Videos by American Songwriter
In a perfect world, the beginning of a new year would always be accompanied by the diminishing of the negative aspects of life and the resurgence of the positive. The absence of this ideal outcome drives U2’s stirring 1983 anthem “New Year’s Day.” “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day,” Bono sings in a weary refrain.
And yet the characters in the song are anything but defeated. This is evident from the narrator’s determination to return to the love from which he’s been separated by an unnamed, cruel fate. “I will be with you again” is the other vocal hook repeated throughout the song. In that respect, it’s fitting that “New Year’s Day” is one of the first songs most people heard from U2, since the willingness to confront the harsh truths of the world and the resilience to rise above them is a hallmark of so much of the band’s best work.
Dynamic music is also one of the band’s calling cards, and “New Year’s Day” has that in spades. Adam Clayton’s battering ram of a bass line and Larry Mullen, Jr.’s fearless beat keep pushing listeners into the breach, even as the cold piano notes warn of what’s waiting there. The Edge, who plays that piano part, also works his usual magic on guitar, tearing at the edges of the rhythm with serrated chords before conjuring siren calls in the instrumental break.
“New Year’s Day” keeps building to impossible musical peaks, with Bono soaring right along with his heart fully exposed at every note. Such emotional potency stood out glaringly from what surrounded the song on the radio at the time, making its success (a top 10 hit in the UK and the band’s first appearance in the Billboard Top 100) somewhat of an anomaly.
Bono noted as much in a 1983 interview with NME. “It would be stupid to start drawing up battle lines, but I think the fact that ‘New Year’s Day’ made the Top Ten indicated a disillusionment among record buyers,” he said. “I don’t think ‘New Year’s Day’ was a pop single, certainly not in the way that Mickie Most might define a pop single as something that lasts three minutes and three weeks in the chart. I don’t think we could have written that kind of song.”
The song began as a love song to his wife, but Bono eventually became inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland to finish the story. This mingling of the personal and the political allows it to work on multiple levels. The imagery is simple yet vivid: A crowd sits under a “blood red sky”; their “arms entwined” speaks to the notion of unity in the face of great turmoil; and when the narrator sings “Though torn in two/We can be one,” you can’t help but believe all imposing odds will be overcome and triumph is possible, even as the music teeters on a perilous edge.
U2’s decision to omit overt, specific references to the political turmoil of the era was a wise one. As a result, “New Year’s Day” will never become dated. At the end of each passing year, listeners can hear the song’s combination of clear-eyed angst and imperishable hope and apply it to their own tumultuous times.