There are songs for all sorts of big events — birthdays, weddings, funerals.
But I like to find songs for other types of occasions, such as election day. On election day, I pull out my copy of The Replacements song “Election Day,” and play it before I go vote. The song reflects a far more apathetic attitude toward elections than my own, what with lyrics such as “I don’t care who gets elected/til I find me one to love,” but listening to it has become something of an annual tradition.
This week I pulled out my copy of U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” in honor of Martin Luther King. This 1984 album contains two songs about King: “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “MLK.” “Pride” compares King to Jesus, and describes his assassination: “Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life/They could not take your life” before shifting into the song’s catchy refrain. “MLK,” the final song on the album, is a haunting elegy disguised as a lullaby: “Sleep tonight/And may your dreams/Be realized.”
“The Unforgettable Fire” is considered one of U2’s more transitional, experimental albums. It was the follow-up to “War,” an overtly political, often angry album, and seems relatively calm and contemplative, eschewing outrage and urgency for love and yearning. Rather than expressing anger over racial injustice and King’s assassination, Bono seems more interested in King as a martyr, and the religious beliefs that fueled his activism.
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” is a great song, but it suggests a sense of peace that’s lacking on U2’s earlier albums. In fact, it seems like the perfect musical tribute for a country that is more comfortable with the King of the “I Have a Dream” speech than the more radical figure who was lending his support to striking workers at the time of his assassination.
I’ve always considered “The Unforgettable Fire” one of the more underrated U2 albums, perhaps not as great as “War” and “Achtung Baby,” but superior to everything else, including the hugely successful mega-hit “The Joshua Tree.” I plan to put “The Unforgettable Fire” away at the end of this week, and move something else into my CD rotation. I have a lot of CDs, and there’s a chance I won’t listen to it again until next year, on Martin Luther King Day. And when I do, I’ll no doubt remember how good it is all over again.
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