One of the great things about writing for an audience is that you get feedback on your work. I absolutely love getting feedback, good or bad, because that means somebody bothered to read what I’ve done. And along with feedback comes ideas, and ideas are a valuable currency for a writer.

Well, just after I wrote about I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, I got a Tweet from a self-professed Bono lookalike saying that is number one song is One.
And when a Bono impersonator asks you to cover a song, you just don’t say no!
So many thanks to @JustBono_UK for his suggestion.

I have to confess that I find it a little bit odd that just after I decided to cover One in my U2 Radio column, U2 left One out of their setlist for the first time since ZooTV. (They apparently did not play the song in the opening night of the Innocence + Experience Tour in Vancouver.) Coincidence? …Yeah, probably.

My research for this post included the album version (of course); my old fallback, ZooTV Live from Sydney; the PopMart Live from Mexico City version; and the brand-new Innocence + Experience version, from May 26. Ah, the wonders of YouTube!
Oddly enough, the PopMart version, which I expected to like the least, was my favorite.
One is a poignant song anyway, but I think the PopMart version became even more powerful because Bono dedicated it to his late friend, Michael Hutchence.

I have to say that writing about this song was a challenge. This song is easy to understand but difficult to articulate; it’s something that, in my opinion, is meant to be felt inside rather than spoken explicitly. And also, to be honest, I’d only listened to the song twice before I started working on this article, and that’s in comparison to the hundreds of times I’ve listened to the other songs I’ve covered. So this song has given me a chance to expand my boundaries a little bit and flex my analyzing skills, and now that I’ve paid attention to this song, I really can understand why it’s been played at every concert (except for that one time in Vancouver…oops!).

The way I see it, there are more ways of interpreting this song than I can fit into one post. This song is extremely, extremely dense. It’s heavy. It packs a lot of meaning into a very small space. The most obvious backstory of the song is that it saved U2 from breaking up, but there are literally an unlimited number of interpretations.

In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone, Bono said: “It’s a father-and-son story. I tried to write about someone I knew who was coming out and was afraid to tell his father. It’s a religious father and son… If we know anything about God, it’s that God is love. That’s part of the song. And then it’s also about people struggling to be together, and how difficult it is to stay together in this world, whether you’re in a band or a relationship.”

Added to that, the proceeds of the song’s release went to benefit AIDS research, and it has at least partially inspired the name for the ONE Campaign. And, like the rest of Achtung Baby, the song could be a reflection of German reunification. In my research, I even found a cache of essays written by American middle school students about how the song One reflects the meaning of E Pluribus Unum.

It’s a song about breaking up, it’s a song about staying together… The song is what you make it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, fundamentally, this song is very emotional and personal, and it’s the kind of song that means something different every time you listen to it.

But despite all this, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to be looking at what I believe to be the two most important interpretations: that the song is about U2 almost breaking up, and that the song is about Bono and his friend.

The song opens with this: “Is it getting better, or do you feel the same? Will it make it easier on you now you’ve got someone to blame?”

The first line seems to be asking for an assessment of the relationship between the speaker and the person being spoken to, while the second line gives us the context that right now, the relationship is strained.

If the speaker here is Bono addressing the rest of the band—or actually, any one of the band members addressing the others—then the implication is that they are blaming each other for their difficulties. Most English teachers will tell you that Wikipedia is not a source, but according to Wikipedia, U2 was pretty much divided in half, because Bono and The Edge were looking in one direction while Adam and Larry were looking for something different. And they still haven’t found what they’re looking—ah, never mind.

If the speaker here is Bono addressing Michael Hutchence, then this line has a very different implication. For those of you who don’t know, Michael Hutchence was the lead singer of the Australian rock band INXS, and he committed suicide in 1997. Bono’s performance of One at Mexico City in the PopMart Tour was dedicated to him, and that performance makes it clear that this was a very emotional time for Bono.

I think it’s completely reasonable to say that the first line of the song sounds a lot like someone checking on a friend, asking if they’re okay. But the second line adds some bitterness, because obviously, everything is not okay.
And, based on my own limited personal experiences, in a time of stress like that, blame is often shifted around to everyone involved, both to the person who passed away and to the people left behind, until everyone has come to terms with what has happened.

The next line of the first verse is: “You say one love, one life, when it’s one need in the night. It’s one love, we get to share it.”

One love, one life, and one need sound to me like the common bonds that bind people together.

My mind automatically jumps to Ephesians 4:4-5, one of my favorite Bible verses: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
But apart from faith, these lines could be interpreted to mean something as imperative as brotherly love for a friend, or as simple as the love of music that brought four Irish kids together in Dublin.

However, the line after that is, “It leaves you, baby, if you don’t care for it.”
In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that real love is a very difficult thing to get rid of, if it’s even possible to get rid of it at all. However, even if love remains behind, it’s very easy for relationships to deteriorate. As my mama always told me, “You have to love people, but that doesn’t mean you have to like them.”

Even if a relationship is given care and time and everything possible to keep it strong, stress can still cause it to break. With the pressures of changing direction and creating a new album, it’s easy to see how the relationships of the band members became strained when they were working on Achtung Baby.

It’s also easy to see how a relationship can be hurt when a person leaves suddenly and unexpectedly, throwing everything into doubt.

The second verse is this: “Did I disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth? You act like you never had love, and you want me to go without. Well, it’s too late tonight to drag the past out into the light. We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other. One.”

I think this verse very clearly reflects U2’s dilemma in the early ’90s. They were arguing, letting each other down, and trying to hold on to the friendship they’d built over the years. And being on the verge of breaking apart must have made them feel like it really was too late, and that everything they’d built was for nothing. As the band U2, they’re one unit, but obviously they are four individual people with different ideas and opinions. (Out of four, One. Maybe those kids were on to something with that E Pluribus Unum stuff.)

However, for the PopMart version, this verse was altered slightly. Instead of singing “It’s too late…”, Bono sang, “Is it too late tonight to drag the past out into the light?”
This little change of one line makes the entire meaning different.
The original verse emphasizes the break-up of friends, because saying that it’s too late is a rejection, a way to say that the relationship is past the point of rescue. But the change in that line turns the rejection into a question: Is it possible to reconcile?

And the problem with suicide is that, if a person can be brought back out of that one moment of desperation, if someone is there to stop them, then they’ll probably make it. But if that moment passes, and due to whatever circumstances, they go through with it, then they’re gone forever, and it really is too late.

The beginning of the third verse is another spot where the original version and the PopMart version are different. (Oddly enough, apart from PopMart, the lyrics in each version are fairly consistent. I guess this is the kind of song that doesn’t need much tweaking.)

oneMost versions go like this: “Have you come here for forgiveness? Have you come to raise the dead? Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?”

The first line can be interpreted two ways: either someone has come to forgive the speaker, or someone has come to be forgiven. In the context of the band, maybe the four of them were trying to find it in their hearts to forgive each other, or maybe they were asking each other for forgiveness. Given that the next lines have a lot of imagery of Jesus, and Jesus came to bring forgiveness, I would say that the first line is best interpreted as another case of the “you” in the song “playing Jesus,” and offering forgiveness along with “raising the dead.”

Speaking of which, raising the dead is an interesting image in this song. It could be referring again to bringing up memories and old connections, such as the earlier reference to dragging the past into the light; or it could be talking about resurrecting a “dead” relationship and the possibility of a second chance; or it could even be mocking, a way to say that the people being sung about are holier-than-thou.

I think all of those interpretations are correct, and it’s just a matter of personal preference, but that last interpretation fits especially well with the next line about “playing Jesus.” If the lepers are all in your head, what are you healing? Are you making anything better by trying to fix something that isn’t broken? Or are you just making things worse? And if one is playing the role of Jesus, then one does not have any actual authority; it’s just an act, and it has the potential to damage friendships.

However, the PopMart version is quite different from the original (and I actually like it a lot better). It goes like this: “Have you come here for forgiveness? But I can’t raise the dead. I come here to play Jesus to the lepers in my head.”

These lyrics have a much, much different dynamic than the original. Bono seems to be addressing Michael Hutchence, and letting him (or perhaps his memory) know that, no matter what happened or what might have happened, what’s done is done and nothing can bring him back. And if Bono is playing Jesus to the lepers in *his* head, not anyone else’s, then perhaps he’s trying to cleanse the bad feelings and the negativity and trying to reach for something hopeful. Bono has said in interviews before that music is a catharsis for him and that he really channels his emotions into it (which I think is easy sometimes to see if you pay attention), and because of that I think that this interpretation makes sense.

The second half of the third verse is this: “Did I ask too much? More than a lot. You gave me nothing, now it’s all I got. We’re one, but we’re not the same. We hurt each other, then we do it again.”

Any kind of relationship is a give and take. You ask for things, you receive some things, and you compromise a lot. Mama always told me that you have to draw a line in the sand, but you have be willing to cross it a little, too. I think that the question in this verse shows that kind of mindset.
But if the compromise isn’t there, and no one is willing to give a little and cross the line some, then that’s it. The relationship is stuck. Which is terrible, if you’re in a band and the four of you reach an impasse. If no one in the band is willing to give, then the band has nothing.

However, that feeling of being “stuck” and having nothing must be much worse if there is no way to repair the relationship. Bono will never get an answer to his question from Michael Hutchence, and since the loss of his friend came so suddenly, he never even got to ask. He was given no warning.

“We’re one, but we’re not the same.” Everyone in the world—Bono, his friends, you, me—we all have some kind of common ground, something we can find that makes us alike in one way or another. But we’re all different, and we’ve all made different choices, and our choices can—and frequently do—hurt each other.

I’m not sure if the last section is a bridge or a chorus or a bridge followed by a chorus, but whatever it is, the first half of it is this: “You say love is a temple, love a higher law.
Love is a temple, love the higher law. You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl. And I can’t be holding on to what you got, when all you got is hurt.”

This section is my favorite part of the entire song. The Bible says that love is the most important commandment (Mark 12: 29-31) and therefore, a “higher law.”
And obviously, love is something that all four of the band members regard very highly. Doesn’t everyone, in the end, search for love and revere it more than anything else?

But real love is unconditional; it comes with no strings attached. (The Bible says this in Corinthians 13, which has also been referenced in Stand Up Comedy, along with a few other U2 songs.) If you have to crawl, literally or figuratively, to be considered “deserving” of love by someone, then that person never loved you to begin with. When the band members were arguing, it may have seemed that the love that held them together was all gone. And, if you are brought to your knees by the sudden loss of a loved one, it may seem that the love you shared with that person is lost as well.

“And I can’t be holding on to what you got, when all you got is hurt.” When you love someone, it’s almost impossible to let go. But, as Mama always told me, when Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he didn’t mean for you to be abused in the process.
And holding on to grief or to a grudge won’t bring the lost loved one back to you, whether it’s back from death or just back from a place of anger. All it does is damage you further, and everyone else around you as well.

The next lines are: “One love, one blood, one life. You got to do what you should.
One life with each other, sisters, brothers. One life, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other. One.”

This section is, I think, the “big idea” of this song. You have to do what’s right for your life, but no one can forget that we are all connected. We may be different, but we have the opportunity to be together.
And what I think is the most important thing to take away from this song is this idea from the Edge that I found on the Wikipedia entry for One: “[The Edge] suggested that the line ‘we get to carry each other’ introduces ‘grace’ to the song and that the wording ‘get to’ (instead of ‘got to’) is essential, as it suggests that it is a privilege to help one another, not an obligation.”
Unfortunately, I don’t have the original source and therefore I don’t know the exact wording that the Edge used, but I think that’s a pretty powerful idea all the same.

The album version ends there, but the ZooTV version and the PopMart version add a little extra. The PopMart version gives us this: “Do you hear us coming, Lord? Do you hear us call? Hear me knocking, knocking at your door. You hear me calling? You hear him call? You hear him scratching? Did you make him crawl?”

The ZooTV version is much the same, only it uses “me” instead of “us” and “him.” Every other version of the song may be talking about one person in this section, but in the PopMart version, Bono is very clearly referring to himself and his friend.

At first, I was a little disconcerted by this, because it seems very angry, but then I realized that that’s the point. Having relationships with people can make you angry. It can hurt. Losing a friend can make you angry, and it can hurt. But being angry is human. Being angry is part of life.
As Bono once said, “I think being angry with God is at least a dialogue.” (Thanks to for the quote.)
Having a dialogue is the first step to forming a relationship, and anger is one of the five stages of grief.

However, the Innocence + Experience version, which is lyrically very similar to the album version, is different from the other versions in that the extra bit at the end was not the “Hear Us Coming” verse. It was, instead, closed with the last lines of Invisible: “There is no them, there’s only us.” Which officially makes it my second-favorite performance of One, but more importantly, adds to the meaning of the song as a reminder that we are one, and we have the privilege of helping each other through this world’s struggles.

It’s kind of amazing to watch all of these videos in a sequence, to see first 1993, then 1997, and then 2015, and to watch the progression of these four people standing onstage. It’s amazing to see Adam standing beside Larry at the back of the stage so they can play rhythm together. It’s amazing to see Bono step away from the microphone and sing “Love is a temple” as just a voice in the crowd. Their actions epitomize the meaning of One more than any words.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all on this little world together, regardless of culture or creed or religion or nation. We’re all here, and we were all created to love one another. Everything has to be put aside, even anger, for the sake of love.

In that Wikipedia article I mentioned earlier, I found this quote (an exact quote this time, thank goodness) from a review of the song from the magazine Blender: “One […] is certainly a breakup song. But it’s also very much about the duty to stay together, about finding some kind of connection in times of war, fragmentation, plague, poverty and cultural difference. About being too cynical to believe in the hippie version of global oneness, but too much of a believer to reject it.”

I think Blender summed up this song perfectly. I couldn’t phrase it any better than that if I had fifteen years and a full supply of paper, and believe me, I can fill up fifteen years’ worth of paper pretty easily. (Which just makes it a shame that Blender is apparently no longer in existence.)

Since we’re discussing some difficult issues in this post, I’d like to take the opportunity to say that if you or a loved one would like more information or help, you could check out this video of Adam Clayton discussing mental illness:

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My friends call me Lieutenant. I'm a Christian, a Trekkie, and a college student with a love of writing, history, pineapples, and literature.

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