Bono, Edge, Adam, Larry. Say the names today and most any fan of Rock n Roll will know exactly who you are talking about. But long before world domination, and in some quarters damnation, there was a little band from Ireland composed of 3 young idealist and a bass player who liked to smoke grass and get laid. They set out as a young band with a vague idea of who they were and an even vaguer idea of what to do or how to do it. On War, U2's third album in just about as many years, things were about to get a lot clearer.
Already a known quantity in Ireland, England, Scotland, and certain parts of Europe, where they were able to play before thousands upon release of this album, in early 1983 if you asked the average American who or what a U2 was, they would most likely shrug there shoulders or tell you it was a WW II spy plane. Having released their first album Boy just a few years earlier and enjoying a modest radio hit in the states with the memorable single I Will Follow, as well as mounting a couple of tours, they were not completely unknown in the rock community. But after the release of their second album October failed to generate the same kind of enthusiasm, and failed to produce the same kind of single, U2 in the states may as well of been just another band looking for a break. And for all intents and purposes, that's exactly what they were. With the release of War in early 1983, they were about to get that break.
War starts hard with a martial drum roll and high pitched squeal from a violin that could easily be guitar feedback as well. It's clear this album means business right from the start. The message of the song is apparent from the get go as Bono croons and and then pleads into the mic "I can't believe the news today/I can't close my eyes and make it go away/How long/How long must we sing this song/Tonite/ We can be as one tonite". It quickly goes on to describe the horrors of war and violence against innocents in no uncertain terms, and the band goes about it's business with uniform authority, knowing exactly what the song needs and how to deliver it. Sunday Bloody Sunday was a bold political statement in the times it was written, and it delivered a universal message of "we're not gonna take it" layerd with a hope for the future. And it is perhaps one of the best openings any rock album has ever had, as it grabs the listener fron the start and prepares him for whats to come. The second song, Seconds, keeps up this theme of politics with an apocolyptic message of impending control and death by A-Bomb, and the powers that be with their fingers on the button. The final cry of "say goodbye"! is not so much a prophecy of doom as a warning, though. And we have a feeling the band knows who we are and is standing with us, not for us.
What sepreates War from U2's previous two albums are indeed these politics of War. Whereas on Boy and October U2 found themselves expressing thier ideas through faith, hope, and youthful idealism alone, War gave them something to hang there idealist hats on, so to speak. The politics gave them the purpose and the purpose drove the music. And throughout the rest of the album, the politics now being estasblished, they would offer a far more focused version of what they had offered on Boy and October. Musically and lyrically. Following all this rattling of cages is New Years Day. The piano setting the tone for the song, it's longing and melancholy right from the beginning, and the listener is drawn into the song and it's message of faith and unity and starting again. The message seems to be despite any and all odds, we can be as one, and there is always hope around the next corner if you have faith enough to grab it. And after this, the album simply feels as if it falls into place like a row of toppling dominoes. Grand statements of love, faith, dreams, and yes even God, abound here. All wrapped around a vaguely political message. And it suits the young idealist of U2 just fine.
The music on War has also found a new way of getting across. Harder, more direct, and played with more vigor and purpose then before, everything sounds big on War. Whereas on October the big sound seemed to be adrift and somewhat directionless, here it is applied to tight songs and is driven forward with passion. On Drowning Man, a song about a man weathering the storms of life through faith, the music and sound is grand and sweeping with a background of simple acoustic guitar, and Edges soon to be trademark use of harmonics. As Bono sings "Rise up Rise up/With wings like eagles" we understand perfectly (perhaps through experiance) the needed strength for the task and the odds against making it. But the lyrics are very straight forward here, not uncertain and vague as on past U2 albums. And when Bono sings "The storm will pass/It won't be long now" we somehow believe him.
Elsewhere on the album we find U2 in a funky mood, like on the confused in love rocker Two Hearts Beat As One, where the singer professes his love for a woman and questions it in equal fashion. Adam Clayton's funky bass lines dominate the song and carry it along in a bouncy way that despite it's somewhat angst ridden lyrics feels like something you can shake your butt to, and is welcome relief from the drowning men and bloody sundays that had come before it. After this the albums mood becomes looser with Bono chasing hopeless love in Red Light and the band locking into a mid-tempo urban style funk groove for the starting again in love and life song, Surrender. The album closes with the unabashedly spiritual "40", a song of faith and hope and renewal with Bono taking words straight from bible scripture and closing the album where it started, with the gentle refrain of "How long to sing this song"?
War came to America at a time when Rock n Roll was on it's heels and the Cold War was in full swing. The "No Nukes" efforts of the 70's seemingly failed, the punk movement past it's prime and far too threatening, and arena rock bands being, well, arena rock bands. What War did was send a message to anyone whoever needed one or wanted to express one through music that the time of fight and struggle was not over. And that in the face of New Wave pop, the growing rap scene, anarchy punk and decadent metal, that rock in roll could still have purpose and meaning and widespread appeal at the same time. And that it can come from the simple basis of guitar, bass, drums, and a singer who doesn't know how to shut up from a little place called Ireland. And that was hope enough for plenty.
Number 221 on Rolling Stone Magazines list of top 500 albums of all time, U2's War is an almost perfect balance of politics, blind faith, hopeless love, and ringing guitars as you will likely find recorded over the last 22 years since it's release. The band would change direction after this album and never really look back. It was an album of the moment, yet timeless at the same time. And for U2, it was a bold statement that set them on the path they were looking for.