The Wanderer

Getting Johnny Cash to do the main vocals for this song turned out to be a bizarrely inspired move, especially as this is one of U2’s best and most well-known non-single tracks. And yet musically it ain’t that much; it’s primarily a fuzzy, bobbing synth line with a few variations here and there. Along with that goes a very quiet drum machine that almost blends right in with that synth, a whirling piece of treble and massed choral voices. Guitar also creeps in almost halfway through, but it’s the very spare, delicate sort that would later crop up amongst the likes of Portishead. The quote knocked about with this song with regards to music is “Holiday Inn band from hell”, yet the harmony vocals do sound somewhat ethereal, church-like if you will, presenting a kind of two-sidedness to the arrangement.

Lyrically it seems like the obvious antidote to Zooropa‘s ever-present theme of uncertainty; where everyone else is distanced through technology, oppressed by an uncaring society (Where men can’t walk/Or freely talk) or hung up about materialism and secularisation (a city without a soul, They say they want the kingdom/But they don’t want God in it), the protagonist to this song is certain, utterly so, as shown by his totally secure language. Yet something is clearly amiss come the end of the third verse. I passed by a thousand signs/Looking for my own name – now why would he do that? By the last verse, the situation becomes even more sinister, as the protagonist airily leaves his partner (Told her I’d be back by noon) with a Bible and a gun, suggesting that, far from being a solution to society’s ills, the man is in fact a lunatic, his certainty probably more accurately derangement. It’s quite a twist, to turn the song not into a story of definites, but to say that maybe uncertainty is, despite everything, the best route, that doubt is a value (or, in effect, to “um…” is human).

This is backed up by the fact that Bono cited Ecclesiastes 5 as part-inspiration for this song, an odd part of the Bible which seemingly affirms that happiness in life is to enjoy work and what you do, instead of the pursuit of materialistic goals, which isn’t too dissimilar to sentiments within Eastern religions.

With this tale over with, though, a gap of silence appears, and then, for reasons I don’t think the band has ever justified, a dead air alarm rings for about thirty seconds. These are supposed to come on when a radio station has ten seconds of “dead air”, i.e. silence, but Zooropa waits about half a minute to dispatch this, which only makes its use even odder. Still, it’s fitting that U2’s quirkiest album should finish in such a strange and unexplained manner.

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~ by 4trak on September 24, 2008.

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