Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please, God, wake me
One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
— Harry Nilsson
Just promise me, you’ll always be a friend
‘Cause you are the only one
— Ed Sheeran
Those are lyrics from just three of the thirty-two songs (according to Wikipedia) that are entitiled “One.” And that doesn’t count the variants: “1”, “O.N.E.”, and, “One!” One is apparently a rather musical number. Artists like to work with it, play with it, sing about it. It’s no wonder: the number one is the ultimate number, the primary number, the one without whom there would be no numbers, to paraphrase John 1:3.
Thirty-two songs, but to me there is no question which of these is number one: “One” by U2, from their 1991 album Achtung Baby. It may have been intended to be a breakup song, a song about two lovers who just can’t stay together.
Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame
I can relate to that. There’s a certain relationship in my college days that was so frought, I can absolutely see where that interpretation comes from. These lines in particular:
We’re one, but we’re not the same
See we hurt each other, then we do it again
Those words seem so pedestrian looking at them on the screen. But there’s a poignancy in the music that ramps the meaning up to about a million. Plus, you really have to hear the whole song to get the effect: the lyrics build upon one another, link together with one another, almost as though they’re pieces of a crystal sphere slowly coming together to form a perfect whole, a perfect One.
But I have always seen this song somewhat differently. I interpret it not as a song about two people who have fallen apart, but rather about one person who has fallen apart. I can remember a time in college (when I may or may not have been under the influence of one or more chemicals) when I heard the song, and was able to divide it perfectly into a dialogue between two sides of my personality. I’ve never been able to perfectly reproduce that dialogue, but I can see it in some of the lines, such as these:
1: Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
2: Well, did I ask too much?
1: More than a lot! You gave me nothing
2: Now it’s all I got
This was long before I developed the idea of the “Dark Voice,” which I identify as the side of me that constantly tries to demean and destroy and tear me down. Looking at the song now, I don’t see a clear delineation between my own voice and the Dark Voice, but I can see how it’s a song we sing together. These lyrics describe my own experience of myself pretty well:
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Perhaps the Dark Voice and I sing this song in harmony. Creepy. But that’s the thing about the number One: there’s really no such thing as one. If you have one, you immediately have two within it, and then it all gets very, very interesting.