The sound of "City of Blinding Lights" has been compared to U2's 1987 single "Where the Streets Have No Name", prompted by a similar style of guitar playing, as well as to the atmospheric tone of the band's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. The melding of guitar and piano in the introduction was likened by the Edmonton Journal to the Coldplay song "Clocks". Rolling Stone described the song as "building into a bittersweet lament", while Uncut said it was "beautiful but slightly sinister", comparing the quality of the lyrics to the George Harrison song "The Inner Light".
"... what it felt like to arrive here in the United States, come over the bridge into Manhattan ... a[n] amazing, magical time in our lives when we didn't know how powerful it was not to know." —Bono on the theme of innocence
The underlying theme of "City of Blinding Lights", reflected in the chorus, is lost innocence. The theme was reinforced during an impromptu concert at Empire–Fulton Ferry State Park under the Brooklyn Bridge; Bono introduced the song by reminiscing about the first time the band arrived in New York City, calling it "a song about innocence and naïvete." Bono developed the opening stanza from a memory of his first trip to London with his future wife, Alison Stewart, when they were teenagers. The experience of walking through Piccadilly Circus and along Wardour Street put him in mind of "discovering what a big city could offer you and what it could take away." Although the first verse is set in London, the chorus is set in New York City. The verse, "I've seen you walk unafraid / I've seen you in the clothes you've made / Can you see the beauty inside of me? / What happened to the beauty I had inside of me?" was written as an expression of love for Alison, with a reflection on their life together as they grow older.
Like many other U2 songs, "City of Blinding Lights" can be interpreted in a religious manner. Author Cameron Conant related the opening verse to the doubt he felt about his convictions on politics, marriage, and faith as he aged, concluding that a person's confidence in their beliefs makes it seem as if they know more than they do. Music critic Bill Friskics-Warren felt that the final line, "Blessings not just for the ones who kneel, luckily", was a way for Bono to berate himself for not praying enough, and was an attack on Christianity because "faith often perpetuates the misery and divisiveness that he decries." Steve Stockman, a chaplain at Queen's University of Belfast, believed the song was a metaphor for growing up, and that the final line meant that not just people of faith could be blessed.
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