The Surprisingly Dark Meaning Behind “With or Without You” by U2

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

What happens when you give, and you give, and you give yourself away? Let’s look at the Dublin-hailing band U2 to find out. 

In 1987, U2 released the song “With or Without You” as the lead single from their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree. The song quickly became the quartet’s most successful song at the time, arguably still their most successful, and is absurdly catchy (as many U2 songs tend to be). But what of those lyrics? What inspired those tormented verses atop the Infinite Guitar chords?

Read below for the meaning behind the song “With or Without You” by U2. 

The meaning behind the song lyrics

It’s a lose-lose situation, a “Should I Stay or Should I Go” predicament if you will. “With or Without You” is a song about an impossible relationship that the singer can’t escape. Nothing to win and/ Nothing left to lose, lead singer Bono sings.

While many have assumed that the meaning of this song is about a romantic relationship turned sour—and they would be correct—Bono occasionally offered a second meaning for the song’s lyrics. Bono, who wrote “With or Without You” with the other members of U2 (Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., and The Edge), explained that the lyrics could be interpreted to be about his relationship with himself. 

“I was at least two people: the person who is so responsible, protective and loyal and the vagrant and idler in me who just wants to run from responsibility,” Bono wrote in the book U2 by U2. “I thought these tensions were going to destroy me but actually, in truth, it is me. That tension, it turns out, is what makes me as an artist.”

Bono realized that the internal struggles he faced, those brutal internal battles, were what ended up defining him. Not the truth he wanted to find, but the one that found him nonetheless.

With or without you
With or without you, oh
I can’t live
With or without you

The logistics

Outside of its lyrical meaning, “With or Without You” is known for its incredible instrumentation and Bono’s distinct vocals. 

“It was clear early on that this was a little bit special,” Bono said in a 2005 interview. “The song is all one build to a crescendo. The song breaks open and comes down, and then comes back. Everyone in the room is, ‘OK, Edge, let’s see if you can let off some fireworks here.’ Three notes—restraint. I mean psychotic restraint, and that is the thing that rips your heart out, not the chorus.” 

The Edge added in a 2007 interview, “We really agonized over which single was going to lead, if we were going to release one, and ‘With Or Without You’ became the obvious choice not because it’s probably the most commercial song on the record but because it’s the one that seems to smooth the transition from the last thing to this record, the easiest.”

Photo by Anton Corbijn/Chuffmedia

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