I’ve been listening to a lot of All That You Can’t Leave Behind lately, and it occurred to me during one of those listenings that something ought to be written about one of the undervalued gems that are buried on the second half of that album (and yes, there’s more than one undervalued gem there). Today I found myself musing over track eight, a little number with the weighty title “Peace On Earth”. Although “Peace On Earth” is not that album’s only big-issue themed song (“Walk On” also deals with some worthy political ideas) it is probably the one that is most overt in its ambition, which happens to be nothing less than the band’s mission from the very beginning: to change the world.
The song starts out quietly, fading in gradually with an ethereal guitar part and some percussion. Adam’s down-to-Earth bass joins the party, anchoring the more delicate elements. Then at about thirty-nine seconds in, there’s this sound…I’m pretty sure it’s a keyboard, but it always makes me think of a sword being drawn – of a warrior digging in with his heels, preparing to face the evil and battle with all he’s got to give. Immediately following this sound, Bono comes in with the first line of vocals, and I am struck by how that’s exactly what he and the rest of the band have been doing for all of these years – fighting back against the evil. Combating the ugliness with beauty. Showing us a different, better way. I’m sure that any one of the band members would respond by saying “we’re just four guys”, and of course they’d be right, but for many of us they give us the strength to do battle in our own ways, in our own lives, and surely they should be appreciated for that. Still, despite all the song’s fragile beauty, there’s a definite bitterness to be found here, particularly as Bono sings the second verse, which was written about the Omagh bombings in Ireland that took place in 1998.
“Peace On Earth” made its live debut at a tribute to the victims and heroes of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, back in 2001. Like a lot of the album it’s from, the song took on new meaning and gravitas following those attacks, and each and every one of its subsequent performances was laden with emotion. Like the first performance of the song, most of its airings occurred as a kind of introduction to the song “Walk On”, but the song did see a few renditions that were more complete, up to and including a full rendering of the song’s final chorus. Whether played in part of completely, these stark performances consisted of just Edge on an echoey guitar that was haunting in its simple beauty and Bono on lyrics. With all the trouble in today’s world, “Peace On Earth” seems like just as relevant now as it did in the fall of 2001, and I can absolutely see U2 playing “Peace On Earth” once again at some upcoming concerts.