Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
Some of my favorite science fiction and comic stories involve alternate universes. Worlds very similar to our own but with a few slight differences. Kennedy survives the parade in Dallas, and his presidency somehow influences a world where Right Wing Extremism never becomes popular in the United States. John Lennon and Paul McCartney end up as a couple, progressing Gay Rights across the globe, decades ahead of our own universe. Nelson Mandela avoids arrest, and advances the dismantling of Apartheid a quarter century before our Most Unfortunate Timeline. The idea of New Coke is laughed out of a marketing meeting in 1985, and Capitalism is toppled.
In the timeline of this blog series, U2's management was sent reeling during the release of Boytopia, as, much like in our timeline, the band is nearly split up by The Edge, Bono and Mullen's involvement in the Shalom Foundation. Their universe's Paul McGuinness makes a world changing decision when he encourages the band to keep their lavish lifestyle, faith, and overt politics onstage and in their lyrics, but to avoid the spotlight when not touring. The band gives few interviews, and when they do, they focus entirely on their music. They still embrace the music video format, but all non-performance based documentary footage is hidden in a vault until Bono's death. This mystique keeps the band from facing the backlash to Rattle & Hum, Pop, and virtually all of their 21st century albums (of which there are fewer).
War is the band's response to the concept of keeping their politics and faith in their music, as it's a series of political statements with a massive drum focus, a deliberate nod to Mullen Jr's importance as The Man Who Put The Band Together.
Island Records really wanted "Sunday Bloody Sunday", clearly the standout song on the album, to be the opener. Record companies love the idea that a fan will buy a record and as soon as they put needle to groove, finger to play button, out come the album's biggest hit. If the rest of the record is just lesser takes on the same song, that's fine, the audience gets what they paid for right off the bat.
Steve Lillywhite, once again the album's producer, liked the album being bookended by its most meta songs about songs. He also enjoyed the band's live performance habit of having Mullen Jr be the first and last person on stage, so the album starts and ends with drums. "Like A Song" is the mission statement for War. Here we are. We are our own interpretation of punk. And we're going to leave behind our introspection and be a politically-centric arena rock band. Don't like it? Then you're going to hate this album.
The drums morph slightly from the end of "Like A Song" into "Refugee". A song that, were it less ambiguous might be more evergreen. As it is, it's another catchy drum-focused anthem which feels more earnest than enlightening.
Like "October" on the previous album, "Endless Deep" features The Edge on piano, as opposed to guitar. It's mostly wordless Where do we go from here? being the only lyric. While not as successful as its predecessor, it's a nice stylistic break from the rest of the album. Many critics say it doesn't quite fit, and should have been a B-Side (as it was in our universe), but I like it as a hint of what's in store on The Unforgettable Fire.
While "Endless Deep" also featured the marching band/anthem bass drum line so prevalent on this album, it's even more focused on "Seconds". Also, the opening stanzas are sung by The Edge, who's usually relegated to background vocals. The sample from the 1982 documentary "Soldier Girls", and frequent muttering under the vocals that the band will go Way Overboard with when they record Zooropa, is a cool departure here on War. As a statement on nuclear war, it's hardly revolutionary, but the nuclear dance party motif makes it seem slightly more playful than other tracks on the album.
Don't get used to that, though. Once again, the drums shift ever so slightly as we move into the album's third single, "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Perennial favorite, and one of the band's biggest hits, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is the focal point of the War Tour, with Bono usually doing some literal flag waving about 1972's Bloody Sunday revolution in Derry Ireland where British troops shot and killed unarmed protestors. This is the song that propelled them to Arena Rock Heroes in The United States. With its electric violin line, and peppy major chord progressions, there is a dissonance between the music and lyrics that works in the song's favor, even if it was largely an accident. The song also returns to the "this song" motif from "Like A Song", which will come back again for "40".
Yet again, the pounding of the bass drum leads us from track to track, as we arrive at "Red Light". A dancey love song that follows the drum rules of the album, but otherwise is somewhat out of place, the song includes a trumpet and a three woman vocal group, The Coconuts. The non-anthemic nature is a fun departure, and flows sweetly into "Angels Too Tied To The Ground".
Given the iconic nature of Bono waving the white flag during a live performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday", it's interesting that the image pops up in a lyric in this love song. Bono's voice is ill-suited for the first few verses, which are almost spoken. In our universe, he does this same trick for almost an entire album on the soundtrack to Million Dollar Hotel. Luckily for the denizens of this alternate universe, that movie doesn't exist, and only two songs from it show up in U2's discography. The highlight of the song is The Edge on piano again.
The first single from the album, "New Year's Day", bring the politics and the bass drum back to center stage. Adam Clayton's bassline for the song is some of his best early work, and plays really well against The Edge's piano. The Nothing changes refrain fitting in perfectlu with the album's search for "a new song" that never quite comes to fruition.
"Drowning Man" gives us another love song. But is it about love for a person, or religious faith? This was a regular conceit on Boytopia, but it's a welcome anomaly here. I'll cross the sky for your love and with wings like eagles are hardly breaking new lyrical ground but the swooping vocals are a vast improvement over the "Angels Too Tied To The Ground".
"Surrender" is sort of like if The Police's "Roxanne" were about a bored housewife, but were still written by a young, earnest white guy who doesn't have any idea what he's fucken talking about. Once again, Bono is obsessed with people singing a song. This time Papa sing my, sing my, sing my song is the refrain, once again sung by The Coconuts.
The second single from the album, "Two Hearts Beat As One" is a successful melding of U2's love and faith motif, and their bass-drum centric politics.
The album closes out with The Edge on bass and Bono promising he will sing, sing a new song, which he definitely follows through on with The Unforgettable Fire. This song served as the band's closing number from the beginning of the War tour until the band's reinvention for Achtung Baby. Audiences thrilled at Bono being the first person to leave the stage during this song (make of that what you will), as then The Edge, and then Clayton take their bows, the audience still singing the refrain as Mullen Jr is left on stage playing drums. Often the chanting continued, even after the stage was completely empty.
In both universes, this was U2's first breakthrough album. It helped set up the iconic moment at LiveAid where The Police disband and pass their instruments to U2 as The Band Of The Moment.
It's neither the band's most interesting musical or lyrical album. I have to be in the precise right frame of mind to listen to it, even though it's not a difficult listen. It definitely makes sense that the singles from this album established U2 as a premiere live band to catch in the eighties, but the tracks are aided by their easy-to-remember sing-alongability as opposed to interesting lyrics.
Once again, the tracks should have all the info encoded in the zip, so you can play it through as an album, but if not, the track listing is on the album cover, which is a combination of the original album cover for War, along with a photo of the original model (Bono's neighbor, Peter Rowen) in 2014. While originally the cover model for Boy (which existed solely as a European album in this reimagined universe), and War, Rowen grew up to be a photographer with strong ties to the band. In this Better Than Our Universe Timeline, we never find out about his political problems with the Bono and The Edge.
When I zip the files, it trips them of their metadata, so please refer to the tracklisting on the album cover for the proper order.