Ever since “Disappearing Act” was first released, I have struggled with some of the lyrics. I like to think that I am pretty perceptive, and that I can get “deep” with the best of them, but this song has some sections that I just don’t get. That’s unfortunate too, because I think that the song is drop-dead gorgeous, musically, with an urgency and desperation that match the best things ever recorded. The drums pound and throb like a racing heart and the guitar and keyboard wail like a sobbing mother…or maybe I should say a sobbing lover, given the ideas discussed in the song’s lyrics. Bono’s vocal melody fits the groove of the song well, and the whole sonic package is quite compelling. The only problem I have with the song is with some of the lyrics.
I get that the song is about a romantic partnership in which one person isn’t holding up their end of things. It sounds like maybe this person has been unfaithful and, maybe even worse, emotionally unavailable. Some of the references to dogs throw me off a little bit, especially the first one. “Alone, like a painter’s dog without a bone,” I think that Bono is trying to describe the loneliness of being involved with such a person here, because I picture a dog without a bone as being bored and dejected, just laying around with nothing to do and no one to pay attention to it. What I don’t get is why a painter’s dog, specifically? There must be some reference here that I’m just not getting, some double meaning that is eluding me. I even did an internet search for “painter’s dog,” but the search returned nothing useful. I’m stumped. The other reference to dogs in the song’s lyrics is a little easier for me to digest. “The dogs are barking, they need to be fed” is a pretty clear reference to me that someone has been neglecting their duties at home. If your house is like ours, the dogs are as much a part of the family as the people, and not feeding the fur-babies is just as bad as not feeding the kids. So, we have this couple, living together with dogs, and one person has just decided to say “screw it” and not spend any time tending to their responsibilities at home, leaving their partner to pick up the slack without any emotional support. The partner that is still vested in the relationship is convinced that they can love the other person back to being a good partner. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. That part of the lyric, I get, and it matches the need and the hunger and the desperation that drives the instrumental forward and makes the song sound so compelling. Finally, the song ends with the repeated lines, “You do your disappearing act, you do your disappearing act.” This really spells it all out. One second, the remiss partner is there, then she (or he) is just…gone, emotionally and maybe even physically.
I guess it’s really just one lyric that I have a hard time with, and in a song as deep and emotionally heavy as this one is, I guess I can forgive that. Writing off the song entirely because one word doesn’t grab me would be like cutting off my nose to spite my face. I am curious, though, whether any of you reading this have any insight into that “painter’s dog” business. Drop the knowledge for me in the comments below, and thanks for reading.