U2’s “The Sweetest Thing” is, in my experience, one of the band’s most polarizing songs. Folks seem to fall into one of two camps – either they love the song or they hate it. At the heart of the matter seems to be the listener’s feelings on pop music, which makes sense to me because “The Sweetest Thing” is one of U2’s most radio-friendly, top-40-accessible tunes, with casual listener appeal written all over it. It’s got a big shiny hook with lots of easy-to-memorize whoa-oh’s, a simple repeating piano motif, hand claps, and a lyric that focuses on that eternal radio fodder, a romantic relationship. Those who don’t mind pop music seem to be big fans of the song (I count myself in that group), while those who feel nothing but disdain for conformist music list the song among the biggest missteps of U2’s career.
“The Sweetest Thing” was originally recorded in 1987 and was released as a B-side to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. This first version of the song has a somewhat rougher vocal from Bono and an overall less polished sound, particularly from the bass guitar. Eleven years later the song was re-recorded for inclusion on U2’s Best of 1980-1990 set. This new, poppier version was released as that album’s lone promotional single, where it enjoyed moderate chart success across the world. There was also a very cute promotional video which was released to music channels and featured a rare appearance by Bono’s wife, Ali, as well as brief appearances from Irish boy band Boyzone and the Irish dance troupe Riverdance, which are part of Bono’s apology to his wife.
“Apology for what?”, you might ask. Well, the story goes that while U2 were recording their breakout hit record The Joshua Tree, Bono got so involved in the recording sessions that he missed his wife’s birthday. The song was then written by Bono as an expression of his regret for hurting his wife’s feelings. Accordingly, all the proceeds from the sales of the 1998 single for the song went to a charity chosen by Ali, who is even mentioned in the liner notes to the CD single, where she is thanked by one of Bono’s pet names for her, “Ali Baba”
“The Sweetest Thing” made its live debut at a performance in 2000, given by U2 upon the date of their acceptance of the Freedom of the City of Dublin, an honor bestowed upon them by the Lord Mayor of the city and the Dublin City Council. The song was next performed a year later at the opening night of the Elevation Tour. The song was played almost thirty times altogether on the Elevation Tour, but following a performance in August of 2001, the song languished for nearly fifteen years before getting played again on the opening night of the Innocence + Experience Tour. “The Sweetest Thing” was performed sporadically on that latter tour, appearing just sixteen times over seventy-six shows, or just about twenty-one percent of that tour’s shows. It will be interesting to see whether U2 choose to resurrect the song once again when the Innocence + Experience Tour resumes. Even if they don’t, “The Sweetest Thing” will remain an apology that we can all benefit from.