Numb

Super-Fun Things A U2 Fan Could Do With A Time Machine #1: go back to July 5th, 1991 and explain to them what kind of material the band will put out in a mere two years. Even compared to Achtung Baby, many of the basic premises behind “Numb” seem incredibly, ludicrously insane – the Edge, not singing, but rapping? The weird main riff that pitch-bends each note, the random squeals of noise and crowds cheering in the manner of some sort of sound collage or musique concrete piece, and the incredibly repetitive lyrics. And when listed like that, it should be a trainwreck – not in the usual “shouldn’t work, but does” manner, but in a really, really bad way, which makes it all the more remarkable that this might be one of U2’s best songs, even relatively unsullied by remixes. Yes, the Gimme Some More Dignity Mix doesn’t give the song any more dignity (or brilliance), and the New Mix added a guitar riff that, whilst lovely, made the song slightly too tasteful. But we can ignore these.

Beginning with a deep kick and reverbed hit, an isolated feel that sounds not unlike a dripping from a ceiling, possibly with footsteps, before the first strain of melody. It’s not entirely possible it’s a guitar, or a synthesiser, but what the hell it is doesn’t sound like an instrument in a healthy state. And in a kind of minimalist brilliance, that’s pretty much the musical foundation of the song, a few unhinged chords. Oh, and a beat that does, admittedly, evolve into something slightly more complex come the second verse, adding slightly militaristic use of snares. Said snares turn out to be sampled, and whilst scanning credits often reveal U2’s tendency to lift from odd sources, here the source is an 11 year old at the 1936 Olympic Games, drumming for Nazi Germany. Add to this what might either be a very treble-laden synthesiser or the sound of tape being rewound, and a suitably blipping, wah’d-out oscillation that’s presumably designed to sound like the FX from Space Invaders (at risk of sounding boastful, I don’t remember Space Invaders, so there’s a Schrodinger’s Cat thing going on there).

Still, it’s appropriate that a young Nazi drummer gets sampled, because the lyrics tumble down imperatives in a long monotone, reportedly edited down from eight pages of material. I say imperatives, i.e. plural, but the truth is there’s only one, for the most part: Don’t. That cunningly fits a dual theme, both that of satirising and commenting on the nature of fascism (Don’t speak out or question the goverment, Don’t talk out of time/Don’t think) – a sharp topic given the ideology’s upturn in Europe in the early 1990s, most notably in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s increasing presence.

There’s also the matter of the sheer quantity of it giving subliminal restriction, an overwhelming, which means that within a few verses the key refrain (I feel numb) becomes appropriate – the voice simply rolls over any protest. It’s not the quality of lyrics that makes an impact, oddly; it’s the sheer quantity, the fact that so many lines, swarming all over the inlay booklet page in small type, batter the listener into submission with their sheer rhythm. This overwhelming, of course, ties into the themes of ZooTV and Zooropa, which effectively makes “Numb” the “Zoo Station” of this album. But of course, Zooropa is Zooropa, which means that this manifesto of sorts is perversely placed at track three. That said, “Zooropa” is also a manifesto of sorts for the album, so it can’t go there. And “Lemon” also steps into the role, in a way. What an album. And what a song – U2’s most unique, certainly, and definitely one of their very best.

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~ by 4trak on October 3, 2008.

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