A Closer Look: U2’s “Boy” (1980)

“One day I’ll die/The¬†choice will not be mine…”¬†(U2, “Out of Control”).

This is one of my personal favourite debut albums by any band. It perfectly captures the kind of raw, youthful, late 70’s punk and garage-rock sound I enjoy so much, and I love the recurring themes of growing older, boyhood and coming of age that pop up on songs like “Twilight” (which has one of my favourite Edge solos in the entire U2 catalogue), “Into the Heart,” “Stories for Boys,” “Out of Control” and “Another Time Another Place” (one of my personal favourites on the album).

The lyrics really triumph for me on this album because U2 was just breaking on the scene musically. This album was released before the group set a precedent for themselves of having to make a grand, impactful and emotional statement with each record they released. And while I love that about the group, it sometimes can be quite refreshing to have an album that is so direct and to-the-point with its lyrical delivery.

The album itself also manages to perfectly capture the bizarre split in personality of the total insecurity and fear of young adults and the total self-confidence and assurance of young adults. And it sounds so sincere because that’s exactly where the band was not just as individuals at the time of recording, but also as a band. What kind of image did they want to put out to the music world? How did they write about their personal dilemmas while still relating to a larger audience? How did they keep up the confidence of being the next best band when they really had no idea what they were doing?

The answer was “Boy.” Eleven tracks that explore everything from existential midnight walks (“Shadows and Tall Trees”), mental health and depression (“A Day Without Me”), sensuality and physical attraction (“An Cat Dubh”), turning eighteen (“Out of Control”), electric shock therapy and medical malpractice (“The Electric Co.”) and everything in between.

And in all honesty, I kind of like how rough and unpolished Bono’s voice sounds because just adds to the DIY vibe of the album. Edge provides some great backing vocals on almost every track that are simple, but definitely lets a listener enjoy his voice and what it offers to Bono’s rougher tone.

Despite the fact it’s only their first album, I think everything about this album, even with the roughness, feels astonishingly put together. Larry Mullin Jr.’s drum beats are pulsating and crisp, Adam Clayton’s bass keeps each song flowing smoothly and on-tempo (and is given a position in the instrumentation that is noticeable and enjoyable without being obnoxiously loud), Bono’s lyrics address huge and sprawling topics directly and in an unpretentious, understandable fashion and oh man, Edge’s solos on this album are so catchy it’s criminal.

Even on the remastered deluxe edition, there’s some fantastic B-sides that are just as good and could’ve easily fit into the original track listing. “Saturday Night” has a fantastic driving and loud drum beat and features Bono exploring a bit of his upper register, and I love the creative use of guitar to replicate clock chimes on “Eleven o’Clock Tick Tock.” And as much as I dearly love Bono, “Things to Make and Do” is an excellent two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of the Edge, Larry and Adam flexing and experimenting with their abilities as three different musicians to create melodies that make me want to hear more of just instrumental.

It’s a good sign when I still feel just as excited to listen to this album today as I did when I was twelve and listening to it for the first time on my clock radio and didn’t want to turn it off to go to my violin lesson. It’s a piece that discusses youth without sounding overly happy or sentimental. The musicianship is both simple and impressive for all that’s being done with such a basic amount of instruments. It’s honest, while still being an enjoyable listen at any time. And it kicked off one of the biggest rock bands of the modern music scene. Not too shabby for four lads from the north side of Dublin.

Thanks for reading, and God bless.

-A.L.D.

Photo credit: U2/Island Records; taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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