I used to love the Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoons when I was a kid. Or rather, I used to love watching Wile E. Coyote try and catch him. The bird itself I always found insufferably smug and annoying, but there was something about Wile. E's persistence and 'never say die' approach to his task that always struck a chord. And in my willing him to catch the bird and rip its throat out, I used to get frustrated by those occasions where Wile E. would run off the edge of a cliff in pursuit and keep chasing with no ground beneath his feet. Then he's always suddenly, look down, realise he was hanging in mid-air and with a gulp he'd plummet like a stone. If he hadn't paused then he'd probably have been able to run forever on nothing but self belief, but that split second of self awareness was enough to send him falling to his doom with another plan foiled. I learned a valuable lesson there that has stood me in good stead during this thing called life.
It's a lesson U2 could have done with learning too; a constant comment regarding each of their entries so far has been in relation to their persistent attempts to sharp elbow their way to a star on the rock mythos walk of fame. As I wrote way back on 'Desire', "if this stuff isn't going to come naturally, then it isn't going to come at all" and their attempts to force it tend to result in something that's always reeked of a self awareness that was their own undoing. Too knowing, too trying too bloody hard - any number of U2 songs would have been improved immeasurably by the band simply getting on with it and not pausing by every doorway to see what they could ape, what they could steal or what they could attempt to innovate. Because in taking their eyes off their quarry to see what's going on around them, U2 have a habit of losing all momentum and falling just like Wile E does.
Which makes it frustrating (for me) when they do eventually manage to come up with a song like this; inspired (if that's the right word) by the death of Bono's father, 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own' sees U2 ignoring all distractions labelled 'post-modern irony' or signposts leading to dusty American rock and blues to deliver a song that runs straight off the edge of that cliff.....and keeps on running. "I know that we don’t talk, I’m sick of it all. Can you hear me when I sing? You're the reason I sing"; buoyed by its own natural self belief and honesty, 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own' locates its emotional core quickly and then latches itself to it like a ship to an anchor with a minimum of fuss to the maximum of effect.
Not that U2 ever threaten to blow up a storm to shake it loose - 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own' recalls the slow burning swell of Achtung Baby's 'So Cruel' or 'One', but without Eno's fiddling to distract them the band behind fall into auto-pilot mode behind Bono, content to fill in the gaps behind his lead without any sideways glances at what they 'could' or 'should' be doing. And in so doing, they do what U2 do best. I'm not sure it's a good 'single', and I've always thought 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own' would work better as an album track, but regardless, it remains the most satisfying U2 number one to date and a prime example of why, even though I'm always up for dismissing them, I'm never fool enough to write them off completely.