U2: Running to Stand Still

stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

The Joshua Tree, twenty years old this March, is one of the most ambitious albums ever released by one of the most frankly ambitious bands ever to grace the cover of Time magazine; an album stuffed to rafters with anthems that nakedly aimed to change the world, to run, hide, and tear down the walls that hold us all inside. It is a fantastically good album, a success even judged by its own excessively bright lights.

But for all its globe-bestriding hooey and pyrotechnics, The Joshua Tree’s success (as an album, as opposed to the collections of ring-tone-ready anthems U2 put out as greatest hits compilations and has used as templates for all subsequent albums) depends entirely on its still center. Closing the A-side of the album, on the heels of the impossibly ostentatious, long-winded display of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” (just the titles are exhausting) “Running to Stand Still” occupies a landscape so sparse, it sounds like it belongs on a different album altogether. U2’s greatest strength, never better captured than in Joshua Tree’s opening quartet, is their faith in music as a transcendent powertool of justice, faith, and redemption. Yet “Running to Stand Still” is a song riven with regrets, a song of failed flight and the closed circle of compromise. It is Bono’s first, and possibly last, song as an adult, its durability predicated on its exceptional modesty.

Opening with a yawning, aching acoustic slide, “Running to Stand Still” pointedly swears off the incantatory guitar bombast the Edge had just tuned to perfection. The simple chords push towards a lilted waltz’ reel but, tripped up by the demands of rock 4/4, settle into a subdued halfway measure, a sunken-spirited calypso that begins each bar where it started, triplet-triplet-duplet in perpetuity. The Edge’s claim to greatness is based partly on his stoic restraint; on “Running to Stand Still” he is so restrained he barely plays guitar at all, just feather-struck harmonics (Eno produced, after all) echoing the intake of Bono’s lover’s breath.

Because, like every U2 song, “Running” is a love song, rife with longing from the minute Bono’s character begins to stir:
So she woke up
Woke up from where she was
Lying still.
Said I, I gotta do something
About where we’re going.
Granted, the lyrics suffer from Bono’s inescapable vagueness, but there is a specificity in the non-descript surroundings: “where she was” is both universal, and descriptive of a place that is, physically as much as emotionally, marked by nothing more than a passing, pale presence, weightlessly seeking refuge through momentum, which sweeps into hearing in the guise of Larry Mullen’s hammered tympani and Adam Clayton’s bass ostinato. Since their first singles, U2 have sunk or soared on the strength of their rhythm section; “Running to Stand Still”’s orchestral swells and troughs showcase a greater sensitivity and sensuality than Clayton/Mullen are permitted when throwing down blacktop for Edge’s skidding, spinning licks. It is the rhythm section that conveys the hopeless motion of the steam train, a temporary refuge from the storm that inescapably returns to the point of departure, to where she was.
I see seven towers
But I only see one way out.
You gotta cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice.
At the heart of the song is Bono’s use of addiction as a metaphor for spiritual transcendence: the struggle to cut loose the broken, inexorable self, a self that will take poison just to be able to float away, out of the irreducible here, even for a moment—to be for once beyond the demands of presence. The lust for escape is enacted in the song’s almost-absent chorus, no more than a declining phrase of open syllables softly repeated to hold awareness at bay, the nonsensical mutterings of a slipping grasp on the present.

Live, Bono typically added an extra chorus, flinging the song up a register, tuning it to the bombastic demands of magnificent mid-period U2, the pyrotechnics of The Joshua Tree need a moment of respite, where something actually goes unsaid and unplayed, and for once Bono obliges—almost. He gives perfect, operatic Celtic-warrior falsetto gasps, two, three phrases, exultant, keening, the last not quite a preview of Bono’s Fat Lady persona (he called it, not me, in the Zooropa liner notes)—and the song’s conflict moves inward again, transported by the gathering momentum of the rhythm section, but Bono is tied once again to his earthbound register, railing but unable to slip his own skin again.
In through a doorway
She brings me
White gold and pearls
Stolen from the sea
She is raging
She is raging
And a storm blows up in her eyes
She will
Suffer the needle chill
She’s running to stand
And then, suddenly, after the held breath before the final word, the song is over but for Bono’s harmonica. He’s a horrible harmonica player, it may be the least essential element of the song; yet he plays a simple, elegiac melody that is both mourning and celebration, regret and recognition, and the song strums itself to rest without returning to the suspended mantra of the chorus. As the sound slow-fades over forty-five slow seconds, back comes the ghost of the slide, its Styxian ebb ushering us out, finally, of where we are.

By: Andrew Iliff
Published on: 2007-03-01
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