October is one of two U2 albums to go largely unacknowledged by the band (the other being 1997’s Pop). It came out in 1981 to a middling response, and it’s gotten short shrift in all of the U2 best-of collections. In fact its only appearance was the title track in the 1980-1990 collection, and even that was a hidden track. It also hasn’t seen a lot of concert performances since the mid-1980s, when they finally had enough songs to ignore it.
The major narrative of U2 at the time of October was one of struggle. There were a lot of adverse conditions during its recording, such as the loss of a briefcase filled with lyrics, forcing Bono to rewrite and improvise words all over the album. There was also some considerable tension within the band, who were questioning the balance between the lives of rock stars and the faith professed by Bono, Edge, and Larry. Those three were heavily involved in a group called the Shalom Fellowship, and there was some concern that their faith would be entirely incompatible with their chosen careers.
Because of this struggle, October is easily the most overtly religious album U2 would ever record, from the opening track “Gloria.” It utilizes Christian imagery everywhere, such as the cry of “Jerusalem!” on “With a Shout,” and the solitary lyric (“Rejoice!”) of “Scarlet.” I’ve known more than a few Christian music fans who found October‘s spiritual content to be among their formative musical experiences.
Unfortunately, October‘s unfocused nature keeps it in the bottom tier of U2 albums. I have no idea how much the album was affected by the loss of Bono’s lyrics, but it does have something of a slapdash quality, like a band whose vision is being outstripped by their means and time. By all accounts this was indeed the case, as financial constraints forced them to record as songs were being written. It was released just one year after Boy, and its short gestation period shows. At least half the songs are moody pieces that seem more concerned about atmosphere and emotion than about musicianship.
There is clearly an effort being made to move the band forward. Several songs incorporate piano and a stronger Celtic influence, whereas Boy was basically guitar driven. But the songs that work better, like “Gloria,” “I Threw A Brick Through A Window,” and “Is That All?” all feel closer to the song-writing on Boy. They are driving guitar songs that have way more energy, while the sonic experiments are more mood pieces. But even the best that October has to offer feels far less inspired than the heights U2 would reach in later albums, or even to what they did on Boy. The truth is that the songs just aren’t as strong. U2 is now notorious for their relentless perfectionism, and I wonder if the rushed results of October have something to do with that. It still is a worthwhile album for someone who really wants to dig into U2, as it shows a vital part of who they are. But it shows only hints of how good they can be.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
When I began buying all of U2’s albums, October was one of the very last ones to make it into my collection. I wasn’t immediately taken with it either, for all the reasons I mentioned above. After the 2008 remaster, I read a lot of articles that seemed effusive in their praise of October. I think there’s a tendency to romanticize it, possibly as a way to downplay the quality of their recent music. But while I would never call it a classic, I have learned to appreciate it. I think it’s a crime that “Gloria” wasn’t included on any collections at all, and I’ve learned to appreciate what it reaches for, even if it can’t always get there.
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorite.