The principles of exclusion, constraint, and limitation are drivers of art as much as what ends up on the canvas, and more than anything explain how U2’s “The Three Sunrises” did not make the cut of their seminal 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. That album, their fourth, changed the band’s trajectory by broadening their palette (thus ultimately guaranteeing their longevity). Subduing the band’s onward-Christian-soldier martial airs without dulling its passion, producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois — who the previous year had created, along with Roger Eno, one of the great ambient masterworks in Apollo — worked at applying creative filters to make a music that was moody, introspective, less deliberate but also more whole. The Unforgettable Fire feels more like an album with a sonic narrative than any of its predecessors. Still, no one, not even Eno, could contain U2’s spirit or strong self-identity, and the recording sessions yielded some work with one foot still grounded in the energetic brightness characterizing their previous catalog.
In 1985, U2 stopped the show at Live Aid with a stunning, impassioned performance of the song “Bad” from The Unforgettable Fire. In packaging the performance for release — and here it’s important to understand the impact that Live Aid had on popular music at the time, as it was simulcast on radio and TV worldwide — the band put it on the Wide Awake in America EP along with another live track (“A Sort of Homecoming”) and two studio outtakes from The Unforgettable Fire sessions. “Love Comes Tumbling” shares the twilit moodiness of the album it didn’t end up on, but “The Three Sunrises” is both farewell and greeting, a simple effusion of a youthful love song wrapped in a gleeful guitar riff, its title bearing a suggestion of trinity that so bound the group, especially in its early days, to a strong Christian following. More than this, or perhaps because of their beliefs and willingness to be moved by the Spirit, U2 was a post-punk band able to express joy like few other “serious” groups of the time, and in “The Three Sunrises” their ability to strike at the heart remained innocently undiminished.
*Above image is a detail of Larry Mullen, Jr., Adam Clayton, and Bono listening to Edge perform the riff to “The Three Sunrises,” from the documentary of the making of The Unforgettable Fire.
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