In recent years no musical artist has been knocked off their pedestal harder than U2. It began with the backlash against their album being added by Apple to people's iTunes libraries, and then just spilled over into general hatred. Slagging U2 has now become a way for too-online people to show how cool they are. The whole thing has reached truly annoying proportions. And while I will acknowledge U2's output since 2000 has been pretty lame, their prime stuff still holds up, in my opinion.
39 years ago today the band put out their first great album, War. It came out in 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, a year when Soviet air defense shot down a Korean airliner and NATO's Able Arch 83 exercises prompted the Soviets to ready their nuclear arsenal. It was the closest we came to nuclear war in my lifetime, at least until this week. Beyond the Cold War, the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland, civil war and invasion ravaged Lebanon, and the dust had just settled from the misbegotten Falkand Islands conflict. Central America too was aflame.
In our current unsettled times this album could not be more relevant. If you are ready to put down the smug hipster bashing of U2 and enjoy them again, here is the place to start.
The cover itself let's you know what's up. The boy from the cover of their first album Boy now has a split lip and a fierce look on his face. It's a startling image of lost innocence, how conflict makes too many people grow up too soon.
U2's first two albums are good but in a more spiritual, and less topical mode. This one begins with "Sunday Bloody Sunday," an unmistakable reference to the Troubles. Larry Mullen's drums strike a martial beat, the first words are "I can't believe the news today/ I can't close my eyes and make it go away." How many times have you had that sensation in recent years? Bono coming out and waving a white flag chanting "no war!" when performing this song in concert back then might strike us as cheesy nowadays, but it meant something profound to me in that moment. Reagan's America was full of Cold War nationalist propaganda, talk of the "evil empire" and revenge fantasies about Vietnam from Rambo to Missing in Action to Uncommon Valor. His was one of the few voices with a big platform in that pre-internet age to say it was all inhuman bullshit.
After that comes the haunting "Seconds," one of my all time favorite U2 deep cuts. Again, Mullen's drums are insistent and martial. (This album might be his most dominant.) "It takes seconds to say goodbye" references the nuclear button. The bass and vocals make it sound like a lost track from Remain in Light. Despite the themes the song is a bit of an interlude between "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," the first U2 song I remember hearing on the radio. The latter song blends political concerns (evidently about Poland's Solidarity movement) with what sounds like a love song. The lyrics might be indistinct, but the sound is amazing still today. This is the The Edge's song, his searing guitar solo among his very best. His guitar really came alive on the last album, October, but here it's finally wedded to a superior song. The echoey piano paired with Clayton's overdriving bass give it a perfectly ominous sound.
"Like a Song..." follows, another stellar deep cut, at least from a musical standpoint. Lyrically we start getting the taste of the kind of overwrought Bono preaching that would get him mocked mercilessly in the Rattle and Hum era as well as the present day. If you can overlook that it has the rest of U2's strengths on full display. Mullen's drumming has never sounded better, driving the song forward with true urgency. As usual Clayton's bass adds to the drive while Edge's reverb washes over everything.
Side one ends with "Drowning Man." Like all well-sequenced LPs the listener gets a come down before needing to flip the record over. "Like a Song..." is so driving that it's impossible to keep that pace up, anyway. We also get a break from politics to a song about longing for one's love when separated by distance. The sound is still gorgeously haunting, a reminder that U2 got its start in the post-punk world. Those post-punk elements would be scrubbed out pretty soon.
Side two starts with the more up tempo "The Refugee" to kick things off. It doesn't quite sound like anything else on the record, either. It sounds more like an outtake from Bowie's Let's Dance, something for the clubs instead of protest marches. Like a lot of U2 records over the years side one is for the hits and side two is for the experiments. (Just listen to The Joshua Tree). Although the next song "Two Hearts Beat as One" would be a single, it still has the post-punk sound instead of the nouveau arena rock sound of "New Year's Day." Like early New Order, the bass is carrying the melody.
Like a lot of classic albums, the penultimate tracks are not standouts. "Red Light" is hardly bad, but doesn't distinguish itself that much. It does rock hard, at least. "Surrender" has the haunting sound of "Drowning Man" at the start but heads to poppier territory. Again, not bad but not great.
Everything ends with ""40"" (a reference to Psalm 40.) My longstanding theory about U2 is that they are the greatest Christian rock band of all time. The last album, October, overflows with religiosity. Heck, one song is even called "Gloria"! Politics with a religious tint of prophecy replace outright religion on War, but here God makes a comeback. This is a beautiful, languid track recorded at the end of the sessions when Clayton had already split. You can definitely tell this is a band that is about to mesh well with Brian Eno on their forthcoming albums. Edge's bass has a more melodic cast than Clayton's galloping horse, and Bono croons more than shouts for a change. It's a perfect ending to a great record.
It might not be cool to like U2 these days, but their own response to a world gone wrong in the early 80s sure makes a lot of sense today.