Monday, August 10, 2009

Musical Martyrs - The Vilified Albums - U2 -October

The concept of the Musical Martyrs series, was to identify albums in a band's cannon that routinely draw the ire or disdain of fans and critics, when in reality, the albums have a tremendous amount to offer. Every band has their bad albums, but that's not what we're writing about. We're writing about albums that stand strong amongst the band's catalog, but for some reason (often a minor fan or critical contrivance) the album is held at arm's length as if my dog had just peed on it.

And when it comes to U2, that album is October. Even Pop, which is usually decried as their weakest moment, has it's fans, and those who don't like it, just dismiss it entirely. But October actually has critics mystified, bows drawn, arrows slung. I've seen the album described as a "stumble." A "collection of half-finished songs and desperately inarticulate lyrics." But here's the thing, without a doubt, October is my single favorite U2 album, and an essential, even critical, stepping stone in the creation of what became the biggest band on the planet.

Certainly following up Boy was no easy task. With Boy, U2 burst on the scene like a supernova. Edge's fierce guitar work, previously unheard in rock, sounded so new, so fresh. Big bass and steady rhythms propelled this band headlong down the postpunk path, creating songs of incredible warmth, power, and beauty. No matter what the band released next, it was going to be held under the microscope of a sophomore slump. But not only is October a stunning album in it's own right, but if it wasn't for the strides the band made with October there would have been no War, which is easily the best album the band have done (in my opinion it isn't Joshua Tree).

Bringing forth similar elements from Boy, the band explored different textures, keyboard flourishes, compelling percussion, and bigger, grander lyrical matters. The result is U2's most overtly spiritual album, and also, without a doubt, the hardest rocking album in their entire cannon.

"Gloria," starts the album off on a course it would drive its entire length. A fade in of Bono's voice wailing "Gloria" over a driving percussion starts us off en media res. As if we're catching the band in a private moment, watching them like a witness as they engage in their own affair, unaware that we're in attendance. It's a dramatic way to start a song, much less an album, and it works because it sets the tone for what we're about to hear. This is U2's most personal album, and for good reason. As it turns out, U2 were in the midst of a spiritual crisis. With Bono, Edge, and Larry being committed Christians and members of a charismatic movement known as Shalom, they suddenly realized that the demands of spiritual faith were contradictory to the life of rock and roll. Briefly, Edge and Bono left the band, and U2 ceased to exist, but they came back together when they realized the positive force music could be. Re-centered in music, and re-grounded in their faith, October was born.

And if you keep that thought in mind, October becomes a devastating album of faith and devotion, almost gospel. Every song here is a song of spirit, each lyric about Bono's quest for God and salvation. Gloria isn't a girls name here, like in the Them song, but a psalm, a prayer, a praise to the glory of spirit. Suddenly, what was just a rocker becomes something more.

But enough about the lyrics, which move me deeply, let's talk about the rock. Once the fade in reaches full volume, Larry pounds the drum and the Edge's guitar literally explodes like a comet's tale, dipping and weaving through the song. No one was playing guitar like that at the time and it revolutionized the sound of postpunk, influencing countless bands that followed. Adam's bass work, often overlooked when talking about U2, is . . . glorious. Huge running loops anchor the song, filling the gaps and spaces between Edge's spartan guitar runs. As always, Larry is a steady, under-rated drummer. I've always loved the bass/percussion breakdown midway through before Edge crashes in with lighting flashes of guitar. From that moment on, the song's a burner, a old concert staple, and a crowd rouser.

But we're only getting started. October features some of U2's most beautiful and some of their heaviest songs, and sometimes, those happen in the same song. "I Fall Down," begins with a captivating moment of Edge's piano, running a simple, but gorgeous melody across the keys, Larry and Adam coming in underneath, driving the song forward. Energy abounds as Bono's voice enters, starting off as restrained as you'll find him, building to a crescendo, as he sings about his battle to follow his faith. Alternating dynamics, powerful and mellow, the song speaks to the heart of all human fragility. Our human failings, our ability to resurrect.

"I Threw A Brick Through a Window," has always been my favorite cut on the album. Beginning with Larry's time-changing drum intro, leading into one of the Edge's heaviest riffs. Full of drama and cascading power, the guitar falls off to spasms, filled in by Adam's undulating bass. Bono's voice is in revelatory form here, building in the emotion of someone recognizing he's spiritually trapped. As a confirmed hard rocker, this was the song that first brought me into U2's world, literally dragging me in on the strength of Adam's huge bass runs, Edge's descending guitar loops, Larry's frenetic percussion. Enough rock to interest me, enough dynamic to enthrall me, enough nuance to excite me, and enough spirituality to appeal to my own search for meaning. I've always loved Larry's drum fills during the "no one is blinder," middle section then the way the Edge tears it up when he brings the guitar back in. Just listen to the dynamics, the tension, the begging for release. Whatever you do, don't you dare call this song a sketch. It may very well be my favorite U2 song of all time, and one I'd play for anyone who claims they don't like U2.

"Rejoice," brings in all the elements that U2 fans love, and it's shocks me that this song isn't more revered in the U2 cannon. The Edge flourishes here with his multi-note playing and distorted chords. Adam's in full-throttle mode and the song's a charger, raging with unbridled energy. "Fire," is a bit of a slow down for me, but it leads directly into another of U2's best songs of all time, "Tomorrow." Overblown? Sure. Bombastic? You bet. But it's also haunting, and profoundly moving as an examination of one man's unyielding faith in his God and savior. "Won't you come back tomorrow," Bono sings, supplicating his hands in prayer, longing for the return of his Lord, and the return of his kingdom. (by the way, I'm not Christian nor religious, but even I feel the longing in Bono's voice. The unbridled passion in his pleas, his search, his belief that Jesus is coming.)

Beginning with the morose tone of bagpipes, Adam's bass comes in, gentle and restrained, like a dying man's heartbeat. Bono begins with a plea for salvation, his voice pained, aware of the dangers in the world of man. It's the song of a man torn between his undying faith and the demands of the outside world "I'm going outside, mother. I'm going out there," when all he really wants is salvation (I want you, I really want you, I want you to be back tomorrow.) Rarely has Bono's voice sounded so impassioned. Adam kicks it in after Larry pounds his drum like a herald's cry. Bono's voice from then on escalates in spiritual desire to the point of epiphany. Edge remains restrained throughout, leaving Bono to sing his intensely personal tale.

Whew! I'm sorry, but that's some powerful stuff. Sensing that, the band bring in the title cut "October," a gentle piano passage, a momentary pause, a holding space within the reverential chords Edge plays. But the quiet doesn't last for long. Larry's drum roll kicks "With A Shout," into full gear. Edge brings in some prototypical Edge guitar then Adam pumps the whole thing into rock territory. Again Bono bridles with youthful energy and passion as he sings "Where do we go from here." Another declaration of faith, a call for his pilgrimage to the sight of Jesus's crucifixion, Jerusalem. "To the side of a hill/blood was spilled/we were filled/with love." Edge's spasmodic guitar drive this song, keeping the dynamics large and riveting.

Admittedly, the last three tracks do get a bit sketchy in terms of composition. "Stranger in a Strange Land," however features some gorgeous Edge passages and Adam's most distinctive bass playing to that point in his career. Truly remarkable. "Scarlet" is a spartan sketch of drumming and piano, atmospheres of guitar, and Bono's simple lyric of "rejoice." While "Is That All," is actually a raver of a closer, bringing back the driving U2 dynamic. This song is way too good to dismiss, but may get missed as attentions waver during "Scarlet.'

While not as dynamically new sounding as Boy or as wholly complete as War, October is an impressive album in its own right, an essential album for the band to have made, both as a step towards what would become their commercial success, but also as a healing for the band at the time. And fickle fans be damned, October remains my favorite U2 album to date.


Besides the original CD version, October has recently been released as a Re-Mastered 180 gram vinyl with 16-page book, and a re-mastered 2-CD set which comes in book form with unreleased photos and notes, and a second CD of 17 live, remixed, and unreleased tracks.

buy here, CD: October

buy here high quality vinyl: October [Vinyl]


Anonymous said...

Though I agree October is a great album - I still don't see why everybody regards Pop as u2's weakest moment (link?). Is everyone just parroting the band itself? Pop is a great record... When it comes to their weak moments, Rattle and Hum spring to mind, or even War... But Pop?

Anonymous said...

Have to agree. While October and Pop are often looked at as "the weakest links" in U2's chain. The simple fact is, U2 has never made a truly "bad" album. The other "weakest link" is often thought to be Rattle and Hum. But all three albums have great songs. As Bono once said, *&^% 'em, there's great songs on that album.

jreilly18 said...

You are right on Anonymous. Pop is great, and so was the PopMart tour. I hate when people - even Larry - dismiss it.

graham said...

Awesome article. I personally feel Fire is the best song on the album, and one of the best of their career. The mood is so cool, and they were toying with a heavier sound, and it turned out cool.

HOWEVER, much like its also-moody cousin, Exit, it really gets way more awesome live. Find a live version of Fire, and you will find awesomeness. The chorus riffs and the backing vocals are some of the coolest moments in U2's catalog, to me.

Great album though. Not in my top 3, definitely in my middle 4.

The Ripple Effect said...

Thank you all for the lively debate, not just within our pages but the various message boards, forums, blogs, and whatnot spread across the internet.

I wanted to share on of the more impassioned views on October from a gentleman going by the name No Spoken Words. Here's what he had to say:

I think I've been clear over the years about my willingness to fight anyone, U2 fan or not, if they rip October.

And when I say fight, I mean you can name the:

Weaponry involved, if any

The altitude at which we'll fight (if on land)

Whether we fight on land or sea

Are we allowed rest periods?

Is it to the death?

Whether the use of wizardry is allowed

None of it really matters to me, as, I'm just that passionate about the album and just that versatile of a fighter.

There you have it, Waveriders. Any takers?


Nick Haj said...

October is CLASS. Gloria and Tomorrow certainly make my U2 top 10 and ITABTAW live is awesome. Like everyone sez U2 DO NOT have weak albums, but they have some albums where they maybe needed more time to produce the perfect finished article they yearn for, they don't have that pressure these days, and although NLOTH is pretty good for the most part, it doesn't stand up to comparison with WAR, UF, JT and AB in my humble opinion !

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this band. And i also agree with the comment above that says U2 has never made a "bad" album becuase it's true. Just becuase some of the albums aren't "masterpieces" as Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby were, doesn't mean the rest are bad. I don't think there is or will ever be a band that can make a perfect album that critics and fans will love every single time. Also, i love rattle and hum and i was really confused when i heard it was a flop LOL. All my favourite U2 songs are on that one...weird

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