When U2 debuted “The Little Things That Give You Away” in Vancouver this past May, I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first. I thought that the piano during the first half of the song was a little predictable and formulaic, and I didn’t get immediately what the lyric was about. I loved the more chaotic, rockin’ second half of the song, but overall the song left me confused and slightly unexcited. It wasn’t until my mom was visiting a few weeks later while on her way north, and we were discussing the song, that I realized that Bono was singing to and about himself. That excited me. Here was an intensely personal confession of my favorite singer and lyricist’s misgivings and doubts about the future. The more I listened to the song, the more it moved me. Instead of sounding worn out, the piano now felt archetypal and vintage, and the stormy second half of the song gave me goosebumps. The vocal melody was strong, and I found myself with the chorus stuck in my head. I began to build up some high expectations for the album that the song was purported to be from.
When I first heard the studio version of the song, I have to admit that it was like I was starting back at square one with “The Little Things That Give You Away.” The relationship that I had built with the live version of the song didn’t apply to the studio version. The lyrics were obviously the same, but the music was markedly different. In place of the comfortable, classic sounding piano was some ethereal guitar work. The second half of the song was also different, feeling more restrained, more ordered – less in sync with the tumultuous feelings that were being expressed by Bono’s lyrics about his insecurities. I didn’t know what to think.
Finally, I made up my mind that I was going to sit down and really listen closely to the album version of the song, and that I would listen to it over and over until I got the instrumentation. After a few listens, it all finally clicked for me. The exquisite, delicate instrumentation at the beginning of the song illustrated the haziness of looking back at ourselves in the past, which is exactly what Bono is doing in the first verses of the song. It is difficult to really appreciate and understand where we have been and who we used to be, but it is essential to understanding who we are now and where we are going. Bono is insightful enough to recognize that the confidence that drove him in the past has split into two separate emotions in his own heart and head. On one side, he is still confident enough to believe that he has something to say that is worth hearing, but that conviction is tempered with a nervousness that maybe he’s just fooling himself. I think that this is a conflict that every artist goes through — even if all they do is write a weekly article for a fan-site dedicated to their favorite band.
I’m looking forward to hearing what U2 decide to do with “The Little Things That Give You Away” on the upcoming tour. Will they return to the arrangement that they used last year on The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour, or will they try to capture the fragile emotions of the album version? Either way, I think that “The Little Things That Give You Away” will be great to experience in the live arena.