“Exit” is a song from U2’s best-selling album, The Joshua Tree, which was first released in 1987. “Exit” is a dark song, both lyrically and musically, and the song’s words concern a trip into the mind of a very disturbed individual. For a band like U2, who have made their reputation recording hopeful, uplifting songs that call for peace, songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” “Exit” is quite a departure. I thought it might be worthwhile to take a trip into that darkness with the band and to see if we can figure out what makes “Exit” tick.
The first thing the listener notices about “Exit” is that it is very aggressive. In fact, in many ways, I believe that “Exit” marks the band’s most assertive, vigorous recording, from their entire career. The song is full of pounding drums and jarring, pummeling guitars. In some other ways, the song is among the band’s most haunting works, especially at the beginning of the song, where Adam’s eerie bassline propels Bono’s near-whispered vocals forward into rockier territory. The instrumentation builds gradually from this otherworldly beginning before the song dives headlong into the first of it’s multiple climaxes, echoing Bono’s delivery, which seems to be clawing at the roots of madness. The singer’s voice rings strong and clear, almost bellicose, as he expresses more about the sentiment of the song than words alone ever could.
But what words these are. Bono seems to be telling a story here. I interpret the main character of this story as a religious man, someone who has twisted and perverted his beliefs and faith into something that God never intended. “You know he got the cure” Bono starts out, “you know he went astray…he wanted to believe in the hands of love”. This could be anyone who has been driven to acts of extreme evil by their own closely held beliefs. As Bono would sing nearly thirty years after “Exit”, “the worst things in the world are justified by belief” and I find that the hero (or should that be the villain?) of the song could very easily who someone who bombs abortion clinics, or who shoots up a crowded cinema, or anyone who commits wicked acts to satisfy their own personal god. After following the protagonist into some kind of violence that involves a gun (“hand in the pocket, finger on the steel, the pistol weighed heavy”) the conclusion is reached that “the hands that build can also pull down. Even the hands of love.” This is a warning to all of us – even if we don’t think we’re capable of extreme acts like murder, the truth is that violence lurks in each of us.
“Exit” was performed on each and every one of the Joshua Tree Tour’s 109 shows, (one of which was famously captured for the film Rattle and Hum) but it seems that the song has since fallen out of favor with the band, as it has only been performed once since the end of that tour. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that convicted murderer Robert John Bardo claimed during his trial that “Exit” motivated him to commit the crime he was found guilty of. I can certainly understand how that would sour anyone’s feelings on something that they had created – knowing that that creation had been involved in a horrible killing – but I for one hope that the band have never allowed that experience to introduce self-censorship into their recording and writing process. Even if the band never play “Exit” live again, the song exists as a poignant reminder that we all possess inside of us bits that represent both the best and the worst of humanity.
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