The normal history of U2 points to a couple of radical reinventions, usually after the overwrought Rattle and Hum, and then again after the muted response to Pop. But U2 is a band very sensitive to what they need to do, correcting course when they feel they’ve reached the end of a creative well. The first time they did this was after the mushy October, with the blistering attack of War. Rather than chiming guitars, the listener is greeted by a blast of martial drumbeats in “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Songs rarely meander, instead surging forward with an energy that finally delivers on the most intense moments of the first two albums. U2 has released several great albums, but I would call War their first masterpiece.
October ended up being a commercial non-starter, so there was enormous pressure to make sure that the follow-up album left nothing on the table, since if it didn’t pan out it would likely be the last one. Even in the early 80s, U2 was already becoming known for The Edge’s echo-laden guitar, but they perceived they had been leaning on it a little too heavily. The songs for the new album were written to be more percussive and immediate. Today “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is regarded as one of the truly great U2 songs, but after over 30 years of exposure it’s hard to sense how different it sounds from the first two albums. Even in its most intense moments, Boy never had anything so aggressive, and October had a hard time getting off the ground in all but a couple tracks. It feels like the whole band is finally matching the intensity and anthemic quality of Bono’s voice.
That militaristic quality doesn’t end there. “Seconds” contains a sample of a sound-off from the 1982 movie Soldier Girls, and “Like A Song” surges with explosive energy that sounds like an invasion. “The Refugee,” one of my favorite U2 album tracks, is written like a warcry, with shouts of “whoa-oh-oh” that feels like the sonic equivalent of fists pumping in the air. Even the less rocking numbers have an immediacy and focus missing from the first two albums. When the echoing guitar turns up, as it does on “New Year’s Day,” it’s in service of melodies far stronger than anything U2 had written at that point.
On only two tracks does the raucous energy get dialed down, on “Drowning Man” and “40,” the closers to the two sides of the original LP. These are both fine songs on their own. “Drowning Man” has an angular vocal line that has only improved the more I’ve heard it, and “40” ended up being U2’s concert closer for years to come. But both are made even stronger by where they are placed on the album. They contrast sharply with the other tracks, and they lend the album far more variety than all of the sonic experimentation on October.
But I think the item that makes War such a success is Bono’s lyrics. Rather than the abstract spiritual aphorisms of the previous album, here the songs talk about far more specific topics. Those topics are more obvious on some tracks (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”) than on others (“New Year’s Day”), but the simple act of writing with a more specific focus makes the words feel all the more intentional. It’s really the first indication we’ve seen of what kind of band U2 would be, one who would speak to political issues, and who was somehow able to wrangle such complex ideas to a personal level. War is not something that happens in the abstract, and War does a great job at looking for the small-scale effects. “New Year’s Day” is about Lech Walesa and the Polish Solidarity movement, but it filters it through the story of a man and his love separated by things beyond their control.
War still feels like early U2, right down to Steve Lillywhite’s distinctive production. But it feels like a culmination of that era, a consolidation of all of the best things the band had accomplished to that point, while simultaneously avoiding their worst excesses. It’s a lean album without a bum track, able to translate the sonic flourishes into real melodies, rather than moods unto themselves. War is the sound of a young band making a name for themselves in rock history.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
I got War as part of my brief stint in the BMG Music Club, which makes me sound much older than I actually feel. Like a lot of early U2, it didn’t immediately mesh with me. I liked it well enough for many years, but it was only in my adult life that I was able to really appreciate how good it was. Part of it was getting to see some live performances on DVD, where songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” really come to life. Part of it was a general weariness with the somewhat more conventional late-period U2, and a desire to hear the band young and hungry. Either way, I now regard War as one of the very best U2 albums ever, and one of my favorite albums from anyone.
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorite