for inclusion on HTDAAB. I’m not sure what that means, since they obviously had time to record the song, but whatever, I’m just glad that we got to hear it. Smile is a deep song, with nearly equal measures of romance and pain – U2 really do bittersweet wonderfully, don’t they – and for a long time the meaning behind the song’s lyrics eluded me. “I Don’t want to see you smile” the chorus goes – “Is the singer angry?” I wondered. “Is it sarcastic?” I’ve decided at last that the singer and the person being sung to are in a relationship, trying to get from point A to point B on their emotional roadmap – the maze of her imagination, if you like – and the singer is getting the sneaking suspicion that the object of his affection is simply toying with him. He’s trying to make their affair work, and she’s not giving him the help and support that he needs in that endeavor. He’s pouring his heart out, and if she smiles, if she stifles a laugh, he’ll know once and for all that it’s all been a game for her. “The smoke machine is yours, not mine” is probably my favorite line in the song, because I’ve been in relationships before that had me so mixed up that I didn’t know who was at fault for what. It took me a long time to realize that she would intentionally get me angry so that she could play the victim, to get my sympathy, playing on my guilt to manipulate me into doing whatever it was that she wanted in the first place. Frankly, it’s a pretty dark song with a beautiful guitar refrain from Edge and some of that patented Larry Mullen expressive rolling rhythm, equal parts militaristic and melodic. Because of that darkness, I’d be surprised if the band ever play the song live – I think that it might be a little heavy, honestly. I imagine that Bono might have difficulty psyching himself up to do it justice if he’s not in the middle of the difficult experience.
Another high-point for me on this set is “Levitate“, which I have a theory evolved from an early version of ‘Elevation”, much like “Always” came from the same sessions as “Beautiful Day”. No matter where the song is from, it’s a great, joyous, uplifting piece of music, with a little bit of the same kind of momentum that made “Even Better Than the Real Thing” so awesome. As I’m sitting here listening to these songs for inspiration as I write, it strikes me that the lyrics to each makes mention to subtle clues which the singer is receiving from his love. In “Smile”, he mentions that “It’s not in your eyes”, while in Levitate “It’s in your voice, I can tell”. I’m reminded of the way lovers come to know each other so intimately that each is unable to keep anything hidden from the other, good or bad.
I think a lot about that line in “Levitate”, “I want a love that’s hard as hate”. I think that, again, this is all about taking a relationship to the next level, getting to a place where your love burns as hot as a long-held grudge. The kind of thing that you feel as you shake your fist, tears streaming down your face, and you mutter “no matter what”, fully aware of every little connotation that that phrase carries with it. “I’ll get you, no matter what.” becomes “you’ve got me, no matter what.” “come hell or high water” becomes “richer or poorer, in sickness or health”. It’s a hard little diamond-like core of determination, but this time it’s turned to unconditional love instead of implacable hate.
It’s funny to think about how close these two magical pieces of music came to never being heard by the masses, and it makes me wonder what other goodies U2 have got stashed away. Maybe someday, we’ll get a truly complete U2 boxed set, with another disc or two of treasures that might not ever see the light of day otherwise. One final note that makes me hopeful – the back of the 2009 fan-club release, Medium, Rare, and Remastered that contained much of the same material as the Unreleased and Rare part of the “Complete” set, specifically designates the release as “CD 1” which means there’s gotta be a CD 2, right?