“With Or Without You” by U2 (from The Joshua Tree, 1987)
Yesterday I asked if Lanois was responsible for making The Edge sound as good as he does, and I’m ready to reveal that as a rhetorical red herring. It’s actually Michael Brook who’s responsible for the most iconic Edge guitar sound (and hate The Edge as much as it’s culturally forgivable, but he’s produced a high volume of memorable riffs that contend with the aching notes strung through “With or Without You”). Brook lent The Edge a prototype of the Infinite Guitar and Lanois, Bono, and Gavin Friday serendipitously heard him playing the instrument while the three were listening to “With or Without You”’s backing track. The long, bending notes are sonic angst and here The Edge’s perceived perma-amateur status (a sad bit of rockism directed at the most symbolically rockist band in existence, what a shame spiral) translates to restraint instead of inadequacy. Bono, too, delivers a weightier performance, relying more on the fullness of his voice than its range.
I said I’d be avoiding the hits, but this one plays right into my hand. The music video features the band playing on an empty soundstage, no audience. It’s Lanois’s sound made literal, a more perfect complement to the song’s lovelorn tension than any alternate reality possibilities (a literal depiction of the song’s lyrics or a more Christ-y rendering of Bono unto his fans, for example) that continues the song’s otherworldly ability to balance its ambition with ambition’s potential for backlash. This is not to suggest the song hasn’t met its inevitable fate but that it walked such a narrow tightrope with a target on its back before it even existed. Ubiquity (along with some minor misinterpretation of the lyrics; it’s not a love song, at least, not like that) caused “With or Without You” to enter the “overplayed” zone of our collective consciousness, but even if the world has worn the grooves smooth, the song’s far from treacly pap. The emptiness, the darkness of that soundstage represents all of Lanois’s potential realized. Though balance is something he’s never mentioned actively seeking while producing The Joshua Tree (it’s all “ideas” and more “ideas” and sometimes running out of “ideas”) but at the album’s peak its greatest achievement isn’t innovation but temper. It’s the teeter-tottering of massive egos and a universe of blank canvas, the only concept able to hold U2 (and Lanois) in check.
I’ve asserted this is the dominant rock sound of the 1980s, and if my love for it isn’t justification alone, how about some stats? The Joshua Tree is one of only 24 diamond certified albums. It spent nine consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 and 106 total weeks on the chart. It was the sixth Top Pop album of 1987. “With Or Without You” peaked at number one and spent 18 total weeks on the Hot 100. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” shares similar stats — hitting number one and staying 17 total weeks on the chart. This past February, the album re-entered the Billboard 200 at number 47. U2 (with Lanois and Brian Eno) won the 1987 Album of the Year Grammy. Of course, these numbers are a double-edged sword, capable of turning on the band and Lanois as evidence their bloat. I’m trotting them out only to demonstrate that it’s not just in my mind that this sound took hold, but in over 10 million minds, and its popularity persists to this day.
"With Or Without You" gives me the chills every single time I hear it.