It’s impossible to take U2 as seriously as they take themselves. When lead singer Bono emotes lines like “No one is blinder than he who will not see” or “Open the door, open the door,” I want to usher him aside and wish him a speedy recovery from adolescence. Of course, he means every word. Certainly, he feels like an existential castaway. But until Bono outgrows the urge to reinvent every cliché from scratch (“He was my brother!” “There’s a fire in me!”) and shout it to the world, the way to enjoy U2 is to consider the vocals as sound effects and concentrate, as the band does, on the sound of the guitar.
U2’s contribution to the progress of rock is that they’ve divorced guitar heroics from the idea of a dazzling guitar hero. Though they’re downright worshipful of the Edge’s heavy-on-the-reverb Stratocaster — side two of October opens with his tuning the thing up — he’s about as much of a technical wizard as Neil Young. When a U2 song has more than two chords (one of them E minor, the people’s key), it’s a shock. Yet the sound the Edge gets, abetted by producer Steve Lillywhite, is as powerful as the lyrics are silly. His power chords create a terrifying aural abyss for Bono to plunge into, and his simple single-note riffs, drenched in echo and glory, point toward a way out. All this without a single thrust of the crotch.
Unlike U2’s debut album, Boy, October generally keeps the guitar in the foreground, not breaking up the echoes with Boy’s endless glockenspiels. Perhaps as a result of touring the DOR circuit, U2 try a little funk in “I Threw a Brick through a Window” and use trumpet (“With a Shout”) and timbales (“Is That All?”) like British neofunkers A Certain Ratio. “October” signals its profundity by utilizing acoustic piano accompaniment. With experiments like these, U2 are obviously attempting to vary their sound, but none of the strategies works as well yet as their basic power-trio dynamics.
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Also unlike Boy, October is barely coherent. Boy was an intriguing, one-time-only document — the inside story from children at the brink of manhood — and its compositions were sparked by the tension between the Edge’s world-beating guitar playing and Bono’s fearful pride. Thank goodness U2 don’t have enough showbiz in their souls to repeat the concept on October. Unfortunately, when they try to tap other primal experiences (“I’m falling!”), they sound so sensitive it hurts. Sheer sonic grandeur can carry these guys through one record like October, though. And by their next LP, U2 may have figured out what to do with their angst.