Sunday, 22 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #87: October (1981)

U2's second entry on the chart is also their second album, October, the successor to their debut Boy (1980) - which, incidentally, doesn't feature on the chart. U2 had signed to Islands Records in March 1980. Under the watchful eyes of producer Steve Lillywhite, Boy was released in October of the same year. Though it was praised as a relatively good debut effort, critics remarked that the lyrics had the feeling of being improvised, losing all possible impact. With their live reputation growing, a quick follow-up was needed to prove that U2 were not just the successors to late-1970s 'arena rockers' like Peter Frampton. Spurred on by these two stimuli, Bono et al returned to the studio with Lillywhite in July 1981, to record an album with a more directly spiritual feel. In between albums, Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. had all joined the 'Shalom Fellowship', an Irish Christian group which explored the contradictions between the Christian message and the rock-and-roll lifestyle.

But enough preamble, onto the album itself. 'Gloria' makes it obvious from the start that is a very spiritual or religious album. Some of the rhythm section work, like The Edge's high picking and Mullen's good hi-hat work, would be happily at home on later U2 albums (see my review of War). But this is otherwise a very difficult listen. The lyrics are heavy-handed enough when they're in English, and when Bono switches to Latin in the chorus it falls flat on it face. His voice is not suited to the tongue; he finds it impossible to pronounce exalte sensibly, with it coming out like 'Nick Nolty' (whoever he is).

Things are better on 'I Fall Down', which features in its intro the most distinctive and interesting feature of the album - The Edge on piano. As we shall see on the title track, this acts not only as a great mood-setter, but it's also a great way to reign Bono in just when it seems that this most charismatic of frontmen will go flying off the rails. The Edge would later perfect this technique with his guitar on War. The lyrics are simpler - for instance, I want to get up/ When I wake up/ But when I get up/ I fall down. Like most of the stuff U2 produced in the 1980s, Bono's voice is more indistinct in the studio. On the other hand, there is enough energy here to prevent this from becoming a mumbling section set to a decent instrumental.

'I Threw A Brick Through A Window' begins with intriguing work from Mullen, on what sounds like a floor tom. But soon all illusions of a departure are gone, swept aside by mainstream MTV riffs and Bono's terrible pitching. Even though the higher registers are his natural home, this sounds like a choirboy singing over a backing tape. Lillywhite has tried to pep this flat song up with echoes, double-tracking and prog-sounding drums, but it ends up an incoherent nightmare - and, to our eternal detriment, Clayton is nowhere to be seen.

It is only with 'Rejoice' that we begin on any kind of consistent streak. This is upbeat, and for once the Christian lyrics work well with U2's riffs. The preamble to the chorus is very impressive: What am I to do?/ What in the world am I to say?/ There's nothing else to do/ He says he'll change the world some day/ I rejoice, clearly conveying both Bono's faith and the increasing desperation of the world, a theme again reflected in War. And though once again Lillywhite seems to have forgotten to record Clayton's bass, this is a much better song with a more-all rounded feel.

This new-found (successful) geling of Christianity and rock music continues on 'Fire' and 'Tomorrow'. 'Fire' is a traditional 4/4 rock song with great bending and backing vocals from The Edge. True, the lyrics are both indistinct and overly repetitive, but this is overall a very likeable song. 'Tomorrow' sounds, at the outset, somewhere between a Dylan outtake and 'The Carny' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. This is about Bono's mother, who died when he was young, and you sense he is really, really trying to be emotional without seeming passé or cloyed. The use of Uilleann pipes disguise the weak and repetitive lyrics. Bono is trying very hard to get across the message that he misses his mother deeply. Musically, this is achievied and then some, which manages to disguise the indifference of the lyrics.

We now come to the title track, which is without a doubt the best on the album. Why? Because it's a complete rejection of the U2 formula. There are no powerful drums, wailing guitars and screaming high-pitched vocals here. It's stark, with just Bono and piano to make it up. Just as on 'I Fall Down', The Edge has tied Bono to the ground and in doing so has brought out the best in him. But best of all, the lyrics are forthright and say what they have to say without being tied up in pretention or 80s whimsy:

October, and the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear. What do I care?
October, and kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall, but You go on
And on

Sadly, the glory (or 'gloria', perhaps) doesn't last. 'With A Shout (Jerusalem)' is not just a return to formula, it's a return to half-hearted mediocrity. The guitar parts are fast becoming clichéd, and the odd choice of notes on the first few bars make them if anything more suited to a David Bowie album. The lyrics are weak, at least when you can make them out, and for most of the song you cannot. It's without a doubt the lesser track on the record.

'Stranger In A Strange Land' is a far superior effort - though, considering how disappointing the last track was, that isn't the hardest thing in the world of music. The opening sounds like an outtake from Live At Leeds, treated with filters to distance it and then spaced out further still. Things quiet down as the band attempt to give Bono the room to sing properly - an opportunity he only half-ruins this time around. The message is a little unclear, though the Christian themes can come through sufficiently when this is studied as part of the overall record; standing alone, it is not as coherent.

Both 'Scarlet' and 'Is That All?' are shorter and sparser. The Edge's piano rears its thankful head again in 'Scarlet', which sounds like a piano-based prequel to 'With Or Without You'. The priority is given to the band over Bono here, given Mullen more room for some interesting echoey fills. Clayton doesn't use the oppurtunity to muscle in as he should, giving this a three-piece feel. Nevertheless, it's a damn sight better than the closer. 'Is That All?' is more formula rock, regurgited and plastered with electric drums to produce a faux-pop shambles. The title and its positioning as the closing song on the album was perhaps meant to leave you wanting more. It doesn't. If U2 had possessed any sense, they would have retitled this 'Is This The Best They Can Do?', because that's precisely the feeling you get.

October is generally seen as U2's weakest effort before Pop (1997). And there are many, many things wrong with this album which make it a very difficult listen. We have already seen the faults in the songs - Bono is as incoherent as a falsetto Gordon Brown, Clayton is almost non-existent, The Edge is teetering on the edge of clichéd - so thank God he can also play the piano - and Mullen is not given sufficient space to improvise. The biggest flaw though lies in the production - it's flat, bland and frankly boring. It's as if Lillywhite came in on every song, flicked the same old switches, gave the thumbs up and went to sleep (but not before turning off the mike nearest to the bass). Having said all that, October is mildly better than War for one good reason - piano. The title track adds a gravitas that War didn't have as much of. It's surprising, and music should surprise you. What was it that Imogen Heap sang: Music is worthless unless it can/ Make a complete stranger/ Break down and cry? Sure, October doesn't do that, but given enough patience you will be able to tease out some of the touches which showed up on later and better albums.

3.73 out of 5

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