Of all the songs that U2 has written and recorded about love, none tell a tale so bleak, so heartbreaking, as “So Cruel”. From their 1991 masterpiece album Achtung Baby, “So Cruel” is all about a love gone tragically wrong.
Like much of the material that the band was writing for their seventh album, the lyrics to “So Cruel” seem to be inspired, at least in part, by the dissolution of Edge’s first marriage. U2 has always been a close-knit group, and I’m not just talking about the relationships between the four band members. All of the members of their entourage, from Joe O’Herlihy on the soundboards to the band members’ wives, have always been exceptionally close. For that reason, I believe that the disintegration of Edge’s marriage to Aislinn was a difficult period for everyone in the band. Bono simply focused some of what Edge must have been feeling into some extremely personal lyrics.
Those lyrics are one of the song’s best features, and in my humble opinion they rank among the best that Bono has ever written. Certainly, they are some of the deepest cutting and most pained lyrics in his entire repertoire. I think that the tone of the song can be summed up in one line from the first verse – “I’m only hanging on to watch you go down, my love”. Saying that you’re just sticking around to see your former lover get what you believe is coming to them is savage, but then adding those last two words, the sarcastic “my love” just twists the knife that much further. It’s been said that it “takes two to tango”, and the above lyric demonstrates that it’s not just the singer’s lover who possesses the capacity for cruelty.
Musically, the song rests mainly on Larry’s heavy drums and a hopeless, dire sounding piano motif. Some moving strings enter the mix later on in the song, but compared to some of the other multi-layered, highly technical songs that U2 has recorded, like “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways” from the same album, “So Cruel” is relatively simple. In that simplicity rests a lot of the song’s resonance and power. I’ve always thought of the instrumentation to this song as the sound of someone giving up hope, and the lyrics to “So Cruel” definitely sound like someone who has lost faith in their love.
“So Cruel” has kind of a slim record of live performances. It was performed only three times on the ZooTV Tour in 1992, and all three of those performances were acoustic performances by Bono without the rest of the band joining in. A full band version of the song was rehearsed before the third leg of the ZooTV tour, in Hershey Pennsylvania. Luckily, a bootleg recording of one of those full band performances exists and can be listened to here. Another semi-live performance was captured by Davis Guggenheim for the film From The Sky Down. This performance is another solo performance by Bono, aided by just an acoustic guitar and a microphone. It’s quite moving.