“With or Without You” is another one of those songs that U2 will probably never stop playing live, and I suppose that there’s good reason for that. If I had to choose one song to name as U2’s signature cut, it would probably be this hit from 1987 – their very first American number one. I couldn’t tell you how many people have told me, when the subject of U2 is broached for the first time, “I like their old stuff” – I’m sure you’ve all heard that too. Well, this song (and the album it’s from) is the “old stuff” that people are talking about.
I’ve always been amazed at the way this song seems to suck all the white noise going on in a given environment away until it’s the only thing you can hear. That insistent thrumming bass riff, coupled with the twinkling of Eno’s keyboards and Edge’s Infinite Guitar, demand the listener’s attention in a way that’s irresistible. It whispers and begs its way into the world and into the listener’s heart and mind, syncing up with your own pulse and then taking complete control. The song builds from its beautiful beginning to a powerful rock climax that wrote the blueprint for future U2 epics like “All I Want is You”, and “Song For Someone”.
Lyrically, this is a complex song. Ostensibly a song about romantic love, this is another one for which several different interpretations exist. I believe that just as much as “With or Without You” is a love song that anyone in a long-term committed relationship can relate to, it’s just as much a song about spiritual longing and about trying to reconcile Bono’s public persona with his personal life. The line “and you give yourself away” mystified me for a long time, but I read recently that Bono felt at the time that this song was recorded that he was often too open with the press and in dealing with the public, and that perhaps he damaged the band’s reputation with that openness, so the line was written by the singer about himself. I wonder if Bono felt that he showed his cards too much in his personal life, as well…perhaps somehow giving away an advantage he had in his relationship with Ali with the same openness. In many relationships, it can sometimes feel like one person is at the mercy of the other, and I wonder sometimes if that’s how Bono felt in the early days of his marriage to Ali. Of course, the funny thing is that both people can sometimes feel that they are each subject to the whims of the other, and things begin to get complicated.
As I said above, I doubt that U2 will ever stop playing “With or Without You” in their live shows. It’s been played over 750 times to date and it still draws a huge burst of applause from the crowd whenever that bass riff begins, signaling the start of the song. It’s sure to be a part of the “greatest hits” segment of whatever show U2 put on for as long as they continue to tour.