"City of Blinding Lights" is played in common time at a tempo of 139 beats per minute in two keys: A♭ in the verses, and E♭ in the chorus.
"... 'Oh you look so beautiful tonight.' It is such a naïve and innocent line. That's what this song is about, remembering those times ... It's not necessarily a curse, it's that part of us is missing. It's about recapturing a sense of wonder, being in a city and reminding yourself that you don't have to lose your soul to gain the world."
—Bono, on "City of Blinding Lights"
The album version of the song runs for 5:47. It begins with a low note played on an electric guitar with heavy delay and distortion. The note is sustained for ten seconds as its harmonics gradually feed back. A pulsing rhythm guitar part with muted staccato chords by The Edge then begins underneath. After a further ten seconds it is joined by lower-register guitar drones played by The Edge, and a repetition of four descending piano notes performed by The Edge and Bono. Forty-five seconds into the song, halfway through the introduction, Clayton's bass and percussion by drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. fade into the song with producer Jacknife Lee's synthesizers, which play part of the melody line. The first verse begins at 1:20 and is accompanied by the bass, drums and rhythm guitar playing the chord progression A♭–E♭–D♭. This alters to B–D♭ in the pre-chorus, with a short harmony vocal line leading to the E♭–D♭ chorus.
After the second chorus, the lead guitar alternates with Bono's repeated "Time" into the B♭–A♭ bridge before returning to an extended chorus. The vocals range from D♭3 in the verses to a peak of C5 in the chorus. The Edge provides backing vocals in the second verse, the first three chorus lines, and the bridge lyric "Time won't leave me as I am / Time won't take the boy out of this man". There is no chorus after the third verse; instead, the track enters into a coda where, after restating the introductory piano theme, the guitar, bass, and drum parts come to a finish. The song concludes on a final reprise of the piano notes. The radio edit, with a run-time of 4:11, is 1:36 shorter than the album version. The introduction is half the length and the bass and drums enter after only two repetitions of the piano notes. The first two verses are kept intact but the bridge is shortened by seven seconds, removing two calls of "Time". The third verse is cut and the coda shortened by twenty seconds.
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