It was the cover article in Time magazine about U2 back in 1987 that got me curious about War. The writer repeatedly proclaimed it the band’s best album before The Joshua Tree. Being a neophyte U2 listener at the time, I sought the album, thinking I’d get the same transporting experience I got from The Joshua Tree.
No such luck.
I actually enjoyed Boy way more than War, and it was War that pretty much killed any curiosity I had about October or Under a Blood Red Sky. In short, I blame War for shutting me out of a pretty important part of the U2 repertoire.
But I was 15 at the time and not an experienced listener. Two decades should be enough time for opinion to change, right? I mean, Steve Reich’s Different Trains put me to sleep the first time I listened to it in 1989, but today, I hum along with the piece. Perhaps a remastered release of War in 2008 may reveal nuances I missed the first time.
So I listened to War again. And I still think it’s U2’s most overrated album.
I do, however, have a better understanding on why it’s so well-received. Boy was passionate but simplistic. October was rushed and unplanned but still had an unpolished sparkle. In that context, the unbridled energy and open experimentation of War signaled real maturity for a band still very much seeking its voice. What came before prepared U2 for what it would become.
That doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have its shortcomings.
When I first listened to War, I got as far as the first three tracks before I started losing attention. From there till the closing "40", the album is largely tuneless. Yeah, I’m including "Two Hearts Beat as One" in that assessment. Bono’s emotive delivery does a lot to make up for the lack of hooks, but for a kid moved by "With or Without You" or "One Tree Hill", "Surrender" and "The Refugee" paled by comparison.
Today, I’m far more appreciative of the Edge’s imaginative guitar work and the somewhat incongruous song structures — I loved "Seconds" then, and I love it even now. The remastered sound also goes a long way in pumping the vitality of the performances.
Some of the experiments, on the other hand, are half-baked. The soulful backing vocals and trumpet solo on "Red Light" should have served as a lesson for Duran Duran before they wrote "Skin Trade". It’s a good thing U2 waited till Achtung Baby to try that kind of thing again.
U2 would eventually reveal its fallibility with Rattle and Hum and Pop, so in the bigger picture, War ranks fairly high regardless. Besides, it’s got "Sunday Bloody Sunday", and that’s just enough to cover anything else against the album.