A Closer Look: U2’s “October” (1981)

“And I try to sing this song, I/I try to stand up/But I can’t find my feet/I try to speak up/But only in you I’m complete…” (U2, “Gloria”).

“October” holds a very special place in my heart because I view it as U2’s most unassuming album to date. As a Christian, I appreciate an album met for a wide audience that is full of subtle hymns that appear upon a closer look. But, the simplicity of musicianship and lyricism on this record is what makes it so endearing and lasting to me.

When I was a kid, “October” wasn’t really my favourite, and I even found it a little boring in parts. And while I can admit that it is indeed a little slow compared to “Boy” and some songs are filler (“Is That All?,” “Scarlet” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” being the first three that come to my mind), there’s a beauty about this album that took me a few listens to appreciate.

I remember reading in Laura Riding’s “Bono: His Life, Music and Passions” that U2 in their early days had issues with the question of “Were they a Christian rock band, or were they Christians in a rock band?” And someone in-tune to this stage in U2’s history can see that perfectly on “October”. It’s the unsure attitude of “Boy”-the recurring early 20’s/early band identity crisis-in a more subdued and mature manner. The band is considering their issues with trying to create an image through a filter of their faith. I read a quote from Bono somewhere (perhaps in Niall Stokes’ “U2: The Story Behind Every Song”) that said, “Can you imagine? Your second record…and it’s about religion?!”

There are some excellent new musical directions on this album from “Boy” that make it a standout for me, too. First, the inclusion of such prominent piano parts on this album on songs like “I Fall Down” and “October” make up for the lack of angst and catchy punk-flavored guitar riffs of “Boy.” In fact, the song “October,” with its echoed and sombre piano as the primary form of instrumentation, may be both the most beautiful and most sad point on the record.

Larry Mullin Jr.’s drums get far more of a spotlight on this record, with solos of rolling thunderous builds on songs like “Rejoice”, flourishes on cymbals in the background on tracks like “Fire” and ushering in a killer bass line on “I Threw a Brick Through a Window,” one of my favourite songs on the album. And the intro to “With a Shout (Jerusalem)” is punchy, driving and instantly demanding of your attention. Adam Clayton’s solo on this song is also pure attitude, which somehow, doesn’t clash with the spiritual theme of the song at all.

Adam’s bass also keeps the album steadily moving along, helping with awkwardly paced songs like “Fire,” “I Threw a Brick…,” “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Tomorrow.” He gives the album a more smooth and sophisticated sound, juxtaposing Edge’s angular solos and Bono’s erratic and rough vocal deliveries.

Speaking of “Tomorrow,” Bono’s vocals go from sounding pleading and sorrowful to outright righteous, giving a glimpse into the mature vocal stylings he would go on to deliver in the late 80’s. He sings of his emotions surrounding the passing of his mother, Iris Hewson, at a young age, repeating “Won’t you be back tomorrow?/I want you to be back tomorrow” until he ends the track quoting scripture with “I believe it/Jesus is coming/I’m gonna be there, mother.” The song does an incredible job of linking a crucial point in Christian faith to a crucial turning point in Bono’s life and experience as a Christian, and lets listeners into a window of his own faith journey.

And “Gloria” is one of my favourite U2 songs ever. Bono’s lyrics on this album, while sometimes seeming overly simplistic, rushed and repetitive (perhaps because his original lyrics were stolen and during sessions he had to write each song in five minutes?), offer some fantastic lines throughout about faith, self-discovery and praise to God. This song starts the introspective and pensive album out on a triumphant and glorious hymn of praise, ending in a thunderous choral refrain over the band’s fantastic instrumentation.

I own the 30th anniversary remastered edition of this album, and in the accompanying booklet Neil McCormick writes, “Even the awkwardly posed cover shot…suggested a group ill at ease with their identity,” and goes on to suggest “October” “…may be U2’s most U2 sounding record, the one in which they fully realized their original sonic template.”

I have to say there are moments when I fully agree. This record proceeded the anger and bombast of “War,” the polished elegance of “The Unforgettable Fire” and the huge and widely-regarded masterpiece of “The Joshua Tree.” It helps listeners see U2 before they were the huge and groundbreaking group they are today-back when they were just some unsure postgrads experimenting with their untapped talents in a high school music room.

Thanks for reading, and God bless.

-A.L.D.

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

(Postscript-I apologize for this coming so late in the day. It’s still Tuesday in my timezone, and I try to put these out on either Tuesday or Thursday. I had to work for most of the day and spent the evening with my family, and just now got a chance to edit. God bless).

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