Even after nearly 20 years, this song still sounds fresh.
At first listen, “In a Little While,” from U2’s 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, seems like a love song, or perhaps more accurately an apology for wronging a lover. The further one looks into the lyrics, however, the more they begin to seem as though they’re speaking of something far grander than earthly love.
The tune opens with an exceptionally infectious and simple guitar riff. The Edge is often overlooked as a guitarist because he tends to rely upon effects pedals to accent their music with ambient flair. This time, however, we are presented with an unfiltered guitar playing a riff that sounds as hopeful as it does mournful. Then the lyrics begin with Bono almost rasping out a confession:
In a little while, I’ll be there
In a little while
This hurt will hurt no more
Bono’s lyrics give the impression of a man who doesn’t like where he is, but he knows things will get better in time. It is often when waiting for change that things seem most hopeless and even though we know that times will get better, we go in circles, dwelling on what we wish could be different. This sentiment is further reflected by the repetition of the brief guitar riff throughout the verses.
When the night takes a deep breath
And the daylight has no air
If I crawl, if I come crawling home
Will you be there?
Bono intrigues us with this verse. The notion of the night time, a period devoid of light, bringing more relief than in the day implies that he is at odds with himself and his faith. That perhaps his actions have left him too nervous to breath properly in the presence of God. Then he ponders whether he will be forgiven when he finally repents.
A man dreams one day to fly
A man takes a rocket ship into the skies
He lives on a star that’s dying in the night
And follows in the trail, the scatter of light
This is our favorite line in the whole song. It looks at man’s place in the grander scheme of the universe. Referencing how man has taken a rocket to the moon, yet we are still just following the trail of scattered light left by the Creator.
Bono explained this line in the book U2 by U2:
It’s the divine comedy. Christ described the assembled gathering as sheep, which I think is one of the best metaphors of mankind. There’s such comedy to that. Have you ever watched a flock of sheep? No one is in charge. They change direction without any seeming logic. I love the idea of human beings (and don’t take this personally because I’m one of them) believing they are in charge of their own destiny. For all the progress and all the enlightenment we have had, I do see us kind of stumbling around. There’s a sort of audacious side to human beings that puts himself at the centre of the universe.
Interestingly enough, Bono recorded this entire vocal while hungover and on two hours of sleep. When he arrived at the studio, all that U2 had was the guitar riff and a chord progression. Bono improvised all of the lyrics on the spot, which may be why they don’t rhyme very often.
Fun Fact: This was the last song that Joey Ramone listened to on his deathbed in 2001. In an interview with Mojo, in 2011, his brother Mickey recalled the moment it ended:
“It was just so applicable and sad, hearing these words, ‘In a little while, this hurt will hurt no more.’ The song ended and the nurse said, ‘He’s gone now.’ He went with the song, I thought, to that place where songs go after they’re played — wherever that is.”