On an album of experimental, here is experimental, Brian Eno not only getting in on his atmospheric sound-scapes on this one but also joining Bono for the lyrics. It is a bizarre lyric that Edge explained to Rolling Stone, "the narrator is in an altered state, and his phone starts talking to him."
U2 fans will be already familiar with the “Three-thirty-three when the numbers fell off the clock face” in the lyric. 33:3 appeared on the cover of All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Bono later spoke of them as God’s phone number. He explained that it was a nod to Jeremiah 33 v 3 where God says, “Call to me and I will answer you...”
So, is Unknown Caller a parable with the phone being God? It would not be the first time that U2 have used phone calls as prayer analogy; on If God Will Send His Angels, Bono sings, “God has got his phone off the hook babe, would he even pick it up if he could.”
That it could be a prayer/answer song leads me into that fascinating relationship between U2 and Brian Eno. I used to wonder how the Irish Celtic passionate Christian faith of Bono and U2 could be soul mates with the English rational atheism of Brian Eno. I mean it must be hard to be around the “Church” that U2 is and not belong in your soul to that spiritual commune – “let me in the sound” indeed!
Then, on Daniel Lanois’ movie/album project Here Is What Is, Eno makes his philosophical musing about what Lanois was trying to do in the movie - “What would be really interesting for people to see is that beautiful things grow out of shit (laughter)... because nobody ever believes that. ... a lesson for people to learn is that things come out of nothing, things evolve out of nothing.”
For Eno this art-think has implications for everyday life, “It gives people confidence in their own lives to know that this is how things work... I am an unpromising beginning and I could start something...”
As soon as I heard Eno say this, I was off in my mind to U2’s Grace from All That You Can’t Leave Behind - “Grace makes beauty out of ugly things...” Bono and Eno may not have God in common but their belief that the good comes from bad, beauty from ugly is for artists of music and life a strong common bond.
The idea and hope of re-birth, restoration, redemption runs through Unknown Caller. Here is a song about the unpromising reality of some prodigal on a runner and the possibility of getting a new start. It is the first song on Anton Corbijn’s companion movie to the album which kick starts a 45 minute journey as our AWOL unknown caller rides his motorbike and walks through the other songs. He is a wandering soul, searching for another chance to start again. The song seems to be in those two parts with the Caller declaring his condition and the phone (!!!!!), giving some advice to new starts or reboots!
In a New York Times article about Easter, Bono spoke a lot about this rebirth and his own testimony of confession and hope. “Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter. It’s a transcendent moment for me — a rebirth I always seem to need. Never more so than a few years ago, when my father died. I recall the embarrassment and relief of hot tears as I knelt in a chapel in a village in France and repented my prodigal nature — repented for fighting my father for so many years and wasting so many opportunities to know him better. I remember the feeling of “a peace that passes understanding” as a load lifted. Of all the Christian festivals, it is the Easter parade that demands the most faith — pushing you past reverence for creation, through bewilderment at the idea of a virgin birth, and into the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end. The cross as crossroads. Whatever your religious or nonreligious views, the chance to begin again is a compelling idea.”
For me, Unknown Caller might be about that compelling idea.