Wake Up Dead Man

This is probably U2’s best song about god and religion. A contentious claim, maybe, but the song is tough and willing to ask some huge questions that few other U2 songs have. Described as “stripped-down” by the band, that’s true in the way you wouldn’t expect; normally that means small arrangement, i.e. voice + one acoustic guitar, but here there’s a full rock setup, decks, keyboards and samples (from “Besrodna Nevesta” by Les Mysteres Des Voix Bulgares – no, me neither, but that’s the vocals wailing in the background). No, where it’s stripped-down is in the composition, as bass interjects at points instead of playing full bars, and the guitar swings from one chord to another in pendulum-like fashion. The drumming, when it arrives, is minimal too, playing the same fill each time it becomes necessary. The band originally intended this as a huge gothic rocker when it was start during Zooropa, although that probably would have been a mistake; its quiet nature here trains the focus on the lyrics and makes the whole thing a little more startling.

Incidentally, this song is possibly the only time U2 has come under censorship, with the profanity in And a fucked up world it is too being bleeped on Malaysian editions of Pop, although Malaysia ain’t exactly the most socially liberal nation on the planet. Oddly, they didn’t regard “Mofo” as suspicious, although that’s another issue. The heart of “Wake Up Dead Man” is that, whilst a crisis of faith is occurring, the exact why isn’t certain – the protagonist sees a world that, in his eyes, is dying in terms of morality and social order, and he (I guess he) quite overtly calls on Jesus to “wake up”, to effectively begin the Parousia. Yet there’s several reasons this might be done – either as an Evangelical awaiting the End Times (this song, coincidentally or otherwise, turned up shortly after the start of the Left Behind series), a selfish individual who simply cannot deal with the issues of the world, or an increasingly doubting individual who is maybe asking for proof over faith (after all, Jesus descending from Heaven and blitzing some of the forces of evil would be pretty good evidence). That he refers to Jesus as a “dead man” suggests a degree of doubt (or Unitarianism). Perhaps most spookily, the words She’ll be dead soon/Then she’ll sleep in “Last Night On Earth” seem to resonate in this song, resulting in the lines You’re just around the corner/Did you think to try and warn her? The song doesn’t offer any real solutions, either, simply criticising Jesus for inaction instead, which is ironic considering the society of Pop‘s second side and the way it is portrayed as being itself too apathetic and disinterested in truly important issues.

So I argue that “Wake Up Dead Man” is simply U2’s best song about religion simply because it is simply so powerful in its ambiguity, its themes, its ideas and its disquieting mood. Ten years on from “Still Haven’t Found” – which in comparison sounds like a few Sunday afternoon ponderings to fill the spare hours between lunch and dinner – they hit a zenith by properly reaching to the lowest mood and highest drama.

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~ by 4trak on September 28, 2008.

One Response to “Wake Up Dead Man”

  1. […] slightest about future consequences, and thus it would appear, is due for the ultimate downfall. Six songs later, we seem to hear of a female character (not US-based – see note below as to the song’s UK, […]

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