U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' — An Anthem Of Faith And Doubt Inspired by gospel, the standout from U2's American experiment, The Joshua Tree, has become a rock and roll hymn, even finding its way into real-life church services.
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In U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,' A Restless Search For Meaning

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In U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,' A Restless Search For Meaning

In U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,' A Restless Search For Meaning

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The earliest anthems were sacred hymns, religious songs of praise. Today in our series American Anthem, a rock 'n' roll hymn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")

U2: (Singing) I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields only to be with you, only to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Yes, that is an Irish band, U2. But "I still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is from "The Joshua Tree," an entire album inspired by American roots music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")

U2: (Singing) But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

SHAPIRO: U2's lead singer and songwriter Bono has called it a gospel song with a restless spirit. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: This may come as a surprise to some listeners, but when Bono sings about desire, it's not always for a lover. A lot of the time it's for God. But for Claudette Bell, there's no ambiguity in the lyrics to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." She grew up performing gospel in the Baptist church.

CLAUDETTE BELL: I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one. Yes, I'm still running.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

U2: (Singing) I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one. Well, yes, I'm still running.

C BELL: And then you broke the bonds. You loosen the chains, carry the cross of my - those are very, very important words in the African American churches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

U2: (Singing) You know I believe it.

BLAIR: To understand U2, it helps to know the depth of the band's religious roots. The four musicians met when they were teenagers in Ireland in the mid-1970s. Three of them were members of a Christian fellowship group called Shalom.

And here's an example of that restless spirit Bono talks about. U2 almost broke up because guitarist The Edge and Bono felt they should be doing something more meaningful with their lives than rock 'n' roll. This was just as the band was breaking out. In an interview with Gay Byrne on the Irish broadcaster RTE, Bono said they went to tell their manager they wanted to quit. He was a no-nonsense type named Paul McGuinness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONO: And we say, Paul, we're not, you know, we're done. We actually want to do something useful with our life, and maybe rock 'n' roll isn't it and blah, blah, blah. He's like, oh, so God tells you to do this. We said, no, not exactly, but it's very deeply convicted here. He said, would you mind speaking to God about, like, the commitments I've made on your behalf to do another tour?

BLAIR: They stayed. Bono went on to say their songs are prayers of a kind.

SARAH DYLAN BREUER: A lot of their songs are really well-suited for liturgy.

BLAIR: Sarah Dylan Breuer is a theologian who co-founded a worship service called the U2charist, as in U2 plus Eucharist. During the service, local musicians play U2 songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." This is from a recent U2charist in Tyler, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS #1: (Singing) But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

BLAIR: Breuer says the song works because it's an expression of both spiritual joy and disappointment.

BREUER: A lot of the contemporary music that's written for worship in Christian circles can be this kind of relentlessly I totally love God with all my being and everything's going to be great, and that's really not most people's lived experience day-to-day.

BLAIR: But she says some members of the clergy complained that certain verses were inappropriate for the service.

BREUER: I have kissed honey lips, felt the healing in her fingertips. It burned like fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")

U2: (Singing) It burned like fire, this burning desire.

BREUER: Some people said basically that human desire that's obviously sexual has no place in the service. Some people were OK with it but wanted to allegorize it and say it's completely not about human beings at all. It's only desire for God.

BLAIR: And then there's also the line, I have held the hand of a devil.

BREUER: Oh, yeah, yeah. Some people were between nervous and apoplectic about that as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")

U2: (Singing) I have held the hand of a devil. It was warm in the night. I was cold as a stone.

BLAIR: Bono told Rolling Stone "I still haven't found What I'm Looking For" is an anthem of doubt more than faith. Joshua Rothman, a writer for The New Yorker, hears something else.

JOSHUA ROTHMAN: It's a song that sort of celebrates wanting.

BLAIR: Rothman, who's written about the spirituality in U2's music, says "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" works as a contemporary hymn partly because of the uncertainty expressed in Bono's lyrics.

ROTHMAN: It's a song about searching for meaning or transcendence. And to me the thing that's most striking about it is that, you know, you don't find it. It's about the search.

BLAIR: In 1987, not long after the song was released, U2 guitarist The Edge talked about hearing a gospel cover version of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE EDGE: And it sounded like - sounded totally different, but it sounded really exciting and new. So we traveled down to Harlem, visited this church.

BLAIR: And at that church, U2 and the choir rehearsed it together. Bono begins solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONO: (Singing) I have run. I have crawled. I have scaled these city walls...

BLAIR: Sitting in the church pews, the singers and the choir watch him intently, swaying along to the music. When it's their turn, the song transforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

U2 AND GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing) But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

DENNIS BELL: They were mesmerized.

C BELL: They were.

BLAIR: The choir was conducted by Dennis Bell. His wife Claudette was one of the singers.

D BELL: They were inspired.

C BELL: They were inspired by our version.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS #2: (Singing) I believe in the kingdom come, all the colors bleed into one. I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

BLAIR: For Claudette Bell, the yearning in "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is eternal.

C BELL: It could be today, where people are just fighting for space and knocking people down for whatever reason. And so you have a lot of walls to scale and mountains to climb. And you just want to be with something that's good.

BLAIR: This searching, restless anthem rouses the faithful almost every time U2 performs it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) I have run. I have crawled. I have scaled these city walls, these city walls, only to be with you.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

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