“And so we are told this is the golden age/And gold is the reason for the wars we wage/Though I want to be with you, be with you night and day/Nothing changes on New Years Day”-U2, “New Years Day.”
By far the most angry and punk-inspired album in the band’s discography, “War” caught U2 at an interesting time of them blossoming into the socially conscious group they’re viewed as today, but before they earned the serious, earnest reputation that 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” gave to them.
Glimpses of “War” can still be seen even in the elegant and beautiful instrumentation and production of “The Joshua Tree,” though, with angry protest songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky.” While the band may not’ve kept the rough, ferocious fury captured throughout “War,” the album was certainly influential in shaping the four gents from Dublin into the social activists they are today.
The album opens with one of the most chilling and heart wrenching (yet most well-known) songs in U2’s history, the cry for peace in Northern Ireland of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” This track has some of the most blunt lyrics from Bono since “Boy,” yet even though it focuses specifically on the 30 January 1972 event of Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry, the track remains applicable to any situation of violence that mankind inflicts on one another. I find this part of the reason the song is so impactful thirty-plus years later-“The battle has still yet begun/to claim the victory Jesus won.”
“War” also spawned the enduring “New Years Day,” a tribute to the Polish Solidarity Movement that has become a New Years staple on all 80’s alt rock/college rock radio stations I listen to. Another song that hides a historically significant message, the catchy bass groove and instantly recognizable piano riff from Edge-as well as lyrics referencing a holiday that people the world over celebrate in some way-has made this track just as iconic as “Where the Streets Have no Name” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
The album also has some of U2’s creepiest moments until the mid-90’s. “Seconds” is an Edge-lead march in protest of atomic weapons and warfare. It starts with a straightforward banging drum riff from Larry Mullin Jr. (who sounds fantastic throughout the entire album, I might add). While not nearly as angry as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the song is just as impactful with its pleading refrain of “Say goodbye,” echoey chorus of “Rise and fall” and women chanting “Gun” and “Kill” in the background (borrowed from the 1981 documentary “Soldier Girls”). The lines on here about “It’s the puppets who pull the strings” also makes a statement about who really holds the control of the world’s nations and politics.
“Like A Song…” sees Larry beating at his drums like the authorities at your door and also features some yelpy vocals from Bono. The backing vocals from The Edge are a nice touch, too.
While Bono has said the song was originally inspired by music critics who “didn’t get what we were about,” I’ve always taken a different interpretation. It carries on the use of Biblical references that was explored on “October,” but this time instead of sounding joyful, Bono is unsettled and furious with the fallen world people have created for themselves out of God’s creation-“Angry words won’t stop the fight/Two wrongs won’t make a right/A new heart is what I need/Oh God, make it bleed.”
He sounds bitterly sarcastic while he sings “And we love to wear a badge/A uniform/And we love to fly a flag/But I won’t let others live in hell/As we divide against each other.” While “Sunday Bloody Sunday” focused on the actual act of Bloody Sunday and its immediate impact on Northern Ireland and the Republic, “Like a Song…” explores the aftermath of the event, and its assistance in developing “A generation without name/Ripped and torn.”
“The Refugee” is a bizarrely fun call-and-response tune about “Her papa go to war/He go to fight but he don’t know what for…Her mama say some day she gonna live in America” with some booming and catchy percussion by Larry Mullin Jr. It has some more heavy-handed antiwar lyrics than what U2 was creating later on in their career, but a learning curve is to be expected on the band’s third album.
And even in all of the protest and calls against injustice, Bono still finds a moment to weave a love narrative into the scene of political unrest in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. “Two Hearts Beat as One,” while it still features a political slant in the lyrics, gives the album a feeling of hope for the future of love and genuine human connection in a time of uncertainty. It explores the persistence of human emotion and the place it has in a world of constant unrest, set against the backdrop of any conflict pitting one side against the other.
The closer of “40,” while it seems like an overly simplistic closer after the emotional toil the album has just put a listener through, remains a beautiful hymn to God (based off Psalm 40) to hear the calls of His people and heal the hurt of the world. The closing repeat of “How long to sing this song?” remains a question asked by people of all generations, which keeps it such a lasting staple of U2’s catalogue and their live shows in the 80’s.
And there’s no way I can close this post without highlighting Adam Clayton’s work on here. Some of his best work in the U2 catalogue is on this album. The man sounds crisp, clean, full of attitude and suave throughout the entire record, and I think he makes it just as intriguing and entertaining a listen as Bono’s lyrics, Edge’s riffs and Larry’s percussion.
While “War” occasionally falls victim to less-than-subtle political lyrics and some filler like “Red Light” and “Drowning Man,” the lack of subtlety and directness of political and religious statements against injustice make the album what it is. This is U2 finding their voice during a time of destruction in not only their homeland, but the world at large. They are not hiding their intent on this album, both through lyrics and the rough and angry volume of the instrumentation. The fire inspired by “War” will forever have a place on each U2 record.
Thanks for reading, and God bless.
Photo courtesy of Island Records/U2 and Wikimedia Commons.