I still remember the week building up to the release of No Line On The Horizon. I was, of course, neck-deep in U2, excitedly following the news, and downloading and listening to each and every one of their promotional appearances. It was one of those promotional appearances – I think the one from February 23, 2009, I don’t exactly remember now – that brought me my first taste of the subject of today’s article, an often overlooked song called “Breathe”. I recall driving home from work at one in the morning, listening to some bootlegs from the early days of the No Line…promotional tour, and when “Breathe” came on I was immediately drawn in by the complex drum pattern that starts the song. The climax of the song, wherein Bono commands his listeners to “sing (their) heart out” really resonated with me, and I knew that I had a lot to look forward to with the new album.
Originally, “Breathe” had a far different set of lyrics from those that were released on No Line On The Horizon in 2009. These lyrics were about one of Bono’s heroes, Nelson Mandela, and they are reprinted on one of the first pages of the book that accompanied the deluxe edition of the album. Those original lyrics finally received an audible release in late 2013 when the “Mandela Version” of “Breathe” was included on the single for “Ordinary Love” as a B-side. The lyrics that were released on No Line On The Horizon were, unlike much of that album, much more personal than those originally written for the song. The song is set on June sixteenth, also known as “Bloomsday” due to the fact that the events in Ulysses (which was written by another of Bono’s inspirations – James Joyce) take place on that day, and the main character of Ulysses is named Bloom. The chorus of the song is about finding the courage to go out and live each day as part of a sometimes-hostile world, embracing the people that you come across and learning to live within yourself. I’ve often wondered which of two possible ways Bono meant the line that contains the title of the song. “There’s nothing you have that I need,” he sings, “I can breathe.” Does he mean that because he is able to draw breath and continue living, he is free from needing anything from anyone else, or does he mean that because he is free from need, he is able to continue drawing those necessary breaths. I tend to think that it’s more the former, but I can also see the wisdom in the latter. Perhaps it’s another one of those Bono-lyrics that is intentionally left open to interpretation.
Musically, I believe that “Breathe” contains more of the Moroccan influences that the album was supposedly once upon a time rife with. I can understand why the band chose to eliminate many of those African sounding touches – Brian Eno claims that they felt “synthetic”, or disingenuous – but I also find the subtle traces that remain in “Breathe” absolutely fascinating. Maybe someday we’ll be lucky enough to hear the album as it was originally intended to be heard, but until then the hints that we find in Breathe will have to suffice. Otherwise, the song is dynamic, full of sweeping guitar that crunches beneath the foot as much as it soars over head, and rolling rhythms that propel the song into the stratosphere. Bono’s vocals are similarly positive and vital sounding, full of the soulful emoting that the band is known for. It’s the perfect combination between the rockier parts of No Line…, like “Stand Up Comedy” and “Get On Your Boots”, and the soul-stirring song-craft of “Cedars of Lebanon” and “White As Snow”.
Following a handful of performances on the No Line… promo tour, “Breathe” was chosen by the band to open the first dates of their 360 tour, but alas that honor was not to last. “Breathe” only appeared at forty-three of that tour’s one hundred and ten shows. By the third leg of the 360 Tour, “Breathe” had been dropped entirely never again to appear on a U2 stage. U2 claim that they dropped songs like “Breathe” and “No Line On The Horizon” because such mid-tempo songs don’t translate well in the live arena, but I strongly suspect that the truth is that they had lost faith in the material from the No Line…album. Whatever the case may be, I doubt that we’ll ever hear “Breathe” being played live by U2 again. I suppose that’s OK – I’ve still got those bootlegs from the No Line…promo tour to get me by.