Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
With War, U2 build skyscrapers upon the foundation of their debut album Boy. If the startling cover art—the same young boy staring at the viewer, only with a face of righteous anger replacing innocence—wasn’t enough of an indication, these men, just 23 at the time of release, expand upon the sound they had already established while incorporating new, striking elements. The first of a holy trilogy of U2 albums, War begat the vastly different Unforgettable Fire, and it would be the last time U2 would reside in the realm of such crunching hard rock.
War, in standard U2 fashion, opens with a heavyweight, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which has only improved with time. Larry Mullen Jr.’s propulsive drum beat is the best thing he’s ever done, and Bono’s anti-war lyrics (“And the battle’s just begun / There’s many lost, but tell me, Who has won?”) have never before or since sounded so revelatory. The band shrewdly places the calmer “Seconds” afterwards, but don’t let the acoustic guitar and groovy bass line fool you, for Bono is still fiery as ever—“London, New York, Peking / Yes, the puppets pull the strings.” But it’s the next two tracks that announce War as an album to withstand the test of time, not because either is better than “Sunday,” but because they reassure the cautious listener expecting a one-song album, worried that nothing else would resonate in a similar way.
“New Year’s Day” was the band’s first U.S. hit, and it remains a concert favorite to this day. Adam Clayton’s instantly recognizable bass line, mixing well with the piano, underscore the Edge’s penetrating guitar, which seems to fill up vacuums of space, be they in an arena or in your head. Then, on “Like a Song…” the band revives the punkish energy of Boy while cranking up the volume, resulting in a delightful mash-up that’s a more political and slightly smoother version of The Unforgettable Fire’s “Wire.” Bono never forgets his purpose, but his voice is so beautiful that one would be forgiven for allowing it to take him away. When he cries, “Angry words won’t stop my fight / Two wrongs won’t make it right / A new heart is what I need / Oh, God, make it bleed,” it’s pretty damn impossible to deny his sentiments.
If the latter six songs of War were as good as the first four, we’d be talking about one of the eight or ten best albums ever made, but they’re nevertheless able to change the tone while still maintaining the feel of the entire album. The lovely “The Drowning Man” and quirky “The Refugee” are U2 originals that feel at home here. Every song is worthy in its own right, from the dance-rock of “Two Hearts Beat as One” to the glorious breathy vocals on “Surrender.” It all rocks, and it all works.
What helps make the album so successful is the way Bono delivers his messages passionately, but not in a way that overwhelms the listener. I have gotten just as much pleasure out of quietly listening to the album at night, paying more attention to softer songs like “The Drowning Man,” “Red Light,” and “40,” than in those times when I want to revel in the music’s rage and unbridled power. Of course, the band behind the frontman makes it easy to take him seriously, as every member contributes and no song is underdeveloped.
Rolling Stone avowed that the songs on War match up, pound for pound, with those on London Calling (an obvious influence), at least in terms of sheer impact. That may have sounded like hyperbole in 1983, but time has proven RS right—and then some. Though U2 were still getting better, War, with its coherent theme, consistency, and commitment to excellence, defines them as much as anything else. Even at their young age, U2 had long since proved that they wanted to be in the big leagues.