The Meaning Behind “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 and How It Reflected the Band’s New Focus

It’s never easy for a band to make the jump from critical buzz to consensus greatness. For U2, that leap came with the album The Joshua Tree, and the single “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” played a catalytic role in that ascension.

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What is the song about? How did it reflect the band’s new approach? And how did the band’s different members play a role in its creation? Let’s find out all the details about the gorgeous anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Climbing the Tree

It wasn’t like U2 were nobodies before The Joshua Tree. They were steady hitmakers in the United Kingdom, with a pair of chart-topping albums in October and The Unforgettable Fire, as well as several high-charting singles. In the United States, however, they still felt more like alternative artists, with just one Top 40 song to that point.

Their unforgettable appearance at Live Aid in 1985 helped to push them to a higher level of worldwide renown. And while they had been churning out albums at a rate of almost one per year in the early ’80s, they took a bit more time with The Joshua Tree, which came out almost 2 1/2 years after The Unforgettable Fire. That delay partly stemmed from the band’s conscious attempt to change their focus, as guitarist The Edge explained in U2: A Diary:

“We had experimented a lot in the making of [The Unforgettable Fire]. We had done quite revolutionary things. … So we felt, going into The Joshua Tree, that maybe options were not a good thing, that limitations might be positive. And so we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting point. We thought: let’s actually write songs. We wanted the record to be less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. To make it more straightforward, focused and concise.”

An American Tale

Another key factor that played into The Joshua Tree and its songs was the band’s increased interest in American roots music. Lead singer Bono, in particular, had taken a kind of unofficial crash course in the years leading up to the album, imbibing everything he could until it started to filter into his own approach to songwriting.

In the case of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the song began with a drumbeat from Larry Mullen Jr. that was a bit unorthodox when compared to what he usually played. The song that originally included the drumbeat was dismissed, but the band built a new track around this single part. A turning point arrived when The Edge pulled the title out of a notebook and handed it to Bono as inspiration.

From that point, Bono took the song in a gospel direction. It’s hard to imagine the song being realized the same way by the band in earlier years. But their immersion in American music helped them give it just the right setting.

The Meaning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” tackles, in touching fashion, the struggle to maintain faith, when the proof of divinity can’t ever be pinned down by us mere mortals. In every verse, the narrator describes his efforts, taking him through all manner of obstacles. And every time that refrain (But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for) returns, a fresh pang of anguish hits once again.

Even when he does make some progress, it’s contradicted by another feeling. The healing of honey lips and fingertips only serve to foster more longing within him: It burned like fire / The burning desire. His search engenders loneliness, when he imagines himself the only one left on the outside of heavenly love: It was warm in the night / I was cold as a stone.

For all these bumps in the road, he holds fast to his beliefs, as the final verse makes clear. He anticipates a paradise where all the colours bleed into one. Perhaps it’s telling that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” went to No. 1 in just one other country besides the band’s native Ireland: the U.S. U2 officially earned their American roots-music stripes with this soul-stirrer of a track.

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