U2

1983 – War  (Island)

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Third time’s a charm. Yes, this is the first truly great U2 album. (Boy was almost great, but great in a kind of wet-behind-the-ears way. This one is great by any standard.) I think in the studio, in late 1982, U2 hit its peak-period of recording, and it lasted until 1993. Granted, they're not the most prolific band, but for me there was a period of almost 11 years where just about everything they did in the studio was absolutely superb. War kicks off U2's period as legends.

Side 1

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Thousands of people, upon hearing this the first time, were converted to U2 fandom! It's a masterful piece of rock songwriting, from the guitar riff (best of the 80s?) to the sharp, hard drums (like an early 90s' mix, antithesis of the "80s sound"), to the literate, passionate lyrics (I think Bono said he had failed to really get across what he wanted here – he was wrong). The Edge's (first) & Bono's (second) separate voices on the choruses is another masterful touch. The song's little break ("Wipe your tears away... wipe your bloodshot eyes") is one of the most arresting moments in the entire U2-canon. The song doesn't overstay its welcome as it ends abruptly after the powerful final verse/chorus.

The lyric is hard-hitting and a bit dark, but, I mean, it's The Troubles, right? That's the suitable approach. Oh, and Steve Wickham's violin parts are just amazingly perfect. It's a great story how his contribution came about. I think The Edge met him by chance at a bus-stop and invited him to the studio for one day…? That violin sounds good and really adds a great dimension to an already stellar, watershed track.
And yeah, this song is all very earnest and a bit serious for certain moods – I used to play my vinyl of this album at my parents’ house in the early-90s, and my mom got annoyed at my playing “depressing music” – but, hey, this is U2. If you can’t handle some earnestness, you may as well get off the boat now. You knew what you were in for.

Seconds
Another wonderful track, very easy on the ears, a catchy melody with (unique for U2 at this point) a loping, bass-driven riff/rhythm. The Edge sings the first two verses of the song (his lead ends at the 56-second mark, after which Bono takes over). Names like "USSR", "DDR", and Bono's old-style pronunciation of "Peking" date the track, of course, but this is topical stuff, so fair enough. One thing that's quite new for U2, on War, and features prominently – to good effect – is a chorus of backing vocals (several by King Creole’s Coconuts), giving some songs an extra texture. This is first heard on “Seconds”, and it fattens up the track a bit and adds a lot of mood.

New Year's Day
The 2nd all-time classic. I must say, I rarely listen to this song anymore because of overkill – the band have kind of over-played it, I think (with a remarkably unchanged arrangement), for a gazillion years at every tour, and it's also an oft-heard song on rock radio stations. It used to mean a lot more to me when I was 16 or something. But hearing it again with fresh ears, it's just so irresistible. This track creates a singular mood. The very crunchy riffing (rare for Edge from this point on) is bang-on, and the piano of course gives another beautiful texture.

 

With all this said, there are two slightly weaker points to this otherwise amazing song, I think: 1) Larry's drum part. Now, I'm not knocking Larry (quite the opposite – see the end of my review), but on this track there's just nothing to the drums. He basically plays simple beats all through it. I mean, it's more than adequate and seemingly it didn't hurt the song's success, but I think, with 10 minutes to practice and a click-track I could probably play this part (I’ve sat behind a drum kit once in my life); 2) The lyrics. Yeah, the "I will be with you again" chorus is great, but I do have a hard time grasping the point of the lyrics (yeah, I know it's inspired by Poland's Solidarity movement, but could anyone actually get that from the lyrics? I don’t think so). I read somewhere that U2 almost dropped this song because Bono could not settle on anything for the lyrics, and he re-wrote it a thousand times to the other group members' frustration. At the eleventh hour, he gave up and they just settled on whatever he had. Still, I love the "golden age" / "wars we wage" line at the end. That's good.

Like a Song...
Always liked this one. The balls-to-the-wall sonic assault is damn exciting. Bono's voice isn't always at its best here, but the highly-mixed drums (like on several parts of October) give this track a different feel from the others (other than the fact that the song is just very loud and intense in general). The lyrics here seem more in line with October also... anyone know if this was a 1981 leftover? Just curious. Interestingly, this track also has one of the choruses of backing vocals I mentioned earlier, adding flavor. That should be incongruous for such a rocking number, but it works.

Drowning Man
Probably my second-favorite track (after “Sunday”). I think Adam Clayton said many years later that this might be his favorite U2 song. Again, Bono's voice isn't quite at its best here, straining a bit on the higher notes at the start, but he communicates the mood and emotion very well. More choruses of backing vocals are prominent, and they're again very effective in adding a haunting tone to this one. Steve Wickham plays electric violin again at the end, and it's fabulous.

For reference, Isaiah chapter 40, verse 31 reads: "They will soar on wings like eagles / They will run and not grow weary."

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Side 2

The Refugee
Some fans don't like this one, but I do... or at least I used to. Similar to "I Fall Down" on the previous album, this doesn't really sound like a "U2 song", and maybe that's why some don't rate it. But, good tune, beautiful verses, catchy chorus. So, given that, what's not to like? Okay, the "Whoa! Whoa-oa!"'s are maybe a tad overcooked, but for me it works... maybe. Okay, well, listening to it now, I could say that maybe the young-U2's lyrical take on the plight of the generic female refugee isn't the most nuanced or sophisticated one. All a bit clichéd. Still a solid, high-energy tune, though.

Two Hearts Beat as One
The single released along with the album. Another great one! Edge plays another really crunchy riff (like on "New Year's Day"), which we wouldn't hear again for many years. A winning melody, fine lyrics, and a really good vocal from Bono. The highlight of this one, for me, is the outro – "Can't stop to dance! / Maybe this is my last chance". Love that exciting bit.

Red Light
And now we get to the one that nobody likes.... In this case, I'm going to agree with the majority. This is the weakest song on the album. But I will also say that in hearing it again (after years of ignoring it), it's not nearly as bad as I'd previously thought. It's okay. Odd track in several ways. We get The Coconuts all over the intro and re-appearing throughout, and a brass part. Also, Edge's guitar parts behind the chorus don't even sound like him. Is it...? Maybe I've been too hard on this track all these years. It's passable.

Surrender
Love this one, but they correctly sequenced it near the end as it’s a little meandering. The guitar parts are cool, and the vocal melody is very uplifting (despite the subject matter, which seems to be suicide and psychological angst – sorry, mom!). I like how it starts off slow, and lets us breathe. Bono's first verse doesn't start until 1:30 into the song. The chorus of backing vocals is again very effective in adding mood. Then, there's the big build-up to the "Toniiiiiight" part at 3:00. Then, at about 3:42, that catchy singalong chorus part arrives, which is a stroke of genius (love it, love it). It's a sublime moment. 

Adam's bass part, it must be noted, is incredibly boring on this track. There's one note he hits home about 3000 times. Nevertheless, a great album track.

"40"
Bono's wobbly vocal kind of shows how they (three? Adam was absent) laid this down in about 15 minutes. Supposedly, they were still recording it when another band who'd booked Windmill Lane were literally banging on the door to get in. It's pretty damn inspired, though, for a spontaneous composition. Obviously, in those few minutes of recording the tune, they could never have imagined that this lovely song would become the end-piece to every U2 live show for many years to follow. It's really a beautiful piece of music, simple as it is.

For reference, Psalm 40 (King James' version) begins: "I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. / He brought me up also out of an horrible pitout of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. / And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord." It's great that Bono fused this with the "How long to sing this song" part of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to bring the album full circle at its close.

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So yeah, a fantastic album from a mob of scruffy, post-punk Irish dudes. Listening to it with my mature ears tonight, a little of the shine of “The Refugee” has gone off, as mentioned, as it now sounds kind of awkward with some dodgy lyrics. And I've never cared for "Red Light". But anyway, 8.5 great tracks (not just good, but really great) is a strong batting average for sure.

The melodies and harmonic elements of (most of) the songs are a big step-up from the two baby-band albums that precede War. And the band and third time-producer, Steve Lillywhite, have clearly spent more effort on the songs' arrangements this time out. They had a bit longer to record this one, and it was almost a "make-or-break" kind of recording as far as U2's relationship with Island went. Not that they were going to get dropped by the label or anything (I don't think), but had War failed to take flight, the whole history of this unique combo would be utterly unlike it is (for better and worse). Happily, the record did very well, reaching #1 on the UK chart, and #12 in the all-important American market (and the top-10 in Canada).

For me, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is U2 at its zenith – they would certainly match this level of songwriting afterwards, but never really surpass it. On War, Bono's lead vocals aren't quite there yet (he would begin to peak on the tour for this album, and his voice on the three studio albums after this one are his best), but his lyrics are much sharper and more literate than before and he certainly sounds focused and less adolescent than on October. The Edge gets to sing quite a bit on this album – a couple of lead verses on “Seconds” and some very prominent backing vocals on other songs, so that really thrust his voice into the U2-mix more. His guitar parts are less “echoey” here than on the previous two albums (and the two to follow), which might divide opinions, but I like it. The song subject matter of War requires some hard, clean, and even harsh sounds, and Edge delivers with an amazing sonic palette (voice, guitar, keyboards).

I also think the rhythm-section did its best work so far on this record. A different point from before, however, is that on most tracks Larry (and especially Adam) are turned down in the mix, whereas they were much more out on top on October. In a way, it's too bad because I think they are playing better here. We do hear that bass-line, as mentioned above, on “Seconds” very clearly, but on a lot of tracks the bass isn't very noticeable (it would be more so, though, on the live album to follow). Larry mostly does great work (“New Year's Day” aside... did they ask him to play it so simply like that?), and what's amazing to me is how the drum-sound here sounds so completely unlike most 1982-83 recordings. Hearing these drum parts, you'd think they were recorded by Steve Albini in 1993 or something. They are flat and dry – no Phil Collins' gated-drum reverb here!

This album sounds nothing like contemporary artists in the top-40 at the dawn of 1983. That is generally a good thing.

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