A battle cry for unity and a desperate search for resolution, “One” by U2 has proven to transcend time and space. Ranked #36 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “One” has become a sonic symbol for promoting human rights and fighting social injustice. It has forever elevated U2 into the hall of greats, those with songs so spiritual and pure that their creation is often referred to as a mystical “gift.” Moreover, “One” signified a profound turning point within the band’s career, ultimately saving U2 from themselves.
Following the release of their Rattle and Humalbum and Lovetown Tour, U2 found themselves at a profound precipice. Having grown accustomed to the praise and commercial success of their previous album, the Joshua Tree, the criticism aimed at their most recent album, a tribute to American roots music, was a difficult pill to swallow. In addition, U2 began doubting their image and questioning their position as world renowned rock stars. Beginning as an artistic, post-punk band, they had swiftly transitioned into a sold-out stadium act. Though invigorated by the success, as Bono once put it, “did we become the enemy?”
In addition to this identity crisis, the members of U2 began to feel the inevitable pull of life and differing artistic interests. A common trope amongst accomplished bands whom were once young, like-minded musicians, chomping at the bit, is that they inevitably evolve into experienced individuals with unique perspectives and desires. U2 was no exception to this theme. Bono and his wife had welcomed their first-born child, the Edge’s marriage to his high school sweetheart was deteriorating, and all of the guys envisioned the future of U2’s sound through their own personal scope, no longer seeing eye to eye.
In an effort to re-establish the band’s foundation, U2 arrived in Berlin, Germany in October of 1990, prepared to write and record their next album at Hansa Studios. Interestingly, this was throughout the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, unifying Germany’s capital city. The joy and exultation within Berlin during this period was palpable across the globe, and was sure to inadvertently impact four, at odds, musicians recording just down the street. Despite this, as the recording processes began, the issues amongst the band only continued to become more apparent. U2 had always relied heavily upon improvisation when writing and recording, now they struggled to discover the magic that had previously guided them to creation.
It wasn’t until one glorious day, when the Edge brought in a new chord progression to the studio, that the tides began to turn for a desperate and hungry U2. Originally imbedded within a bridge of what would eventually become the band’s hit, “Mysterious Ways,” this chord progression was quickly plucked out and experimented with separately on an acoustic guitar, accompanied by Bono improvising with the lyrics, theme, and melody. It was then that the long-awaited momentum of creation started to manifest and the band began to amalgamate once more.
The song at hand became “One,” and is responsible for spurring the direction and formation of U2’s seventh celebrated studio album, Achtung Baby. Though Bono has left his explanation of the lyrics and melody rather vague, it becomes quite obvious that the state of the band, the conclusion of Edge’s marriage, and their time in a newly liberated Berlin, all factored into the tone and essence of the song. Full to the brim with questions that receive no answer, “One” begins with uncertainty and ends with an understanding, much like the making of Achtung Baby.
Though the band headed to Berlin in search of a new and inspired sonic identity, instead, they left with a spiritual one. The honest and raw nature of “One” not only crafted a generational hit, but reunited a divided group of musicians and friends. Since its inception, the sorrowful, passionate message heard in “One” has continued to unify, showcasing the incredible power within the song and the heartbreakingly relatable experience of conflict and resignation.
– Victoria Shaffer
“Achtung Baby.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Achtung_Baby.
Initial design & architecture by Carl Uebelhart. Further development by Aaron Sams and Harry Kantas. “U2Songs.Com.” u2songs, http://www.u2songs.com/demos/sick_puppy.
Leahey, Andrew. “Behind The Song: U2, ‘One.’” American Songwriter, 11 Nov. 2019, americansongwriter.com/behind-the-song-one/.
“Rattle and Hum.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 May 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rattle_and_Hum.
WildxFlower. “U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ Documentary.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Jan. 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EoQKii-Nr8.