For me, U2 is a band who started with the Joshua Tree album. I grew up with older sisters who both went through separate U2 phases. One coinciding with The Joshua Tree, the other coinciding with Achtung! Baby and Zooropa. I think I heard those albums too much at the time for the band to ever have an objective chance with me.
I like Rattle and Hum and Achtung! Baby enough these days to have both albums on my iPod, but have found U2 to be an increasingly unnecessary musical presence. Even if I didn’t like Pop, I could appreciate it as band truly trying something new, broadening their horizons and experimenting. Then came songs like Elevation, such generic, radio friendly goo, I’m surprised they even bothered giving them titles beyond Radio Friendly Unit Shifter #1.
So while the last decade or two holds absolutely no interest for me, and I find their early taste of global dominance just OK, there’s still an era in their career that I know next to nothing about. The early years, the first three albums when this post punk band of Irish teenagers were quietly plugging away, building a reputation and figuring out how they would soon be the biggest band in the world. So I decided to start with what seems to be recognised as the pinnacle of early U2, their third album, War.
The first surprise comes super early. It turns out the opening song on War is one I would consider one of their most famous and enduring, Sunday Bloody Sunday. Along with New Year’s Day a couple of tracks later, I would have bet cash money on both of these songs being on The Unforgettable Fire, the massive big breakthrough album that came on the heels of War. It’s redundant to say, but both more than hold up three decades later. You can hear the hints of that signature, delayed Edge guitar sound that would dominate everything up until Achtung! Baby. But here, it’s an interesting, new take on things. Not the crutch it would become.
One thing War makes me realise is that I’ve never really given Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. much credit for their contributions as a rhythm section. They don’t have catchy nicknames like Bono and The Edge. They don’t have easily recognisable visual gimmicks like The Edge’s beanies and Bono’s smothering ego and pretension. But Like a Song is nothing without Mullen’s relentless, pounding drums. And I think today might be the first time I’ve ever consciously noticed that New Year’s Day’s most prominent, memorable feature, is Clayton’s bass line.
So when Adam and Larry read this (and I think we can all agree that they definitely will), I need to apologise. Sorry boys, I’ve given you little to no regard for nigh on 30 years now, but it turns out that you actually play a pretty important role in U2.
With Drowning Man, we get a level of experimentation that I assumed was only to come later in the band’s career. A weird little time signature, some sort of strange string instrument and eerie soundscapes. Unfortunately, the experimentation doesn’t pay off. And most of that comes down to Bono’s painful wails. The Refugee fares a lot better with its slight oddness. A smooth bass groove, tribal drums and plenty of vocal chants combine for something I never knew U2 was capable of.
Overall, what I like most about War is its raw sound. U2 have spent so much of their career being known for big, slick, production heavy technical perfection. With War, a song like Two Hearts Beat as One shows their songs don’t need all of that studio polish. The moderately successful dudes in their early 20s had a hunger that you can hear. A hunger that makes the U2 of 1983 a completely different, and in a lot of ways, more interesting band, than the world conquering behemoths they would become only a few years later.