Every three albums we see a bit of a shift in U2’s sound, and never has that difference been more pronounced than with The Unforgettable Fire. Coming off of the post-punk and straightforward rock that the band occupied themselves with on their first three albums, the ethereal, multi-layered and dense fourth offering saw the band trying lots of new things. Some of those new things worked better than others but one particularly successful experiment was the album opener, “A Sort of Homecoming”.
Lyrically, “A Sort of Homecoming” has always been a little bit of a mystery to me. There are clear references to a literal, physical homecoming, which makes me believe that Bono had been suffering from a bit of homesickness during the band’s travels around the world in support of the previous album. There are also signs, though, that point to another kind of homecoming – a spiritual one. Many of the song’s lyrics have always made me think about how we all come together and find common ground in music. U2’s music, in particular, crosses all borders and serves as a kind of spiritual home for all of the band’s dedicated fans.
The most interesting aspect of “A Sort of Homecoming”, to me, is the inclusion of subtle world music influences, such as Larry’s complicated drum pattern which echoes some traditional African music. These touches add to the feeling of being gone from home that exists in the lyrics. Also obvious in the music is producer Brian Eno’s musical aesthetic, which is responsible for the somewhat spaced-out, dream-like feeling of the music. Although his name is a common sight on U2 records now, when this album was released it was new to U2 fans, and his presence is felt more heavily on this record than on any of his subsequent collaborations with the band, (with the exception of the Passengers album, of course.)
Although “A Sort of Homecoming” was first released on the Unforgettable Fire album, there have been several other notable versions of the song released over the years. One of these was a live version that saw inclusion on the Unforgettable Fire single and the Wide Awake in America EP from 1985. I particularly enjoy the version of this live recording that was released on the Australian single and which contains loud backing vocals from Edge. Another version of the song that I particularly enjoy is the “Daniel Lanois remix” that came out with the Unforgettable Fire Super Deluxe Edition remaster that the band put out in 2009.
“A Sort of Homecoming” was first played live on the Unforgettable Fire Tour in September of 1984, and subsequently appeared at most of that tour’s shows. The song was later performed regularly during the first month of the Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 but was eventually dropped and has only been played twice since, both of which came during 2001’s Elevation Tour. The first of these two Elevation Tour performances was in celebration of the band’s literal homecoming to Dublin, and Bono flubbed the lyrics rather badly, as he did at the song’s lone later performance in in Oakland, California. I’d be seriously surprised if this song is ever performed regularly again, but it might be broken out for a special occasion now and again. Even if the song is never played again, it will always hold a special place in my heart because it represents the first time U2 pushed outside of their comfort zone.
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