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Many Will See and Hear: U2's Prescient Youth

It’s hard to imagine U2 as a boy, to think of the band as anything but mega-mega-mega-superstars, with action-figure-ready personas and their own blockbuster-sized iconography. The deluxe reissues of their first three LPs presents an opportunity to try and remember what their youth was like. Each album has been augmented with an additional disc of drafts and detours, and hard-bound with annotation and an expert’s foreword. This treatment is akin to an author’s works joining the Library of America, I suppose, though these albums have long since been canonized. Their status was solidified by their own success but mostly by U2’s continued success, a stadium-sized, big-screen success. U2 are restless icons still, shifting styles and changing clothes, but statuesque ones too, already cast in bronze. 


In this context of global superstardom, of Bono’s world-helper status (he was, after all, one of the international figures that Sarah Palin met in her one-day, pre-debate foreign-policy education), listening again to the band’s 1980 debut LP Boy, their youthful energy is refreshing. They sound like a young band feeling their way in the darkness, playing atmospheric, post-punk pop-rock, not that distant from their contemporaries. Echo & the Bunnymen come to mind from time to time, though even on Boy U2 is much less oblique. Songs like “An Cat Dubh”, “The Ocean” and “Into the Heart” convey that shadowy atmosphere, mostly through the Edge’s guitar. But then there’s Bono singing central tunes that are aimed straight at listeners, not surrounding them with mood. This is the confessional/lecturing side of U2, though at this more uncertain stage of the band it comes off mostly as the former, not strident but revealing.


cover art

U2

Boy (Deluxe Edition)

(Island; US: 22 Jul 2008; UK: 21 Jul 2008)

cover art

U2

October (Deluxe Edition)

(Island; US: 22 Jul 2008; UK: 21 Jul 2008)

cover art

U2

War (Deluxe Edition)

(Island; US: 22 Jul 2008; UK: 21 Jul 2008)

The words Bono sings on Boy are all about boys trying to become men. They depict growing-up as a struggle to find the light within the murk. “My body grows and grows / It frightens me you know”, Bono sings on “Twilight”, a song with the chorus “Twilight, lost my way”. Later, on “Into the Heart”, he places “the heart of a child” on a pedestal, significantly framing the journey as going back to that place, indicating they’re not that far away from childhood. That’s part of that pure emotional side of U2 and Boy, the side that prizes virtue. Accompanying it is a sadness about the uncertainty of aging. “Out of Control” seems emblematic: “One day I’ll die / the choice will not be mine / will it be too late? / you can’t fight fate.”


Does the boy on the front cover of the album – the original cover, not the band-photo-art on the US cover – look scared? Calm? Jaded already? Could be any of these, really. All feed into the album’s focus on the self, on hope and disappointment, education and repression.   


Looking at and listening to Boy now makes you wonder if U2 had the foresight that they would become huge stars. The album reads like a baby picture. Time having passed on, it now seems fixated on not just youth but the pains and mystery of aging. At the same time, U2’s later superstar status is channeled through a handful of big stadium-sized pop-rock songs: “I Will Follow”, “Out of Control”, “A Day Without Me.” The first of those is especially immortal, a song that still feels like an immediate sign of U2 as a band to be reckoned with. 


The reissue’s bonus CD includes some rough demos that are similar but almost closer in tone to punk, played in a more rebellious style. They show the way U2 was creating their sound up to the release of Boy, plus the likely amount of studio crafting that the band and producer Steve Lillywhite engaged in for the album. The starker demos also isolate the instruments some, revealing each instrument’s importance. “Speed of Life” has a great bass opening, a nice window for imagining what a circa 1980 U2 instrumental album might have been like.


 


Fast-forward just a year to October, and you have an album that both Neil McCormick’s album notes and The Edge’s bonus-CD notes portray as rushed. Bono’s lyrics were stolen from a hotel room soon before the band was to enter the studio, and he was more or less writing new lyrics in the studio. The Edge writes, “half-baked musical ideas that we started working on in the morning would be finished songs by the evening…This was stream-of-consciousness songwriting.” He describes the album as “fascinating and embarrassing” for the band.


That upturned, quicker style of writing gives the songs less distinct forms, putting the emphasis overall on atmosphere over structure. There’s an edge to it, an unsettled drive. Singles “Gloria” and “Fire” still have big hooks, but they sound ambiguous at the same time. Yet Bono’s apparently impromptu lyrics go the other way: slightly unsettled, perhaps, but also a raw expression of devotion, an exclamation of his source of reassurance.


“Gloria” starts out unsure (“I try to sing this song”) but becomes a hymn of praise, partly in Latin no less. “Tomorrow” essentially calls for Jesus to return. In “I Threw a Brick Through a Window”, Bono self-criticizes and paraphrases the Bible: “No one is blinder than he who will not see.” In “Rejoice” he also does a dual look inward and outward: “I can’t change the world / but I can change the world in me.” Throughout the album he sings of self-analysis but at the same time kneels down before the heavens. The title song plainly calls out to an eternal god above: “October and kingdoms rise / and kingdoms fall / but you go on and on.”  It’d be an easy line to say that the album also cemented U2’s immortality, but I’m not sure that’s true. October’s energy is murky. It was the quintessential sophomore album, a bridge. Its eccentricity within the band’s catalogue gives it its own special place. But it wasn’t a huge push upward or a sure thing for commercial success.


 


Boy and October both may have just been cult favorites if not for 1983’s War, the band’s epic leap forward as songwriters, musicians and rock stars. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” opens the album with a bang, headstrong and iconic. But it’s only the start.  Across the singles (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”, “Two Hearts Beat as One”) and the album tracks, War refines the punch of the earlier albums but also has the expansive, statuesque scope that U2 would ultimately bring to nearly everything they do. The music is especially pop and especially epic. At the same time, the band’s worldview expands, from the first lyric: “I can’t believe the news today / I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” On War, Bono and U2 are concerned about Ireland, about Poland, about the USSR…but more specifically about government repression, senseless violence, poverty, greed and war. “We are told this is the golden age / and gold is the reason for the wars we wage,” Bono pointedly sings on “New Year’s Day”. U2’s perspective on these global issues is entwined as always with Christianity, with a call for a transformative sort of love. At the end of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Bono sings, “the real battle has just begun / to claim the victory Jesus won.”


The album is bookended by “40”, a more plaintive ballad that is no less crowd-focused, no smaller. And the focus is on change transferred through the individual to the world beyond. “How long to sing this song?” is the question, similar to “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. But Bono is also proclaiming, “I will sing, sing a new song.” Not just to himself, but to the world: “Many will see, many will see and hear.” An epic sing-along, “40” closes War’s circle. It turns the album’s social commentary into a call to action that the band would heed, turning into globally minded – sincere but, eventually, potentially pompous—superstars, giants of their era.


Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine ErasingClouds.com, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


Tagged as: boy | october | u2 | war
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