Saturday, 14 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #95: War (1983)

U2's first of five entries on the chart is widely regarded as both their breakthrough record and their first overtly political one.

U2 formed in 1976 and until War came out struggled to get recognition outside of their native Ireland. Their first album, Boy (1980) sold fairly well, received good reviews and produced the kitsch and slightly embarrassing hit 'I Will Follow'. The rapid follow-up, October (1981) - which also appears on the chart - had a much cooler reception and produced no hit single. Both albums were a showcase for U2's well-rooted Christianity, captured by Bono in both his direct lyrics and his emotive delivery. War was the first of many U2 albums to take this forthright Christian message and combine it with contemporary politics. Written as it was at the height of the Troubles, in the aftermath of the Falklands and, of course, with the re-ignition of the Cold War, it was hailed as one of the few records - along with Pink Floyd's The Final Cut - that summed up the political climate of the time.

Having set the tone and provided sufficient context, onto the album itself. We open with 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', one of the most forthright, political songs ever composed and one of U2's finest. Larry Mullen Jr.'s drumming sets the tone for the album - it's stark, aggressive and is designed to compel you. Bono's lyrics are strident and he sings them in a voice so stricken that you can feel the blood on his hands and the fire in his heart. It's a cracking song that speaks of the futility of conflict - And the battle's just begun/ There's many lost, but tell me who has won? - and the dual vocals between Bono and Mullen (unusually) add even more emotional tension to this masterpiece, this hard-listening anthem of the broken-hearted.

'Seconds' continues things much in the same vein, only this time it is the bass of Adam Clayton that is more prominent. As with all his work, the riff is simple but effective, creating a buzzing pulse which puts Bono on an emotional leash, making it again a compelling listen. What sets that apart, in a bad way, is the sample at about 2:03 of an American chant on megaphone - it just doesn't work. It takes the atmosphere that you could cut with a knife and ruins everything. The last 45 seconds manage to recover something, but not enough to equal the opening track.

'New Year's Day' may seem more uplifting, but beware: it can also chill you to the bone. Lines like Nothing changes on New Year's Day alter the mood to one of distressed depression at a world going around in circles. There is a desire for unity and togetherness, echoed in lines like Oh, torn in two/ We can be one, and a theme of spiritual renewal. The Edge's guitar work is brooding and perfect for the mood. Though his solo is less impressive than one might expect, it at least brings fond memories of the days before every U2 guitar part was written on the highest string. At the death, Bono turns bitterly ironic with the lines And so we are told this is the golden age/ And gold is the reason for the wars we wage. Though this sounds more like the kind of line Roger Waters would have gladly employed, the source is more likely to be the words of G. K. Chesterton, who quipped in 1931 that "The Golden Age comes to men when they have, if only for a moment, forgotten gold."

The lyrics of 'Like A Song' are less memorable and less potent than the other three covered thus far, as is Bono's delivery. But, thankfully, the musical prowess of Mullen, Clayton and The Edge keep things together and produce, almost by accident, a good rocker, albeit for the non-lyrically minded. The same cannot be said, however, for 'Drowing Man'. The opening is reminiscent of 'The Wanderer' from Zooropa (1993), and for all the acoustic efforts of The Edge, valiant as they are, it is a little clunky. This is an example of how, until recently, Bono's work in the lower registers has been poorer than when he sticks to emotive shrieking. While this track would be at home either on October or the more country elements of The Joshua Tree (1987) - which, like Zooropa, failed to make the list - it seems out of place here.

Almost to confirm the theory of the mid-album dip, 'The Refugee' finds Bono trying to be funky and hip, but ending up sounding like a drunken moron. Mullen's cowbell is hopelessly out of key, and the only things to prevent this from being considered a very half-arsed effort are The Edge's marvellous strumming and, as ever, Clayton's casual, cool bass. 'Two Hearts Beat As One' is a return to focus, with the intro being the best combination of bass and guitar that U2 have produced to date. Mullen, now confined to high hat and snare, is on top of things, and Bono manages to craft a hearfelt toe-tapper, sustained by distorted bass guitar and a romantic theme.

'Red Light' is the most annoying track on War. In the first place, having a female vocalist, even a guest one, really lowers the pace and energy of U2's songs; in the second, she's having to sing a really annoying repeating section, which jars the nerves and makes you reach for the stop button. Add some dodgy echo, indifferent guitar work and rubbish trumpets, and you have the 'lesser track' of the album. It's like U2's equivalent of 'Any Colour You Like' by Pink Floyd - it's not out of place, but you just don't feel that the band are trying as hard as they could.

Thankfully, the closing tracks, 'Surrender' and the oddly-named '"40"', restored the enegy levels and your faith. 'Surrender' sees great slide guitar from The Edge, who keeps things relatively simple but does so much. Bono has once again managed to pin down the romantic edge which so often slips through his fingers as he wails around. The Christian edge is here again, with such lines as She tried to be a good girl and a good wife/ Raise a good family, lead a good life/ It's not good enough implying (rightly) that there is something more than material existence. '"40"', despite its garbled beginning, has a gospel feel to it, mostly because the lyrics derive almost exclusively from Psalm 40 - hence the title which at first may sound unusual, at least in the context of whole album. It's a mellow way to close this outspoken album.

War is not as focussed as its thematic contemporary, The Final Cut, but that doesn't seem to really matter since the general effect is still felt and we get the message behind so many metaphors. In many places, as mentioned, things either get too whimsical or else the band tries to be too clever and in the process cocks things up big time. A further point for rock bands who also releasesingles - which U2 continue to - is that if you want to grab people's attention, don't place your best single as the opener, so matter how well it fits. Nevertheless, this is a welcoming and promising effort by a band with big things to come. War may not be the pinnacle of U2's achievement, but it's a good indicator of what got them there.

3.70 out of 5

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