While I’ve been writing about 2004 and 2005’s pop music I’ve also been helping my wife sort out her mother’s memorial service, so a song about a parent dying is – unfortunately – Relevant To My Interests right now. Not that I realised, until I looked it up, that this is what Bono’s singing about here. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” hides its specific emotional content behind a veil of more general emotional content – i.e. it sounds like U2 doing a big U2 Ballad, a cloud of vague yearning upon which a listener can project their own particular concerns.

We almost always get U2 in upbeat rocking mode on Popular, but it’s unquestionable that these impassioned mid-paced slower numbers are critical to their popularity, especially as an arena-filling touring band: search for “Bad”, their first real success in this mode, and you’ll be offered multiple live versions before you get to the LP mix, including the extraordinary Live Aid performance which was the band’s chrysalis moment as a stadium force. From “Bad” on through “With Or Without You”, “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?”, “One” and the last LP’s “Stuck In A Moment”, these intense rock ballads are the spine of U2’s appeal.

It’s interesting to go back to “Bad” in light of the – apparently typical of this phase of U2 – tortuous genesis of “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”. The newer song, written as Bono’s father was dying of cancer, had been sitting in the band’s pile of not-quite-working songs for several years before someone pointed out that it didn’t have a chorus. Bono worked out the “it’s you when I look in the mirror” hook and bam, problem solved. An inchoate cluster of emotions had become a big U2 ballad.

But listen to “Bad” and you’re hearing a song which takes a similar emotion – impotence and frustration in the face of another’s pain – and makes it work exactly because it never offers the resolution of a chorus. It just keeps building and writhing in its tension, a tension which makes Bono’s words (woeful on paper) crystallise into something powerfully expressive. Expressive of what, it’s hard to say, but that’s why the song works.

And “Sometimes” is a kind of sad inverse of that. The lyrics, when I strain to listen, or even read them, are some of Bono’s most direct and painful in context. “If we weren’t so alike / You’d like me a whole lot more”; “I know that we don’t talk / I’m sick of it all” – understand these as the words of a guy in his 40s trying to get through to a stubborn, dying, beloved old man and they’re rough and heartfelt. But they don’t sound like that on record – they could be sung to anyone, a lover, a child, a friend.

U2’s great gift – not invented by them, but their way of doing it has been imitated by dozens of rock bands since – has been to use ballads to create intimacy at scale, a sense that the wider the canvas, the more cathartic it is for the secrets of the heart to be painted on it. But not all intimacies, not all moments, properly survive the transfer to universal scale. After doing my homework on it, I can poke myself into feeling something about “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, some sympathy for Bono, some reflection on my own parents and my own sons. I appreciate what he’s struggling with on the record. But I’m bringing all that in myself – the record’s not calling anything forth unbidden, because how could it? It’s just a big U2 ballad, and by now we all know what those are for.

Score: 5

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