Angel of Harlem

Rattle and Hum wasn’t the statement that its three predecessors were, and it had none of the tightness, conciseness or even the innovation of them, but at its best it is an incredibly soulful album – not one to rate as a classic, but an album containing some classics and by no means a bad album. The key piece of evidence to cite for this is almost in the heart of the album (track ten of seventeen), “Angel of Harlem”. For three minutes and forty-nine seconds, you can throw all cynicism aside, and screw it if the images of snow don’t technically work, it’s now Christmas time in September. And if you’re of a female disposition, this is probably the U2 song above all others to prompt much singing into a hairbrush (however much that happens nowdays anyway). And so on and so forth. Yes, the lyrics are ostensibly about Billy Holiday, and when Bono first heard her music – in New York, in winter, on WBLS. To be fair, it ain’t asking for forensic levels of investigation.

Nor is the music, if we’re fair, which mostly consists of a horn arrangement, although interestingly for a song about New York, it’s from the Memphis Horns. Even so, the song is clearly drawing from the Stax and Volt record labels of the 1960s, and their kind of production values, a kind of Baroque variation on Phil Spector’s Wagnerian tendencies. The Southern connection continues in Edge’s guitar, which kind-of has a jangling tone to it, rather than the ringing, shimmering effect of usual; in any event, it’s effectively what early R.E.M. (or one of their many plaigirisers/influenced) would come up with if they’d chorded every note.

I suppose I could keep going on, but really the song is conveying a pure joy, a moment in time where even adversity can always be heroically overcome – Blinded you lost your way/The sidestreets and the alleyway are lines that come across as passionately as anywhere else in the song. Really, the most that needs to be said is that this song manages to be purely uplifting without being crass, camp or cheesy, and considering the ease with which artistic misery is possible, to duck around the pressure of easy dourism is admirable, and to get the result that U2 does here, with “Angel of Harlem”, is a triumph.


~ by 4trak on September 16, 2008.

One Response to “Angel of Harlem”

  1. I often thought of the intro to this song as being influenced by “Like a Rolling Stone.” When I hear the opening few bars, I’m incline to sing, “Once a upon a time you dressed so fine…”

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