Pop Psalms: U2's “One”

Sarah Welch-Larson

Editor's note: Our free Pop Psalms ebook, featuring all 12 essays in one place, is available here.

It is difficult to pin down which U2 song is their most well-known.

The band has a reputation for stadium-rock anthems and general bombast, an identity that was cemented as early as their first Joshua Tree tour in 1987. The Joshua Tree—perhaps their most adored album—launched the band to global stardom. But their success was closely followed by Rattle & Hum, one of their less-loved albums, and a period of bitter creative differences. By the time the band reached the studio to record songs for Achtung Baby, they were on the edge of breaking up—unable to let each other go, but unable to find a way forward together. It was in the middle of this mess that 1991’s “One” was written. Through the course of recording the song—one of their best and most beloved—the band was reborn.

“One” feels like a lovers’ quarrel, starting quietly before piling on injury after injury, until a breaking point is reached and the two people in the relationship reach a truce, if not a reconciliation. The song is angry, sad, and messy; imperfectly written and endlessly memorable. The tone complements that of Psalm 42. The two mirror each other, each one enriching readings of the other.

It might feel uncomfortable to hold a pop song up to scripture, but it is precisely within the discomfort and friction of “One” that the song reads like a psalm. In Praying the Psalms, Walter Bruggemann notes that the psalms are distinct in the Christian tradition because they are not God’s words to people, but people addressing God from wherever they might be: in places of joy, sadness, anger, or pain. For Bruggemann, psalms are important because they express “experiences of dislocation and relocation . . . experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and surprisingly given life which empower us to pray and sing.” In the psalms, there is room for grief and anger. Psalms ring true specifically because they speak honestly about the human experience, with all its rough edges.

“One” certainly has rough edges. The lyrics are imperfect. (“Did I ask too much? / More than a lot? / You gave me nothing / Now that’s all I’ve got.”) Bono’s voice is raw, as though he’s been arguing all night. The song is cyclical, as though it’s just one part of a much larger conflict. The song feels almost off-balance, quiet at first but building in momentum and tempo as it goes on.

The same could be said of Psalm 42, which oscillates between longing, grief, and security in God’s love. Though “One” is half a dialogue and Psalm 42 feels like the speaker’s inner monologue, the two could be sung in similar situations. The psalm recounts a time when the speaker was joyful in God’s house, at a time when the speaker “thirsts for God” but is overcome by grief, crying and downcast. “One” begins with the line, “Is it getting better / Or do you feel the same?” The line implies a long and wearying conflict, in harmony with the song’s slow pace and minor key.

Both psalm and song turn from bitter disappointment to bittersweet truce, without sacrificing the discomfort within which both dwell.

“One” starts quietly, with just a guitar and Bono’s voice. It sets the scene with discomfort. There are no smooth edges here, just sitting in an opening verse about the speaker’s position in conflict with another. No background is necessary; the song’s lyrics tell us just enough to know that whatever happened, the breach between speaker and addressee is an intimate and painful one. “You say one love, one life / It’s one need in the night . . . but it leaves you, baby, if you don’t care for it.” More instruments—drum, bass, keyboard—pick up as the song gains momentum, layering on more complex sounds in parallel with its increasingly complicated mood.

As the song grows, its complaint gets more raw: “Did I disappoint you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth? / You act like you’ve never had love, and you want me to go without.” Like the angry psalms, “One” is both irate and honest. The situation feels awful and unfair, and in both song and psalm, the speakers have given up on dancing around the issue and chosen to air their grievances.

“One” has lyrics that are remarkably open-ended; the conflict at its center could be a lovers’ quarrel, a fight between family members, or between the members of a band. The inciting argument—and even the players in the struggle—do not matter. What matters is the core of hurt that sits at its center: hurt between two people who are clearly surprised that they have been hurt by the other, and yet who continue to wound each other if only because they themselves have been wounded. The song builds to a crescendo with the words: “You say love is a temple, love the higher law. . . / You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl / And I can’t be holding on to what you’ve got, ’cuz all you’ve got is hurt.” The downhill end of the song recognizes that people will continue to be hurt and continue to hurt each other, because they are human and therefore broken.

Both psalm and song turn from bitter disappointment to bittersweet truce, without sacrificing the discomfort within which both dwell. Neither one has a happy conclusion; they each resolve on a minor note. “One” ends where it began, repeating the line, “One life, but we’re not the same / we get to carry each other.” Like the ending of Psalm 42, in which the psalmist commits to praise the Lord despite not understanding his own discouragement, “One” recognizes that living in relationship with others is both a burden and a privilege. Both works live in the tension of the real world—Bruggemann’s “dislocation”—and in so doing, express truths both difficult and beautiful.

Topics: Music