–U2: October (1981)

october

–U2: October (1981)

By mid-1981, U2 already had found themselves at a crossroads. Just one album into their nascent career, the red-hot Irish rock quartet was a young volcano overflowing with intense musical passion. They had a hit debut album, Boy, and a successful U.S. tour under their belts to propel their forward momentum. U2 was a band on a mission, motivated by towering ambitions of personal and creative success. But a tightening knot of tensions also existed, a knot wound so taut that it threatened to either launch them higher into the stratosphere of pop-rock stardom, or derail the band’s tracks altogether. Internal questions beckoned: could they balance their commercial aspirations with their conviction to make honest art? Would they manage to reconcile their newly-reinforced religious beliefs with the temptations inherent in playing in a rock-and-roll band?

October, released on October 12th, 1981, answered these difficult queries with a resounding, “Hallelujah.” After the youthful exuberance and optimism of their remarkable debut, U2 returned with a subtle-yet-definitive challenge to both rock fans and themselves. Here was a record that recognized the firm Christian convictions of three of its four members without pummeling listeners over the head with blatant proselytizing; only bassist Adam Clayton remained secular and a proud indulger in the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Indeed, the band seemed tormented by these moral contradictions during the making of this album, with singer Bono even questioning whether their religious beliefs precluded them from even continuing as a band. Yet, creative aspirations won the day for U2, who succeeded in making an under-appreciated yet stunning achievement in the vast treasure trove of their catalog.

Sure, surface listens to October may reveal a sound not far removed from Boy, at least on a structural level. Here U2 again delivered a collection of largely upbeat and driving modern rock tunes, with Bono’s impassioned vocals and The Edge’s unique guitar stylings taking center stage. But October is a subtly darker and more esoteric album than its predecessor; its lyrics and more-understated melodies reveal a greater emotional vulnerability. The desperate probe of artistic expression is not merely a means to an end for U2: it is the end all. These songs are also more dynamic, highlighting a greater variety in tempo and song structure that the band would only refine over the years. Additional elements, such as The Edge’s newly-developed keyboard skills, further enhance the originality of the band’s style.

Everyone’s firing on all cylinders here. Bono displays a wider range and more euphonious tone in his vocal work, while lyrically he explores the spiritual passions driving his art. On the first single, “Fire,” Bono declares, “There’s a fire in me when I call out/There’s a fire inside when I’m falling over/I built a fire, fire/I’m going home.” “Home” is his faith in God, but it could also be the peace he finds while belting out his lyrics from the heart. On “Gloria,” Bono declares his faith more explicitly, “I try to speak up/But only in you I’m complete.” On “Is That All?” the narrator seems to express the exact opposite sentiment: doubt. “To sing this song makes me happy/I’m not happy with you/Is that all?” The Edge, by contrast, exudes nothing but total confidence. His guitar parts are technically simple yet textured, a spacious sound centered on big chords, loads of reverb, chiming arpeggios, and ringing harmonics. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s beats are far from flashy, but his direct approach provides a rock-solid foundation. Clayton is the unsung hero of these proceedings; he employs a variety of techniques — including a funky snap-and-pop in “Gloria” – in his melodic and driving basslines, allowing Bono and The Edge to effortlessly lay their melodies on top.

It still boggles my mind as to why October is a virtually-ignored record in the U2 catalog. Contemporary critics dismissed it as lukewarm, the band simply avoids it like the plague in their sets, and even diehard fans seem to ignore it in discussions of their favorite U2 albums. But the songs shine in their sheer inspirational glory. The anthemic opener and hit single, “Gloria,” is rousing in its spiritual and melodic call-to-arms. “Fire” is a moodier number, with Clayton’s accented eighth notes and The Edge’s sinister arpeggios supporting Bono’s plaintive vocals. A melancholy piano line introduces the haunting “I Fall Down,” which features some of Bono’s most emotional singing to date. “I Threw a Brick through a Window,” is slow, almost funky at times, yet the band manages to create a contemplative atmosphere despite that vibe. “Rejoice” is an infectious, and fantastic, mid-tempo rocker, with the Edge’s reverb-drenched arpeggios taking center stage in what is undoubtedly one of his all-time greatest guitar riffs.

Some of the album’s mellowest moments are its most affecting. “Tomorrow” begins with dreamy lines played on the Uillean pipes before gradually building to a dramatic, crashing crescendo. On the title instrumental, The Edge’s somber piano melody and Bono’s sincere vocal perfectly conjure a dreary autumn day with the leaves falling from the trees onto the empty streets of Dublin. But perhaps it is the sparse prayer of “Scarlet” that moves me the most profoundly. U2 actually performed this song during their 2011 tour, and one could hear a pin drop.

There’s a beautiful reason why October is my favorite month of the year.—Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1). Gloria 2). I Fall Down 3). I Threw a Brick through a Window 4). Rejoice 5). Fire 6). Tomorrow 7). October 8). With a Shout 9). Stranger in a Strange Land 10). Scarlet 11). Is That All?

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on March 7, 2016.

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