In the early part of their career, U2 recorded a lot more instrumentals or nearly-instrumentals than they would in later days. I’m not really sure why that might have been…what motivated them to write and record instrumental pieces…but I can guess why they don’t do it anymore. As I have said in past articles, when you have a weapon like Bono’s voice in your arsenal, you use it. As I am writing this, it occurs to me that it might be a case of Bono’s lyric writing maturing to the point where it was a better option to let him have his say. In the early days, when Bono’s lyrics were less polished, they weren’t losing as much by recording a song with no or few lyrics. At any rate, J. Swallow is one of those songs that is almost an instrumental, and the few lyrics that there are might be the perfect indication of what I was talking about above…Bono’s lyrics in this song…let’s just say that they are not the best he has ever written. To be honest, I don’t really understand what Bono is trying to say in the lyrics to this song. Maybe it fits in with the more experimental tone of the music and Bono was trying to write something that was hazier and more avant-garde than some of his other lyrics. I suppose that the lyric is successful on that level because it feels a bit incomplete, almost dream-like.
I read somewhere that the music to this song is another example of the band experimenting. According to Edge, the band took the drums from another song and slowed them down, then wrote this song over top of those drums. I applaud the band for trying something new, and I do kinda like the deep throbbing bass in this song, but overall it is easy to understand why this song was consigned to a b-side, versus earning a spot on the album itself. There isn’t much melody to the song, the lyrics, as I discussed above, feel like an unfinished piece of poetry, and the entire song is made up of a single guitar riff repeated over and over, with little to no variation. “J. Swallow” is a nice piece of experimentation, but it really isn’t very good as a song. Despite that, it says something positive about the band that they are willing to take chances and record songs like this, and that facet of the band’s personality would lead to greater things on future releases.
It is no surprise, considering the song’s unorthodox origins, that “J. Swallow” has never been performed live. I really can’t think of a reason that the band would perform this song live, and I can’t imagine that any fans, hardcore or otherwise, are clamoring to hear “J. Swallow” at a concert. That said, there is still a part of me that wants to hear every song that U2 has ever recorded live so maybe “J. Swallow” could work as an interlude piece or an introduction. A remix or cover of the song played during an intermission might be interesting, so maybe we will wait for someone to get the idea to try something new with the song. That might be pretty cool, after all.