Happy Anniversary to Bono and Ali! (With a New Song)

It’s infectious. The joy. The celebration. I tried to sleep last night, but the new lyric only got louder in my tired brain.

Evidently, the crowd in Bergen, Norway, felt the same on August 20 when DJ Kygo premiered the new song, introducing it as a collaboration between him and U2, and calling it “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” As the pop-driven groove locked into place, the Cloud 9 Festival dance party ramped up. Hands in the air. Spectators nearly screaming the chorus on its second round. Already irresistible.

We don’t know much about this unusual debut (though we know U2 love unusual debuts – who could forget Tim Cook and Bono touching fingers in September 2014?). But we have cobbled together most of the new lyrics, so here are some of my initial thoughts.

1. Is this an anniversary gift for Ali?
Today, August 21, marks the 34th year of marriage for the couple. In his familiar self-deprecating way, Bono sings,

You’re the best thing about me
The best thing that ever happened to Boy
You’re the best thing about me
I’m the kinda trouble that you enjoy

It reminds me a lot of “Sweetest Thing”:

Blue-eyed boy meets a brown-eyed girl

And more self-deprecation follows in “Best Thing”:

I’ll be crying out
How bad can a good boy be?
Shooting off my mouth
That’s another great thing about me

Only Ali could live with that ego and that mouth for 34 years. And Bono knows it. (Remember when Bono would point to himself while singing “Some people got way too much confidence, baby” in “Original Of The Species”?)

2. I like the missing article in the first line of the chorus.
I’d expect Bono to sing,

You’re the best thing about me / The best thing that ever happened to a boy.

But this song continues the exploration of the band’s beginnings, so Bono leaves out the “a” and changes “boy” to a proper noun, making it,

The best thing that ever happened to Boy.

Wow, so many places to go with that one. “Boy” – a nickname he or Ali use for himself; a reference to that very first album way back when the couple was just dating; the “time won’t take the boy out of this man” nature of his childish spirit; a way to link the present to the past in some kind of full-circle reflection that the Innocence + Experience tour used so well. I think it’s a lyrical subtlety that shows the singer at his best.

3. Bono loves to write in contrasts and contradictions.
Good artists always do. So in the middle of a love song, he interjects a bit of doubt and fear. “Why am I walking away?” is asked again and again throughout the tune. Didn’t he already promise: “If you walk away, walk away, I will follow”? Each are gut-level sentiments, both relevant to any important relationship. Here I’m reminded of the father’s love and acceptance of the prodigal son in “The First Time,” when Bono confesses,

He said ‘I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see’
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key

The idea is also expressed in “Every Breaking Wave”:

We know that we fear to win
And so we end before we begin

The risk of a loving relationship is that either we will be rejected, or, if we’re honest, we may be the one doing the rejecting.

4. The upside-down nature of the song is also unmistakable.
Bono loves to turn a phrase. One of my favorite lines in “Best Thing” is,

When we’ve seen enough to know that children can preach.

I’ll admit, I can’t quite make that lyric out and it’s just a guess at this point, but it fits with a variety of themes the band has used in other songs:

The more you see the less you know / The less you find out as you go

Baby slow down / The end is not as fun as the start / Please stay a child somewhere in your heart

And then Bono’s own late-in-life admission:

It’s hard to listen while you preach

There are some nice Scriptural connections to the children motif as well:

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Matthew 11:25

From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise. Matthew 21:16

5. Finally, that word “You’re” is intriguing to me.
We have a problem in the English language – we can never know if “you” is singular or plural, except through its usage and context (though in the southern States, “y’all” makes the plural form very clear). If I say, “You ought to listen to the new U2 song,” do I mean you personally, or the whole group of you reading this? When Bono sings, “You’re the best thing,” is he speaking to Ali, or could he be addressing a larger audience? Ahhh, here is another of our lyricist’s best qualities. Intentional ambiguity. Who is the “You” in “You’re”?

As in any really good U2 song, I think there are layers here.

  • First layer. On the surface, it’s a love song to Ali. She is the “you.”
  • Second layer. Just below that, there is a larger relational appeal to U2’s fan base. This could be a fantastic song in concert as the band looks out on the audience and reaffirms, “YOU are the best thing!” I can already imagine pictures of concert goers on the screen while the tune plays. U2 turns the cameras and lights around. The band is now the audience and the fans are in the spotlight. Willie Williams would really enjoy this one.
  • Third layer. As happens many times in U2’s work, there is a spiritual implication. The “You” could also be the divine. Near the end of the song, Bono sings, “You saved me from myself.” Is that line about Ali? Is it about fellow band mates? Is it about the audience? Is it about God? I say “yes” to all of those questions. Bono has already admitted as much on the Innocence + Experience tour (also including, “Rock ’n’ Roll saved my life!”).

It’s possible and probable that “Best Thing” is a dance mix of an upcoming album tune (Songs Of Experience certainly can’t be far away). “Best Thing” has the musical feel of U2’s concert remix of “I Know I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” and would be a cool addition to the next tour. Thematically, the song works like “Invisible,” as it celebrates the audience and leads fans to the party we all know will eventually happen at a U2 concert.

Whatever the interpretation, I hope the song is here to stay. And I hope it’s an indication of great things to come in the next year.

And I hope Bono and Ali have a WONDERFUL anniversary!


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