U2 were a mighty force in the 80’s and 90’s, a hugely acclaimed band that earned both their hordes of fans and their hordes of detractors. At their height, they were great musicians who made a totally different type of rock music, but their initial lack of self-awareness, inability to cope gracefully with fame, and Bono’s massive ego all got them a huge amount of ridicule in the 90’s. Did they deserve it? Probably not, but they didn’t do much to avoid it.
So it was very impressive that they managed to thoroughly turn their situation around in the late 90’s and stay a bankable (if often-despised) act into the present era. But to understand them beyond the surface detail, to understand who they are beyond “awkwardly Christian pop stars,” you have to start early.
U2 are Irish, and grew up in Dublin during “The Troubles.” We think of the British Isles as being a major center of civilization, but Northern Ireland (part of the UK) was a country torn by guerilla warfare, and Dublin, while located in the calmer, safer Republic of Ireland (not part of the UK), isn’t all that far from the northern border. We can see some of the same earmarks in U2’s music as we see in art and literature from any turmoil-filled region: a kind of intense earnestness that comes from growing up un-sheltered from the problems of the real world, and a keen-eyed concern for the human condition that doesn’t come easily to people living in quiet parts, far from the border. I compare it to music that came out of Africa at about the same time.
Now, (and this is a theme I touch on more in my next review) the 80’s were a time when we began to feel the Global Village was very small indeed, and in which artists like U2 felt like the voices of the age. The best music from this time usually has world influences, and often harps on themes of travel and global communications in ways that are foreign to us: after all, we’ve had the internet for decades now, and safe intercontinental air travel for longer still. It’s easy to forget that long-distance calls used to cost real money, and it’s almost as easy to forget how big and forbidding the world used to feel.
And U2 came of age in this awe-inspiring environment. U2’s first two albums have a great sound, but they’re frankly immature, as a band’s first two albums routinely will be. Their third is in no uncertain terms one of the great albums of the early 80’s, and it marks the point at which they began making money. It’s titled “War,” since, in the words of Bono, “War seemed to be the motif for 1982 [when the album was recorded].”
He’s no doubt thinking of the First Lebanon War, a conflict between Lebanon and Israel still felt to this day in the Middle-East, and probably of the conflict in the Falklands as well, a short war Britain fought with Argentina over islands in the South Atlantic, a handful of tiny and substantially useless pieces of land in the utter South end of the world. And the album shows that, when Bono thinks about war, he also thinks about what war does to the populace and about the human condition in general.
The first song is about the Troubles. “It is not a rebel song,” Bono says whenever he sings it live, “this song is ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.'” Bloody Sunday was an incident on 30th January, 1972 when unarmed Northern Irish protesters were fired upon with live rounds by the British Army. Two were run over with Army vehicles, as well, for a total of 14 dead and at least 14 more wounded, some of them permanently. The effect of this on the Irish and Northern Irish psyche must be massive. To even have an idea of what this is like, I can only compare it to the various killings in my native American South during the Civil Rights Movement, including another day called “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, 1965, when peaceful, mostly-Black civil rights protesters were brutalized and in some famous cases murdered by riot police, some of them on horseback with bullwhips. Even then, it’s too removed from my own life for me to really get how open the wounds must have been at one time, how open they are now for those whom it affects the most… Bono’s writing only ten years after his country’s Bloody Sunday, so when he’s passionate on this song, I believe him.
And it’s a great song. Bono isn’t just singing about one massacre, but about every massacre and bloodbath ever and one in particular. This feat is something few could pull off without sounding trite. The band sound huge, with Larry Mullen especially hitting hard on his drums, which are unfortunately poorly recorded. I actually brought this up in my review of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” as an example of everything that was wrong with 80’s production styles. The drums on this album couldn’t have been recorded in any time but the early 80’s.
In fact, practically no one seemed to be able to record and mix drums right in that decade, which is especially idiotic since they really got the drums right with great frequency in the 60’s and 70’s. Listen to the drums on 1969’s “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones. They sound huge, and you’d think they’d be a giant, custom kit, right? No, it’s a tiny portable kit set up in a hotel room, but mic’d up and mixed properly. Now listen to the drum intro on “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Mullen is a great drummer, and he’s playing a nice kit, but due to the godawful micing and processing, it sounds like he’s the one banging on toy traps.
The second song, Seconds, is Bono voicing anxieties about terrorism, nukes, and war in general. “In an apartment on Times Square/You can assemble them anywhere,” he says, speaking, probably of a small atom bomb that could be built anywhere and set off in an instant. Terrorism became a real thing in the U.S. consciousness in 2001, but Bono has seen terrorism on his home soil within his lifetime, so it might sound more prescient to me than it really was at the time. But the sense of dread in this song is universally understandable, and I have to commend him for that.
Ironically enough, there’s an actual plastic toy drum banging away on this song, and it doesn’t sound much worse than the other drums. As dumb as the drums sound, the band is ahead of its time here in other ways: they interject a lo-fi sample of children singing an Airborne Rangers cadence as the song’s bridge, in what sounds like a very 90’s or 00’s alt-rock move. Overall, the album has started strong and continued strong, despite trashy polythene-sounding production.
Next comes the piano-driven “New Year’s Day,” U2’s first hit in the U.K. It’s about love and separation in a time of unrest, I think. It’s nicely arranged, and the simple chorus, which goes “I will be with you again,” captures a very believable yearning.
Larry Mullen sure shows off a lot on this album, doesn’t he? The next song, “Like a Song,” begins with the elemental sound of him beating out quarter notes on his snare drum, the percussion equivalent of the “Purple Haze” intro. It’s not even that badly mic’d; It’s definitely the only song I can really enjoy the drumming on. The song is musically on par with “New Year’s Day” as one of the best songs on the album, but the lyrics are likely to be divisive.
Yes, “Like a Song” is representative of a stage many Christian songwriters (and songwriters who happen to be Christians) have in their development, in which they rail at the failings of the Christian Church at large. Perhaps it’s division among believers or the realization that the organized religion fails to help the poor and needy as much as it could (and in Bono’s case here, it’s both), but whatever the subject, it’s a little like the religious equivalent of Bob Dylan’s protest-song phase.
And listen: I love “Chimes of Freedom” and “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Protest songs can work, but it’s hard to do. For that matter, how well does Bono pull it off? I would say decently well–the song has some great lines–but it’s at moments like “Like a Song” that I realize exactly why U2 and Bono personally are as deeply divisive as they are.
It comes down to this: if you’re not religious, the singer railing against his own religion looks stupid. Why wouldn’t you just get a new religion or become an atheist? Furthermore, in our society, we’re all too conscious that division within a religion is how many bloody holy wars have started.
On the other hand, if you’re religious, you might understand Bono’s desire for his religion to be all it could be, and you might even relate. From such a perspective the song stands well as an indictment of religious partizanism and hypocrisy. If you disagree, well, I must say I can see your side of it clearly as well.
And that’s the paradox of Paul “Bono” Hewson. At his prime, he was a man with something of an ego, and he was wrestling with ideas of Christian humility; he was a man obsessed with righteousness and wracked with a sense of moral guilt, and moreover, he tried to write rock and roll about religion.
The name “rock and roll” refers to sex, by the way. It’s an old sailing term for a ship riding choppy sea, and it’s also meant “having sex” from probably about the time it was coined. That’s sailors for you. And the name stuck to the genre because, for one thing, the name’s catchy as hell, with strong alliteration and assonance, and for another, because rock music has always looked at life from the angle of sex and romance. It turns out that most human activities can be used as metaphors for sex, and that as a passionate act of (potential) creation, sex makes a great metaphor for art, work, and human striving in general. This, I would argue, is latent in all the great rock music, from the first bluesmen to add a back-beat to their music, right up to artists working in the present day.
To sum up a very complex genre in a few words, rock speaks about life in the language of sexual passion. So if you’re a member of a religion where the common doctrine is that sex is supposed to be a sacred thing that’s not talked about and should (theoretically) only happen between married people, it’s possible that rock is not your genre of choice. But Bono makes it work, aware that sexual passion often looks and sounds like religious passion, and vice versa. Honestly, I liked him better when he was wracked with guilt and anxiety about his morals. When he changed and became superficially more palatable to general audiences, the music suffered. We’ll get to that in another review.
Where was I? Do let me know in the comments if I rant just entirely too much.
“Drowning Man,” that’s next. It has a very different sound from the rest of the album, with a guest musician playing the electric violin, and Bono and “the Edge” Evans playing interlocking acoustic rhythm. Later, Bono only played guitar when he was lost in his “rock-star” persona, which was more like a Christian-high-school student’s idea of what a rock-star would look like. I feel embarrassed for Bono when I remember him strutting around and trying to scratch out the chords for “Watchtower” only a few years later.
Here in the studio, however, he has no one to impress and he’s had time to learn the chords. Meanwhile, the Edge does what he does best, which is create a musical soundscape. And what a soundscape it is! When I say soundscape, some of you think of a late-80’s/early-90’s noise-rock band of your choosing, and outside this context, that’s what I think of when I say or hear it too. If you’ve followed my blog, you even know what band I’m thinking of right now. But I mean something different when I say “soundscape” here, and wish I had a different word for what the Edge does. To be honest, this song sounds nothing like what I define as “rock and roll,” with vaguely Flamenco strumming patterns interlocking to form a ringing, shimmering texture that is somehow less choppy and more flowing than the sum of its parts. If I think of a cityscape rising through the smog when I hear the sludged-out guitars in “Teenage Riot,” then I hear high, crashing surf when I listen to the guitars and violin in this song. That seems appropriate, given the title.
I have no idea what the song’s angle is. Some people have thought it was a religious song about God speaking to his people or something like that: it wouldn’t be the first or the last time with Bono, and he does quote scripture in this song. Honestly, though, it could just as easily be a passionate love song to someone you’re traveling a great distance to see. Which, if you get into Christian theology, still doesn’t preclude the first theory. You see what I mean, though, when I said that religious passion can sound like sexual or romantic passion?
Anyways, the lyrics are a little generic despite allusions to Isaiah and a cryptic title, this is a beautifully arranged little number. I forgot to mention that there’s female guest singers from an American Latin-music group called the Coconuts singing on several of these tracks, and their voices match the violin and guitar so well that it almost sounds like a rising orchestra when they start to sing the bridge.
Side two (we’re only just now to side two; I must have been ranting) begins with a totally different type of number from anything on the album up to this point. It’s “The Refugee,” and it was produced by a different producer from the rest of the album, explaining how it actually manages to do the drums kind-of alright. Now look, I’ve nothing against Steve Lillywhite, but he stands accused by the facts, not by me. The drums on most of this album are trash, and it’s not Larry Mullen Jr.’s fault. I’d like to believe it’s not the eminent Mr. Lillywhite’s fault either, but rather, the industry’s. I don’t know. The 80’s, man. Heck of a time.
As you can imagine with a song named “the Refugee,” it’s punk as hell. U2 actually formed as a punk band, like so many bands that didn’t stay punk very long, and here, you can tell their origins very clearly. Now, if rock speaks about life in the language of sex, punk speaks about life in the language of dissent and protest. This doesn’t mean tiring political rhetoric, it means stating the facts with brutal plainness and letting them indict whom they will, much like the best novelists of the realist generation. It’s a song about refugees yearning to immigrate to America, and husbands and wives getting separated by war. It has, I think, an undertone of anxiety, a creeping anxiety that perhaps America will not be everything the refugees hope. The language here is plain and does not editorialize, the vocals are raw and punkish, the guitars play a riff that is at once melodic and brutally simple, and the percussion grows on me every time I listen to it. It’s a great song, and in a way, I think it’s the title track. The backup singers sound like they’re singing (or shouting) “what war?” and at any rate, I think it’s the song on this album that uses the word the most.
There’s nothing wrong with “Two Hearts Beat as One,” but it’s not especially notable to me. It’s another “love in times of change” song, (like half the album, it seems.)
“Red Light” is nice, with more hard, punkish guitar, more vocals from the Coconuts, and lyrics that might be about suicide or about a breakup or about a prostitute. I can’t tell. The jazz trumpet solo is a nice touch, and it fits surprisingly well with the straightforward beat and guitar riff.
Surrender is a song about the big city and feeling lost and alone in it. There’s a bit of a narrative about a woman named Sadie, who considers suicide and apparently walks away from a good life because she feels something’s missing or feels guilty about being privileged. It’s an emotion that most of us can’t understand, but it exists and Bono handles it with sensitivity. The Coconuts sing here as well, and the Edge is on top of his game with massive riffs that remind me, oddly enough, of “Teenage Riot.” I like it very much, but I can’t think of a ton to say about it that’s notable enough to take up more space in this already oversized review.
So then, for the last song, Bono et al. set a Psalm to music. It’s good if you like that. It’s called 40, and it’s based on the 40th Psalm. It became a concert highlight, the “everybody sing along” number in U2’s repertoire, and once again, you can see why this band is so divisive. Religion, man. If you’re Christian, it’s great, if you’re not, you’re likely already alienated. Musically, it’s a well-done song, and it’s loads better than most attempts to pset the Psalms to mupsic, I can tell you that.
Had it not found mainstream success, I think War would be counted as one of the great post-punk/early alt-rock albums of the 80’s. While the religious elements might alienate a large portion of the audience who might otherwise like the album musically, my real dislike with this album is, as you probably know by now, the plastic-sounding drums. I give it a solid 7/10.
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