Today, Bono turns 52. Today, the world finds out that Jack White’s cover of Love Is Blindness is part of The Great Gatsby’s soundtrack. Today, I need to revisit a few of my basic rules.
Achtung Baby is unequivocally one of the most visited and revisited U2 albums, considered a landmark in alternative rock and a definitely severe left turn in U2’s career. Recorded between 1990 and 1991 at the infamous Hansa Studios in Berlin, Achtung Baby marks a complicated and distressing time. The Edge was in the middle of a painful divorce from the mother of his children, Aislinn; Bono was suffering a crisis of confidence; and outside, the world had to find its own footing as well, a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Everything, socially, politically, and of course, musically was suffering a complete overhaul. There is nothing like devastating change to bring about the most incredible pieces of music; and Achtung Baby suffers no fillers, no bored moments, no pregnant pause and certainly no failures. Produced by the faithful Brian Eno, the album is nothing short than the very musical depiction of creativity, the cynicism, the abandonment, the doubt, the self-questionment and the destabilising moments that it produces. In The Fly, one of the key songs of this era in U2’s career, Bono sneers “Every artist is an cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration, and sing about the grief.”
Grief is a constant in Achtung Baby; from the agonising notes of “One” to desperate calls of “Who’s gonna ride your wild horses”, the album is a litany to the tragedy of heartbreak, loss, devastation, and sheer pain. It is impossible to dissociate The Edge’s personal trauma from the lyrics, so much does his guitar playing evocate blood seeping out of a gaping wound. It is sore, aching, raw, and even sounds unfinished. The Achtung Baby sessions are not as easily available as, say, the Zooropa demo tapes; there is something almost secretive about the recording process that leads to believing it might have been a long and frustrating journey towards the completion of the album. If two singles released are emblematic of U2’s career – the universal and ubiquitous One, and Even Better Than The Real Thing – the song that is the most intense, and maybe the most achieved lyrical piece of U2’s career is Love is Blindness.
In the song, Bono almost whispers, his voice only rarely rising and creating an echo, what is pure poetry. Strong, evocative images of dark encounters and emotional failures are recalled, to the song of a high-pitched, screeching guitar climbing in intensity. If Achtung Baby dives into several musical genres through the course of the album, it is almost impossible to pin Love is Blindness down. It is just one of those pieces of music that belong to a realm of themselves, that stand out of anything their contemporaries have ever created, that just have no peers. It is an alien in the heavily controlled zone of early 1990s rock’n’roll. If U2 never cared much for labels, genres, etiquettes, or boxes, Love Is Blindness was a bold choice to close the album, one that was bound to leave a lasting and enduring trace on the listener. It is impossible to listen to Love Is Blindness and remain unscathed; it touches at the very core of a human being, appeals to whatever has been shattered and discarded before.
This is why it is an incredibly strange – but is it really that strange? – choice for Jack White to record. White did not wait for The Great Gatsby to release the song: it was originally recorded in 2011, when U2 decided to put out a cover version of Achtung Baby, called (Ahk-toong-Bay-bi). White confessed to Rolling Stone that when he first got the record, he was listening to “a lot of it in my headphones”, and has developed an obsession for Love Is Blindness. Here’s the rule I never allow myself to break: U2 belongs to the pantheon of untouchable elements to me. I writhe in pain at the very idea that someone is going to touch their work, even if it is with their complete blessing. Jack White, being respectful, asked The Edge the permission to release his version of Love Is Blindness as a B-side to his 2011 solo venture, Blunderbuss. The two having met and appreciated each other on the set of documentary It Might Get Loud, things followed a logical pattern. We now rediscover Love Is Blindness in a completely different way, which is usually a sign of a successful cover: when the cover artist has enough creativity at his or her fingertips to revisit the song entirely without losing its original sense of soul.
If anyone could capture the broken pieces of someone’s heart left all over the song, it is Jack White. With his personal and natural tendancy to explore the darkest corners of humanity, his genuine attraction to the furthest parts of consciousness, White reaches out to blues figures such as Robert Johnson, who let their voices soar and reach previously unattainable peaks of pain and despair. His guitar echoes The Edge’s, it has a life of its own, it just expresses itself in more ways than a traditional riff would allow. In a delivery somewhat similar to Bono’s – but with a tone conveying anger rather than submission, fighting spirit rather than surrender, and sounding more like a cry of help than quietly relenting. White gives the song the outrageous power it had within itself, but that U2 chose to brush under the carpet, as if the band was done pulling punches in the name of love, being the beacon of hope and salvation in a world of deceit. White has chosen, deliberately, to express in Love Is Blindness what U2 thought they had lost in 1991: their undeniable thirst for salvation. At the end of the song, White goes in a tangeant. When Bono simply wailed, “I don’t want to see”, White screams, “I’m so sick of it”. Where U2 portrayed a defeated victim, White depicts someone walking away from the scene of the crime. It is a powerful rendition, a take that has perhaps been envisaged during recording, but did not fit the band’s mindset or environment at the time.
I never thought possible that another version of Love Is Blindness could capture the essence of the song in such a harmonious way, while still being capable of twisting and turning around the message. If anything, Jack White has redeemed every single U2 cover ever made – from all the With Or Without You’s out there to those pretentious enough to go after Joshua Tree-era hits. Jack White is unique gem in the music industry; he plays by his own rules and creates by his own standards. There could not have been a better match to revisit a U2 song. Happy birthday, Bono.