U2101 – Unknown Caller

It seems like lately all of my articles have been about songs from U2 albums that the band seem like they’d be just as happy to forget. Prior to today, I wrote about two straight songs from Pop and today the song that’s on my mind is from No Line on the Horizon. 

I remember thinking, as I was inserting the No Line on the Horizon disc into my car’s CD player  for the first time, “OK boys. I’m ready to be moved, so move me.” Although I was impressed with each of the album’s first three songs, the first song to fulfill my request – the first song that reached into my chest and grabbed hold of my heart – was track four, “Unknown Caller”. To this day, my wife still can’t listen to the song without tearing up. It’s just that powerful.


Unknown Caller” is ostensibly a story about a man who has fouled his life up with drugs, but it’s really a song about losing your own identity and trying to get back to your core self, your spiritual center. To help the man achieve this rebirth, a higher power uses technology to offer some timely advice. The song starts with the man in a desperate place: “lost between the midnight and the dawning” is how his state of mind is described in the song. As the clock turns to 3:33 (a number with a significance all its own – see below) the phone begins to issue instructions like “shout it out” and “rise up”, urging the man to strive for his own best destiny. One of the final instructions given, and the one that really brings weight to the whole exchange, is “Password, enter here…you know your name, so punch it in.” reminding us that all the answers can be found within ourselves after all.


Above, I mentioned the number 3:33, and promised an explanation of its importance to U2 fans. If you look closely at the cover for the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, on the far left, about mid-way down, there is a sign that reads “J 33-3”, which Bono revealed to be a hidden message of sorts. It’s a reference to a Bible passage – verse three of the thirty-third chapter in the book of Jeremiah, which reads “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (New King James Version). I believe that the reference to the number 333 in “Unknown Caller” is another reference to the same Bible verse. The protagonist in the song was lost, and in his desperation he sub-consciously called out to God for answers. In Bono’s inspiring lyric, the creator responded with guidance.


“Unknown Caller” made its live debut at the opening night of the 360 Tour in 2009, and then appeared at about three quarters of that tour’s first two legs. Unfortunately, it was dropped at the end of the second leg and has yet to reappear. It’s a bit of an odd song, so I suppose I’m not too surprised, but I really felt that it was a great, spiritual moment to hear that “chorus of voices” (as Bono put it) joined together in singing the chorus to this song. As I mentioned above, U2 seem to be content to pretend that No Line on the Horizon never happened, so I’d be surprised if we ever hear “Unknown Caller” live again. Lucky for those of us who can’t get enough, one of the song’s few performances was captured for the Rose Bowl blu-ray release, so we can all relive it any time we like.

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Ever since I realized as a kid, while poring over the liner notes of the Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom boxed set, that writing about music was a viable career choice, one of my greatest desires has been to write about U2. The band has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to contribute a little something to the fantastic online community that's been built around the band.

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