Review Summary: 40 years to the day since its release, let's look back on U2's unfinished, troubled and fascinating sophomore album.
Like some U2 universe variant of Godwin’s Law, the October Concurrency states that the longer a discussion is held around the band’s widely disliked 1981 sophomore album, the likelier the probability of someone volunteering the chaotic circumstances around the LP’s writing and recording.
is a blip in the discography of Bono (vocals), the Edge (guitar/piano), Larry Mullen jr. (drums) and Adam Clayton (bass guitar). Too many of its songs are obviously hurried and unfinished. Its existence is a wrinkle in the first phase of the Irish quartet’s career: without it, the band’s line graph charts from strength to strength like clockwork from their days as big-hearted young punks in Dublin at the turn of the 1980s to the rock-stars-as-gladiators of the decade’s end. Only sparsely did the listener get a look at a band that had pushed into new ground in the 12 months since their debut album Boy
. That it is flanked by that remarkable and still exciting flagship LP and the gutsy, horror-filled geopolitical classic War
(1983) really does not help its case.
And yet, like other unexpected let-down albums, it becomes a far more interesting listen when one understands the context in which it was created.
The theft of the briefcase containing the singer’s lyrics in a Portland nightclub just before the band entered the studio.
Four young men barely beyond boyhood fraught with crises of faith and guilt around the direction in which their lives were headed.
Three of these young men joining a hard-line Christian sect called the Shalom Fellowship.
The brief dissolution of the band during recording.
Once you understand the drama, it suddenly leaps off the page amidst all the filler lyrics and those arrangements stretched to cover the singer. Its highest points are introspective fields with eyes wide shut against the world outside. “I can’t change the world,” sings Bono on ‘Rejoice’, “but I can change the world in me.”
And its low points? Forgettable.
Nowhere does October
feel more like an album beaten by the buzzer than on ‘Scarlet’. As Uncut
writer David Cavanagh shrewdly observed in 2016, Mullen’s and Clayton’s parts were nothing more than a minor variation on Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. Bono has no words so he tries to join in by frantically flipping through scriptures and repeatedly screaming “Rejoice!”.
‘Scarlet’ is the worst song on October
but it isn’t alone in being too immemorable to warrant relistening: on ‘I Fall Down’, ‘Fire’, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, ‘With a Shout (Jerusalem)’ and ‘Is That All?’, the band attempts to compensate for a deficit of strong music by enthusiastically going hell-for-leather at what they had prepared. Indeed, Mullen pushed himself through the stultified panic to become more prominent than on any U2 album, thwacking out solos and fills in a manner from which he has restrained himself ever since.
The band recorded October
in Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin across July and August and wrote too much of it in the same timeframe. Adding to the pressures were external factors: beyond unexpectedly entering the studios with naught but sketches of songs prepared, the trio of Bono, the Edge and Mullen’s uncertainty at continuing to balance their careers and ambitions with their Christian faith led them to join Shalom, which made no bones about the total devotion expected of its followers. The agnostic Clayton was unsurprisingly made an outsider by this and it was later revealed that the band broke up briefly in the sessions. Hardly the stuff conducive to producing a worthy follow-up to Boy
No one argues that the 11 songs of October
are uniformly meritless but it is not often that you find an album whose mid-construction publication is so obvious. The loss of the album’s lyrics and ideas cost the world a finished work presumably far more assured than what was released (the lyrics were returned to the band in 2004. In a move as amusing as it was endearingly earnest, Bono had regularly asked audiences at Portland concerts to lend a hand if they knew anything about the briefcase in the two decades since, as if his band had not undeniably been the biggest in the world in that time and left the disappointing October
well and truly behind them).
‘Gloria’ is the album’s most enduring and beloved offering. The opening track to October
is a rip-roaring good time that not only crystallises the spirit and dynamics of the band in their early days – Mullen and Clayton’s propulsive rhythm work, an innovative, note-bounding riff from the Edge and Bono’s wide-eyed but pained and earnest hollering – but is also a no-bull***-detected Christian rock song that effortlessly crosses from the pulpit to the stadium.
And yet, the words are nowhere near as exhilarating a rush as they sound at first listen. “I try to stand up/When I can’t find my feet/I try, I try to speak up/But only in you I’m complete,” Bono sings – if that cry for help was lost in the fist-pumping moshpit of its surroundings, the vocalist cleared his throat a little more impatiently on ‘I Threw a Brick Through a Window’. Although the song is guilty of one of many counts of Bono padding out the words like a panicking first-year Uni student on a deadline, its themes of self-loathing and reaching out to something – anything
– to get you out of the mire are loud and clear.
“I walk up to a window to see myself
And my reflection, when I thought about it
My direction, going nowhere, going nowhere
No one, no one is blinder
Than he who will not see
No one, no one is blinder
The most arresting songs in the album’s second half are glistening and atmospheric. ‘Tomorrow’ is truly haunting in its opening use of guest star Vincent Kilduff on the Uillean pipes (the closest the band ever came to ‘traditional’ Irish music). Bono offers a series of blinking, disconnected images as he looks back at his mother’s unexpected death: “Won’t you be back tomorrow? Will you be back tomorrow?” he cries, sounding not a day beyond the 14-year old wounded in denial and grief. ‘Tomorrow’ is the second movement in a triptych started by ‘The Ocean’ on Boy
and finishing with ‘Drowning Man’ on War
in which U2 made time hang in mid-air. With their fourth album The Unforgettable Fire
(1984), the band collaborated with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to make these initial forays into the ethereal a full-length immersion.
If ‘Tomorrow’ is haunted, then the next track is a ghost caught in the otherworld like a refugee. ‘October’ is stark, beautiful and the most elegiac piano ballad in the U2 oeuvre. The song is transporting – you can all but see the fog on your breath and feel the snow fall on your face with the shards of chords the Edge plays (Clayton murmurs with the lightest of touches and Mullen is on a break somewhere at Windmill Lane Studios). Moreover, ‘October’ shows that even with their lack of preparation, general distress and callow youth, U2 was able to pull moving songs out of thin air; it embraces space and a soundscape less hurried than any of its neighbours.
shuffled into the world in the dawning of the New Romantic and MTV era. It was an outlier for its day with all its vulnerability and pain – intended and not, plainly recorded or hidden behind the wall of Mullen’s drumming.
No, it is not a great album… but it is a rare one. You don’t hear a band implode, drift apart and hang together across 41 minutes every day.