As the Joshua Tree 2017 Tour continues its trek across Europe, we are keeping on with our series on songs related to the other U2 album that’s currently celebrating a big anniversary. That’s Pop, which turns twenty this year, and this week’s spotlight falls on that album’s fifth single, “If God Will Send His Angels”.
The first few times I heard “If God Will Send His Angels”, I thought that it was Pop‘s big commercial ballad, like “One” from Achtung Baby or “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” from Zooropa, but gradually it sunk in that this song wasn’t meant to inspire hope or brotherhood, like “One”, nor was it a complicated love song, like “Stay”. And it’s not really a ballad, either – it’s almost completely lacking in sentimentality, which is one of the defining characteristics of a ballad. See, one of the things that really endears Pop to me is the way it questions religion and God’s role in our modern world. As an atheist, I’ve asked many of the same questions throughout my life that Bono asks on Pop, so I relate to the band’s quest for truth (which isn’t exclusive to Pop, by the way, but I think it’s more overt on that album than it is on anything else that U2 has done). Songs like “Wake Up Dead Man” and “If God Will Send His Angels” boldly look at the troubled world as it existed in 1997 (if anything, it’s even worse today, so these questions are still very relevant) and ask how much can we depend on a God who would allow the world to sink to this level.
Musically, the song a little misleading at first, as well. It starts out slow, with just some murky guitar and Bono’s plaintive voice. Before long, these are joined by some mournful keyboards, continuing the glum feeling. What I didn’t notice at first, though, were the thumping drums backing those keyboard stabs. Now I think of the song as every bit the classic U2 pop song, more in the vein of songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. It has ringing, chiming guitars, a bouncy bass line and Larry’s trademark steady drumming. Truly, no one else but U2 could have pulled off this song.
Unfortunately, the band doesn’t seem to appreciate the song nearly as much as I do. “If God Will Send His Angels” made its live debut right on schedule on the opening night of the Pop*Mart Tour with a moving, if a little rough, full-band performance of the song. The song’s fall from grace started the very next night as it was relegated to an abbreviated version that was little more than a snippet, with just Bono and Edge playing the song in a performance that lasted less than two minutes. All the rest of the song’s performances were in this latter style, and it only appeared twenty-two more times, all on the first leg of the Pop*Mart Tour. Considering the band’s apparent feelings for the Pop album, I doubt that the song will ever appear again. The band has proven me wrong more times than I care to count, though, so maybe they’ll surprise me again and break out this song, that at one time they thought highly enough of to make a single, one more time.