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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

U2 "One" Song Analysis

Reader Gil Griffith requested a song analysis of U2's massively influential (as least from a charity point of view) "One," from their 1991 album Actung BabyRolling Stone placed the song at number 36 on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", while a special edition issue of Q, titled "1001 Best Songs Ever", named "One" the greatest song of all-time. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song's form, arrangement, sound and production.

The Song
"One" is a fairly simple song in that it doesn't have a lot of complicated sections or chord changes, but what's used is very effective. The form looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus, Outro

The bridge is quite unusual as it seems a bit out of place in terms of the chord changes and it's not really the peak like in most songs. The melody is very strong, especially the chorus, which is a trait of U2 songwriting and the reason why they write hits. Of course, the lyrics are what most people site as the tune's centerpiece.

The Arrangement
The arrangement is pretty simple; start out very sparse and add more and more instruments to each verse/chorus until it's about as big as it can get by the end. The song starts with sticks and tambourine and three guitars; an acoustic, an electric through a Leslie speaker and an electric with the tone controls turned down. The next verse the bass and drums enter along with another guitar playing a line and another rhythm guitar. On the next verse a synth string pad enters along with yet more guitars, and after the bridge a piano, a lead guitar line, and even more rhythm guitars enter. I wish I knew how many tracks they used, but there's a lot going on here.

  * The Foundation: sticks, drums and bass

  * The Pad: mellow guitar in the 1st verse and later the strings

  * The Rhythm: tambourine, acoustic guitar

  * The Lead: the vocal

  * The Fills: various guitars

The Sound
U2 has never been entirely concerned about the sound of their records, going more for feel instead. That said, this one sounds pretty good, despite the massive amount of guitar and keyboard layers. The vocal has a medium reverb that disappears as the song progresses and the track builds. There's a short timed delay present that you can hear on the sticks and tambourine in the intro that's used on the instruments as well. You can occasionally hear the compression used on the various instruments, but it's used in moderation so it's never obtrusive.

The Production
Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno have worked with U2 on most of their hits and you can tell they're very organic in their thinking. Two sections prove that - the intro and the end. First of all, the song has a count-in, which you hardly ever hear on records since it more or less denotes a demo. You can also hear guitar hum underneath. Most bands wouldn't have the courage to leave those in. The ending, on the other hand, is very ragged, which is almost unexpected, considering how well the rest of the song is put together. That's the U2 way though, as leaving a ragged edge is what they prefer.

There's a lot of stories about the producers, engineer (Flood), and band struggling over the mix for weeks. It's not surprise with all the layers, but given that, I'd say the mix ended up being one of the centerpieces of the songs.

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