The new documentary From The Sky Down tells the story of how U2 shifted from a band that was possibly over to a band that could record one of the most artistically creative records of all time. At the heart of the documentary and seemingly the key that unlocked the rest of Achtung Baby is the song One. When that one broke through so did the muse that informed the rest of a transitional set of songs. In other documents of the time the story goes that producer Brian Eno appeared in the studio and took Edge’s melody, playing a piano melody over the top. Bono watching the magic that was happening musically started singing “we are one but we are not the same and we carry each other...” A song was born and a family got to stay together!
If ever a song grew up, it is One. On Achtung Baby it was maybe the song that most recalled the 80’s and the Joshua Tree that Bono said they were chopping down but over the years it has become U2’s best loved, most covered and the glue that sticks a lot of what they do together; it is uniting, it makes everything into One! Perhaps on closer more meticulous inspection we shouldn’t be so surprised as One is a song richly layered, ambiguous but with a plethora of meanings, all of which when given the chance gives more solidity and force to the song. It has unity at the soul of it. Unity of emotions and unity of people.
In its uniting of emotion it holds the beauty and ugliness of love side by side; the melancholy of it and its lovely hopefulness. U2 have always made it clear that it is not about the old hippy let us love each other philosophy but that it is much stronger and more realistic than that. Here are two people who have hurt each other, who need to forgive, who need to be Jesus to each other in the unconditioned healing he brought to people and relationships. This is a song about two lovers who should be turning their backs on each other, walking away without ever looking around yet they see that in the midst of their romantic angst they can make a decision to carry each other. It is a unity that eyeballs the differences and makes courageous, painful decisions to help one another. Edge was in the middle of a marriage break up during Achtung Baby and it is hard to believe that this is not about him and his first wife Aislinn.
In time though One has come to mean so much more, taking on political and economic divisions on a global scale. Bono mentions that the Dalai Lama had asked for a contribution to his Oneness project and how he’d not followed the easy hippy cliché chorus but had responded, “We are one, but we are not the same.” By the time the song had reached Live 8 and the Vertigo Tour it was not so much dressing the stage set as the rest of the stage set was being dressed upon it. With the Vertigo Tour’s intro being the haunting repeat of the word “Everyone” and its sense of unity from beginning to end, particularly on this occasion with the west and Africa, One was fully grown. Songs bring people together and if ever a song documents such a phenomenon then One is that song. It has indeed, over twenty years, come of age and was more than deserving of its accolade in Q magazine as being named the greatest song of all time.