U2: All I Want Is You
am pretty much the only person I know in this town who doesn’t care one way or another about U2. Everyone else usually thinks they are the Best Band Ever, hates them, or (increasingly) thinks they were the Best Band Ever circa The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby but now hates them. I, on the other hand, have no opinion for the most part. If they are the biggest rock band on the planet, well, they’re not my choice for the role, but it’s not as if I couldn’t think of many, many worse options. If their last two albums have been pale retreads of past glories, well, the past glories themselves didn’t do much for me, so I can’t say I care.
Or, I should say, most of their past glories did little for me. There are a few U2 songs I have actual opinions about, although with the exception of “All I Want Is You,” I have trouble remembering which ones they are. And “All I Want Is You,” the one I respond to the most intensely, resists my inclination to love it.
Because let’s face it, U2 took maybe the best song they’ve ever had, and fucked it up as much as possible without destroying it. It’s hidden away on Rattle And Hum, which to be charitable was not their finest hour; they tacked on a coda that, while not awful, goes a long way towards weakening the song; and the video featured the romantic adventures of a circus midget.
I mean, I have nothing against the vertically impaired, but I still know people who refer to “All I Want Is You” as “that song about the little guy.” This is fair to neither the track nor the little guy.
Musically, the track isn’t really anything special: U2’s rhythm section has always been solid at worst, and here they do their normal fine job, and as much as I don’t care about the Edge’s playing normally, he’s quite good here. But “All I Want Is You” is really all about Bono’s performance. This is another reason for me to be ambivalent, because I don’t like Bono.
And yet, I find myself as far from ambivalent about “All I Want Is You” as it’s possible to be. It is, thankfully, not another codependent love song, whining about how the singer can’t possibly live without you, how without you the singer would just crumble and fall apart… there are many good songs that express similar sentiments, and although they are the exaggerated fictions that give love songs so much of their power, the fact is they often aren’t taken as such. Rob Gordon wasn’t just miserable because he listened to sad songs; the “romantic” ones had their part to play (and he’s far from the only one). In casting the Other as necessary for our survival (emotional or literal) we make ourselves out to be cripples, and so become cripples. Far too few of these songs use “want” instead of “need”.
Of course this was, on the one hand, probably not a conscious choice; and on the other, it doesn’t reduce the very real and palpable emotions coursing through “All I Want Is You.” Go back to the greatest lines Bono has ever hollered:
And all the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you
That want overrides all else, and it throbs at the heart of “All I Want Is You.” The rest of the lyrics aren’t anything more than list of the things the Other here wants from us, or offers to us, but they’re swept aside by the center of the song. To admit that yes, we can survive without the Other does not reduce our love; it strengthens that love.
It’s too bad that those ill-used strings come in and take over the last two minutes, ushering us away from anything human; they’re not bad, certainly, but they pale so greatly in the fierce light of the rest of the song that they feel painfully tacked on. There is something towering in the sentiment of the rest of “All I Want Is You”, something beyond any individual circumstance. I’m sure the song was actually written about someone specific, but like all the best love songs “All I Want Is You” goes beyond the definite, breaking through into the universal, into the wordless. By the end of the song proper Bono is reduced to screaming out the title over and over, pushed to the very extremity of what he can express with his voice. That rawness, that passion, is all I want from U2, and what I get from “All I Want Is You.” All else is distraction.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-01-05