“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” began as two different demos, one variously called “Ultraviolet” and “69” (which eventually evolved into the B-side “Lady with the Spinning Head”) and an alternately arranged demo called “Light My Way”. Trying to write the bridge to a song (which conflicting reports state was “Ultraviolet”, “Mysterious Ways”, and “The Fly”), guitarist The Edge improvised a riff that the rest of the band rallied around. It was out of this that “One”, which changed the outlook of recording sessions for the album, was born.
Over the course of the recording sessions, U2 added various overdubs to the song, but producer Brian Eno believed these additions negatively impacted the track. Eno aided the group in editing down the song, and he explained his assistance as such: “I’d go in and say, ‘The song has gone, whatever it is you liked about this song is not there anymore. Sometimes, for example, the song would have disappeared under layers of overdubs.”
The lyrics of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” are addressed to a lover, and imply that their relationship is Indeed, lead vocalist Bono has called the song “a little disturbed”. The song opens with 45 seconds of soft synthesizers producing an ethereal sighing, crying, almost breathing sound, somewhat akin in atmospherics to the group’s early 1980s songs “Tomorrow” and “Drowning Man”; during this, Bono laments that “sometimes I feel like checking out.”
This is followed by the entrance of drums and guitar in a familiar U2 rhythm, as Bono describes the burdens of love and how he is “in the black; can’t see or be seen.”
Each verse culminates with the refrain “Baby, baby, baby, light my way.” Flood, who engineered and mixed the recording, noted that there was considerable laughter and debate during the sessions about whether Bono could get away with singing the repeated “baby”s, one of the most heavily-used clichés in pop songs and one that he had avoided up to that point in his songwriting; Flood later commented that “he got away with it alright.”threatened by some sort of personal or spiritual crisis, coupled with a sense of unease over obligations.
Although the song is ostensibly about love and dependency, like many U2 songs, it also lends itself to religious interpretations. Listeners have heard an allusion to the Book of Job 29:2–3 and its tale of God serving as a lamp upon Job’s head walking through the darkness. Robyn Brothers suggests that ultraviolet light is “a metaphor for a divine force both unseen to the naked eye and ultimately unknowable to the human intellect.”
Conversely, Steve Stockman, author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey Of U2 , sees “Ultraviolet” as being about Bono’s wife Ali, and “how when he feels like trash, she makes him clean,” but says there is good reason to interpret the song as being just as much about God.
The song’s title supports this view: indigo and violet rarely appear in song lyrics as frequently as other colours, while ultraviolet represents an unseen wavelength beyond the visible spectrum. As such, the title evokes the image of black light or an invisible force permeating the darkness, whose connotations are spiritual and personal, as well as technological, reflecting themes of modern alienation explored elsewhere on Achtung Baby and its follow-up album,ZooropaPop Music CDs) .
Dianne Ebertt Beeaff, author of A Grand Madness, Ten Years on the Road with U2 , sees the song’s narrator as longing for assistance from any source, religious or secular: “This is a real plea, a bleary worn-down drained wish to disappear. A drowning man desperate to hold hands in the darkness, to have someone else point the way, to be safe and obscure.” Atara Stein sees “Ultraviolet” as one of several selections on the album in which the protagonist in crisis has elevated his lover into an object of worship, desperate for her to “return to her initial role as his guide and salvation.”
“Ultraviolet” is also one of several songs Bono has written on the theme of woman as spirit, and it echoes the band’s 1980 song “Shadows and Tall Trees” by juxtaposing love with the image of ceilings. A line in Raymond Carver’s late 1980s poem “Suspenders”, about the quiet that comes into a house where no one can sleep, was subconsciously recycled by Bono into the lyric. In Achtung Baby’s running order, “Ultraviolet” serves, with the other two songs at the album’s end, “Acrobat” and “Love Is Blindness”, to explore how couples face the task of reconciling the suffering they have imposed on each other.
The song features a Motown sound-style “telegraph key” rhythm, which gave it the feeling of a pop song. This and the “baby, baby” refrain gave the song a throwaway quality that fit in with Achtung Baby’s mission of deconstructing U2’s image.Paradoxically, the arrangement also featured U2’s 1980s “repeato-riff” guitar style and the rest of the lyric was a serious love song that dealt with themes of anxiety and despair.
Bono has described “Ultraviolet” as “an epic U2 song [but] the key of it left my voice in a conversational place and allowed a different kind of lyric writing.” Producer Eno wrote that a combination of opposites within each song was a signature characteristic of Achtung Baby and that as part of that, “Ultraviolet” had a “helicopterish melancholy”. In Achtung Baby’s album package, “Ultraviolet” is presented next to a photograph of a crumbling Berlin building that has a Trabant parked in front of it.