A Sort of Homecoming

Joyful Noise

Some months after the release of “The Joshua Tree” in 1987, U2 received a cassette from its label, Island Records. On it was a gospel recording made in a small brick church on West 124th Street in Harlem of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the second song off that album. When the band made its pilgrimage to America—captured on its 1988 album “Rattle and Hum,” along with its eponymous  documentary—band members stopped by the church to play the song. And if U2’s gospel sound was first introduced in “Still Haven’t,” it ran so deep that the gospel choir didn’t need to do much searching to find religion in the song’s three chords.

When the group began writing the song, it was an unremarkable reggae number called “Under the Weather Girls.” The bass-and-drum groove sits at the back of the pocket, pushing confidently forward with the rolling pace of a long-wandering caravan, gleefully propelled by the eighth notes on the bass drum at the end of every phrase. As the group struggled to finish the song one day in practice, the Edge handed Bono a small slip of paper on which he’d written, “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Bono read the sheet and sang the chorus as it is on the record.

The lyrics crystallize that simple idea of searching. Bono answers the album opener’s wide-eyed first line, “I want to run,” with the more pensive “I have run,” recounting his character’s endless search. Yet his pilgrim is neither worn nor weary—to him, the searching is an act of steady, joyous faith. At the end of each chorus, when Bono sings the titular line, his voice unfurls on that first high note, folding down again in calm faith on “What I’m looking for,” while the group settles back to a steady pulse.

Each verse begins with a bold assertion—“I believe in the Kingdom Come”—always conveying the same idea of confident searching. This repetition is one of the most deeply religious aspects of the song. Its spare lyrics settle with the simplicity of a religious hymn over the rhythm section’s comfortable pocket, but the Edge’s lead-guitar line perhaps best conveys its religious tone. He anchors the song with the same clear, open interval. Behind the recurring line, he laces droning root notes. When the group plays the song live, it frequently begins with a long introduction of that same pure, unadorned ringing, repeating continously like a religious chant. The chant is essential to religious music both because it allows for communal singing and because it serves as a musical route to transcendence. In the repetition of a phrase, its meaning and duration disappear, allowing the performer and listener to rise above their immediate reality. Between those echoing, repeated notes, time collapses as the song becomes a limitless wash of feeling and faith.

While writing the 1984 album “The Unforgettable Fire,” Bono became fixated on the line from Jewish poet Paul Celan’s “Meridian” speech, “Poetry is a sort of homecoming.” This prompted him to write “A Sort of Homecoming,” but that same sentiment is evident throughout U2’s most religious music. “You don’t become an ‘artist’ unless you’ve got something missing somewhere,” Bono once said. “Blaise Pascal called it a God-shaped hole.” In this equation, music and religion form the otherwise absent parts whose discovery make someone whole. A home is a place where everything can be understood, a place made by people so they can know and love each other. Coming home, then, is a joyful experience, and it is this sort of conflated physical and spiritual fulfillment that “Still Haven’t” describes—a yearning for a place that will make the searcher whole and for the love he’ll find there.

Yet in the song, it’s not clear if such a place can be reached. If Bono’s character runs, crawls, and climbs but still can’t find what he’s looking for, then it is miraculous that the song seems so free from doubt. The unfulfilled journey and quest are so central to U2’s joy because they are at the core of faith: a journey from the known into hopeful unknowables. In the search, all possibilities remain—those of returning, of starting anew, of changing one’s self or one’s world.

The simple act of looking for something means that it is real, if not yet tangible to the searcher. Optimism, hope, persistence, and joy are the motives of an endless searching that can become itself a fulfillment and arrival. So it is that a chorus of “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” can be raised with such hope, such a joy of searching. Even if there is no end to this journey, only within the search do all outcomes remain—blessed by eternal angels, made real through faith.

—Columnist Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at bhafrey@college.harvard.edu.

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