See the stone set in your eyes
See the thorn twist in your side.
I wait for you.
Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait
And I wait– without you
With or without you | The Joshua Tree, 1987
2017. Somewhere © Veronica Lisi
The third track of The Joshua Tree is rooted in noir romance by building an atypical love story where torment is the main element of the whole relationship. Ideally approaching Walk To The Water and Luminous Times (Hold On To Love) which form, in the initial projects, a triptych that wanted to narrate three acts of the same story, With or Without You represents the final stage of the affective journey by delineating the tragic sunset between the two lovers. Bono uses a highly fragmented writing, in some aspects of cryptics, preferring to sketch visions rather than describing situations and emotions in detail – he will do this, for example, with Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses where the identity crisis of the lover is deeply analyzed In all its facets.
The experimental writing adopted during The Unforgettable Fire, with the massive use of the flow of consciousness and of phrases often employed for the harmony of words rather than their meaning, was found also in the 1987 album but in a more contained way, being flanked in a more raw style that draws from Raymond Carver‘s poetic language.
If you scroll through the album tracklist fast, With or Without You appears as a seemingly out-of-the-box piece inside an album that is centered on the American political crisis and the Reaganian dichotomy between domestic and foreign politics. In fact, this ballad, which became a classic of the Irish band, is also in a dichotomy, but by a much more existential character, revealing itself as the only piece of the album to face a personal identity crisis of love.
This feeling of “strangeness” is accentuated by the lack of the aforementioned Walk To The Water and Luminous Times (Hold On To Love) that would allow for a precise narrative continuum, leading to the dramatic peak of With Or Without You.
Carver’s influence emerges when we see in the text the inexorable flow of time worn out by the couple, trapped in a everyday chilling where the only hope still felt is shifted to the passive expectation of a deus ex machina that can rise again the situation. By using the word “wait”, Bono highlights the passive feeling of being victims of time, of being unable to take the reins of the state in which he stumbled, simply waiting for, claiming from his partner a greater effort in order to satisfy or unlock the sentimental stalemate, “You give it all but I want more.”
The love affair is described as an impediment, an obstacle between us and the attainment of something that can totally satisfy us. This condition makes the human soul sink into an emotional limbo that corrodes not only the bond of the couple, but also, and above all, the one who is devoured: one lives almost “without state” losing the value and meaning of things. It is a silent despair that prevents the subject from seeing the importance of the person to his side, resulting in a total apathy: “Nothing to win and / Nothing left to lose.”
With or Without You takes on the form of a song full of shadows, which is inserted in the American context, especially with Carver’s idea of the American couple dominated by the overwhelming daily life of a deeply contradictory Country, reveals all the deep interweaving of love and impediment. The passage seeks to emphasize that the link between two people is essentially a continuous struggle, a revolution and a challenge to the status quo of life where two individuals must live up to the partner’s desire to satisfy their ego.
Bono thought of Ali while he was writing the text, and how his wife could represent that “wall” that could be contrasted between the musical career and the family. In 1980, Ian Curtis sang Heart and Soul, one will burn and With or Without You seems to be back to the contrast between what the heart wants to preserve and what the soul wants to nourish.
During our spiritual journey we begin to see the unpredictability of the hands of love, “My hands are tied / My body is bruised …”.