Life at 33 1/3: The vortex of brilliant despair

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U2, War (Island)

*From the vaults of Carl Meyer, an original album review written in March 1983.*

Despair and agony is what it’s all about.  And U2 clearly keep their finger on the pulse of tomorrow.  The group is big in England.  Well deserved.

“War” possesses a restless, magical sound, remote and frozen, lofty as cathedrals of ice.  The piano possesses that stalactite timbre, pointed and hard in a swirl of frozen mist.  The resonant, chiming guitars are like majestic arches in the soundscape, wondrous, almost hesitantly climbing the scales, shivering, vibrating, hovering – and then suddenly nose diving, brutally, plunging the notes into a twisted iron massif of anxiety and terror.  And let’s hear it for the rhythm section, that divine power house, ticking and rolling and shaking, inciting, hypnotizing – perfectly balancing playful precision with explosive shock treatments.

U2 suck you into their vortex of brilliant despair … and there to meet you is Bono, master of the cry of agony, his overwrought, vocal anxiety turns tears into an aesthetic pleasure.

The lyrics focus on war, death, poverty and hopelessness, civilisation as we know it seen through a most depressive pair of glasses.  The lyrics don’t look that good on paper (littered with clichés as they are) but the band’s mighty empathy more than compensates.  But is the album too depressive?  There is a limit to how much hopelessness people can digest in one sitting before they become disillusioned and simply give up:  The world is a mess, there’s nothing I can do about it, pass me a beer!  Defeatism is not very inspiring.

I‘m not claiming that U2 have crossed that line.  The album wouldn’t have worked if they had.  “War” is a formidable slice of rock music.  You get hooked from the moment the needle hits the grooves, and then it simply sucks you in … “New Year’s Day” (for one reason or another it reminds me of Simon Dupree & The Big Sound’s 1967 hit “Kites” – distant vocals, magical atmosphere) for instance is one of the best songs I’ve heard so far in 1983.

Released: February 28, 1983

Produced by: Steve Lillywhite

Contents: Sunday Bloody Sunday/Seconds/New Year’s Day/Like a Song…/Drowning Man/The Refugee/Two Hearts Beat as One/Red Light/Surrender/”40″

U2:

Bono – lead vocals, additional guitar

The Edge – guitar, piano, lap steel, backing vocals, lead vocals on “Seconds,” bass and guitar on “40”

Adam Clayton – bass

Larry Mullen, Jr. – drums

Additional Personnel:

Kenny Fradley – trumpet on “Red Light”

Steve Wickham – electric violin on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Drowning Man”

The Coconuts: Cheryl Poirier, Adriana Kaegi, Taryn Hagey, Jessica Felton – backing vocals on “Like A Song…”, “Red Light”, and “Surrender”