Unknown Caller


0:00 – nothing yet. Obviously.
0:01 – an initial drone and the tweeting of birds is the first thing that greets the listener. And that indicates the key difference between HTDAAB and NLOTH; U2 around 2004 would not have edited out the birdsong – there’d have probably been no opportunity for birdsong to turn up.
0:03 – the drone reveals itself to be a loop.
0:12 – the first hit of a “proper instrument”.
0:21 – the first guitar emerges. That first hit actually appears to be two guitars. And emerging through that at…
0:23 – …is a lower, twitchier piece.
0:27 – fret noise, which might be emerging from somewhere else. So this possibly takes three guitars to play. It’s also at this point that the first hints of percussive emerge, more felt than heard.
0:32 – the birds make another contribution.
0:38 – a brief electronic twitch sounds.
0:41 – iterated four times, spliced with a brief phrase, is a kind a moan from one of the guitar lines.
0:58 – first actual drumming.
1:02 – vocals – “sunshine, sunshine”. Not, in and of themselves, terribly informative; the descent of the melody could be satisfaction or disappointment, although we’re possibly given enough clues later on.
1:06 – the electronics make an extra contribution, bleeping a slight fuzzy tenor.
1:16 – full band entrance, and still no actual lyrics immediately afterwards, which possibly makes this U2’s longest instrumental stretch since OS1 in 1995.
1:21 – many have accused this riff of sounding too much like that which opens “Walk On”. I only partially accept it, to be honest, and it’s the curling flourish at this point that’s the best counterargument to it.
1:24 – the first of many “oh”s.
1:33 – it’s still effectively the same riff, kinda, that started at 1:16. Or maybe it’s two, worked out AABA, with the B section starting here. Either way, it’s this elaborate construction which makes “Unknown Caller” a better song than much of U2 this decade.
1:49 – opening words: I was lost. Sure explains the winding intro…which is no bad thing, by the way.
2:06 – perhaps the most quotable lines in the song – 3:33/When the numbers fell off the clockface. Might be another reference to Jeremiah 33:3, or the reverse of it, but it might be there for a symbolic image of breaking symmetry and disorder.
2:16 – that organ sounds fairly R.E.M.-ish. And of course, Accelerate wasn’t a million miles off the likes of “Vertigo”. Clearly these bands have been speaking to each other a lot more over 2007 and 2008.
2:26 – first chorus; musically, both the choruses on this song are similar, but lyrically they’re both different, effectively furthering the narrative – here, the first line is Go! Shout it out! Rise Up! which I can’t argue with, really. But it’s the ABCB’C’D structure of this song, and the often non-linear nature of others on the album, which is what makes NLOTH a keeper – this is an experimental album, but it’s very, very subtle about it.
2:54 – the controversial Force quit and move to trash line. Personally, I like it; the suggestion that this massed, singular voice is some kind of machine adds a menacing edge to what’s ostensibly meant to be some kind of revelation for the protagonist. Not to mention that you just know this line would totally fly with critics if Radiohead had written it.
3:01 – if there’s a weak point in the song, it’s here, a second verse that feels a bit too much like it’s just trying to get to the next chorus. Around 3:20 there’s some vague Led Zeppelin-like guitar fuzzing.
3:33 – second chorus starts, or at least a rising transition to it. Yes, really – I can only imagine this was deliberately planned and it’s pretty cunning. The opening order is Restart and reboot yourself, an activity I recommend to all insomniacs who’ve discovered the drawbacks of analogue timekeeping.
4:24 – that second chorus is pretty long – some 50 seconds, which is one of the longest I’ve heard (it’s up there with Blur’s “Tender”, at any rate). The last line is Don’t move or say a thing, which ends at this point with 97 seconds of music to go. I’m not sure what period of time this song is supposed to cover, but that must mean a lot of thumb-twiddling for the protagonist. Also, cue shitloads of organ.
4:33 – what’s most interesting about “Unknown Caller”, actually, is that despite the 6:03 running time, the vocal section is nested in a 2:44 stretch; in effect, this section masks the fact that the song is constantly building in energy and inertia (and indeed, instruments – see the french horn entering here), until eventually it breaks in the solo (probably the best on the album, actually – from 4:49 to 5:51) and ends with a long organ fadeout. And I’d argue that said fadeout is deserved for what’s probably, despite appearances, the most daring song on the album. Whilst NLOTH is arguably only mildly or subtly experimental for U2, it does nonetheless push further in composition, and this song is the best example of that.

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~ by 4trak on June 17, 2009.

3 Responses to “Unknown Caller”

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  3. This song was a disappointment for me. In my opinion the chorus is the strongest part of this song, but it’s also the weakest:

    The drums are too buried in the mix, where I feel like it would have otherwise pushed the guys who are belting out the chorus to be more loud and emotional (while being on key, mind you). This song shined on the tour because Larry has a hard kick and can’t really be drowned out.

    As for the chorus, I wish it had more of a washed-out, reverberated treatment. It might have benefited from them being even more aggressive-sounding in a desperate sort of way. I hope that wasn’t hard to understand.

    It’s way too clean, give this song more bite!

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