There are debut albums that serve as an opening salvo, and there are ones that mostly show potential. U2’s first album is almost entirely the latter, but it tries very hard to be the former. It shows a very young band who doesn’t have a lot of technical prowess, but they pull it off anyway just because they have the swagger on confidence to reach higher than conventional wisdom said they should.
That sounds like a put-down, but that’s not how I mean it at all. Boy is actually quite a good album, though not in the same ways as other U2 albums. It’s got a rough unstudied approach, something the band has become entirely incapable of doing now. Even when the melodies begin to run out of gas in a couple of places, it makes up for the lack of know-how with sheer energy and immediacy. When it works it’s almost totally a triumph of atmosphere and emotion, which to some people may make it a failure.
U2 were helped tremendously in the early going by producer Steve Lillywhite, who would produce the next two albums as well. It’s always tough to tell how much a band is affected by their producer, but given U2’s relationship with other producers later in their career I think it’s safe to say that Lillywhite was formational in the U2 sound. The most recognizably U2-ish element here is The Edge’s ringing guitar. It hasn’t quite attained the echo effect, but its sound dominates the album from beginning to end. Larry Mullen’s drumming is the other element that pushes things here. I say that because Edge’s guitar is such an atmospheric element that by itself it’s a little too dreamy for its own good. The drumming pushes things forward and keeps it from floating away completely. The weak instrumentalist at this point is Adam Clayton, probably because he said he’d be in the band without actually knowing how to play bass. He never embarrasses himself, but he’s not given a whole lot to work with either.
Then of course there’s Bono, who also set a template for how he would perform everything: completely committed. His gusto means he fares a bit better in the anthems than the ballads. As the main lyricist for U2, it sometimes feels like he’s writing more conceptually than anything else. At this early stage of their careers his lyrics were kind of made up on the fly and then solidified through performance. I think the purpose of this was to tap into some raw emotional vein, but the end result tended to be a little muddled. However it works for him here, since his themes of childhood transitioning to adulthood are broad enough that they can be expressed conceptually without needing to nail down specifics.
The result is an album filled with intense performances that still manages to maintain some semblance of mystery and ambiguity. It wears it’s post-punk influences more nakedly than later albums, making me wonder if there’s some bizarre parallel universe where U2 remained some cult-level underground act instead of one of the biggest rock bands in the world. It can be tempting to view Boy as a prelude rather than an album in its own right, and given U2’s later work that would be understandable. But Boy is also the kind of album that unpacks when viewed on its own terms. Several of the tracks, especially “I Will Follow” are still being performed after 35 years. Even deeper cuts like “Out Of Control” and “An Cat Dubh” were played on recent tours, which makes sense since recent albums have made a concerted effort to return to the direct approach of Boy. As an album it’s a sign of things to come, but it still grabs you and demands your attention right now.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
I bought my CD copy of Boy at the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, mostly because at that point the US version had a different, terrible cover. Early U2 feels a little foreign when you are used to their better-known material, but Boy ended up being one of the albums that I turn to when I’m tired of U2. It’s got a hungry feel, like a band convinced it has to earn respect rather than one who has already attained it. Their tendency to strive for “child-like” in the modern day feels a little forced, but very little of Boy feels that way.
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorite.
1. Boy (it’ll never get easier)