Please allow me to present to you an exercise in saying nice things about a record while saying unkind things about the band.
Remember the “parabolic enjoyment arc” thing last week? Here’s the other case of that problem I mentioned.
What is it?
War is the 1983 release from U2, who at the time had not yet become the biggest thing since The Beatles.
How does it sound?
Push the sampler and pull the mix:
Why this pick?
It’s simply the one I like best out of their catalog. And yes, I know that there are albums held in higher critical esteem than this. People want to insist that Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby are the peak of U2’s creative output, but the problem is that I don’t like very much of either of those records. In fact the later you go in their catalog the less interest I have and the less enjoyment I derive.
So we go back, closer to where things started. And War started the big-time fame thing for them, really. Deservedly so: This is a deftly made record for the most part, angry where it needs to be and gentle when it suits the mood. Since the point of this is to highlight albums which bring me joy, I can think of no better U2 choice than this one.
Which songs are the highlights?
The big politics-heavy hits play well even now. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” are only dimmed by virtue of having survived 35 years of near-continual airplay, so one can be a bit tired of them if one still listens to the radio. In between those is “Seconds,” which holds its own quite nicely in such company.
My actual favorite songs here, though, are the quieter, downtempo “Drowning Man” and especially the album’s closing piece, “40”.
Which songs don’t work so well?
“Like A Song” kind of unfortunately lives up to its title. Meanwhile, “The Refugee” tries to be pop and punk by turns, succeeding at neither.
“Surrender” isn’t bad, but it kind of wears out its welcome after a while. It’s the same length as “New Year’s Day” but unlike that song, you start paying attention to the time-remaining indicator while listening. Not a good sign, there.
Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?
I briefly considered Rattle and Hum, mainly because it was my first real U2 experience. One of my friends during my senior year of high school was a U2 superfan and that was right around the time the band was hitting superstardom levels. Rattle and Hum came out that year and I thought it was a heck of a thing, blending the studio and concert material while also blending several type of visual showmanship.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the whole album/video/event was also a chronicle of a band in the act of starting to believe their own press releases, as it were. The bigger U2 got, the less interesting they became for me. I kept getting the feeling that while they were operating with tongue firmly in cheek, the band also kind of believed that they were Just That Cool, and… man, if you think you’re cool, you’re probably not.
To calibrate your understanding, here, remember that my all-time favorite band is basically five (then four, then three) complete dorks who stumbled into prog-rock success.
Any final thoughts?
While I’m thinking about what’s cool and who’s not, I think I now know what I’ll pick for next week: A record by a band who really should’ve been more than a one-hit wonder, who were for a while really damned cool.
Also: I want to be crystal clear on the fact that U2’s War being entry number 40 for the year while containing a song titled “40” is a complete coincidence. I didn’t realize it until I’d written the first draft of this post.