Sound Affects

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Music analysis – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

U2 and The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons

As Jean-Jacques Nattiez says, no matter how a song appears to those who made it (poiesis), it is impossible to predict how it will translate esthetically to each and every potential listener. However, by focusing on what is immanent in the music we can perhaps hazard a guess at what was intended by its producers.
U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is a giant of a song – instantly recognisable and usually featuring prominently on any “Greatest Songs Of All Time” list. Throughout the song, as with much of U2’s music, Bono’s voice is the primary instrument – straining, yearning – hungry for what he has searched so hard for but to no avail. Whatever he is searching and yearning for is clearly desperately personal – Bono has perhaps the most distinctive (and ubiquitous) voice of his generation, and given that the lyrics are written in the first person certainly brands this search as Bono’s own search. However, from the very first chorus more voices join in, softly singing with the same phrasing and the same timing as Bono –suggesting that Bono’s unattainable goal is shared by countless others. The Edge’s guitar line compliments, rather than dominates the mix (another U2 trademark), but it is the bass and drum combination that keeps a constant rhythm, rolling along without ever changing tempo, reinforcing the meaning inferred from Bono’s voice and the voices of the choir – that this song is about something that, perhaps, can never be definitively found.

The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons version, though clearly dripping with affectionate irony, actually manages to highlight certain aspects of U2’s original that have perhaps been lost due to its status as an iconic, canonical rock song. The banjo is an unavoidably “folk” instrument, and furthermore can come across as “hokey” and slightly backwards. However, in this instance, it plays a similar role to the choir of voices in the original: it clearly underlines that this is a song about both an individual longing and the longing of a much, much larger group. The banjo is “folky”, but this merely serves as a reminder of the community-based nature of country/bluegrass bands, playing standards at town dances in the early twentieth century. This sense of community is only reinforced by the backing vocals, which adopt a call and response style reminiscent of Southern churches. Hearing Bono’s lyrics in this new form means that the lyrics are listened to, not just heard, and thus both the lyrics and their religious content are brought to the fore.

However, it would be misleading to state that the SNAC version is simply U2, but Now With Added Religion. Indeed, this religiosity seems an entirely unintended consequence, given that SNAC are a comedy troupe from Australia, and have built a career out of self-proclaimed “wacky” cover versions of everyone from ABBA to Hendrix. The poiesis of this song is perhaps aimed at extracting the greatest comic value out of the juxtaposition between the original classic and the new, irreverent cover. However, there can perhaps be no better justification for Nattiez’s argument about esthetics than this analysis of the song – that a bluegrass comedy band can be interpreted as bringing religion back to one of the classic anthems of rock and roll.

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  1. Bono pulls the old trick of singing about God and about a woman simultaneously. But it comes off as elegant and natural here. Going from, “I have kissed honey lips/
    Felt the healing in her fingertips,” clearly evoking a woman, to, “[You] carried the cross/ Of my shame,” invoking the unmistakable symbol of Christianity, he blends the sacred and profane.


    September 28th, 2010 at 12:26 pm

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