U2: Boy (Deluxe Edition)

By the time I was introduced to U2, the band had become polished musicians and seasoned songwriters. The Joshua Tree left me with the wrong impression they were always thus. Boy demonstrated otherwise. The streamlined arrangements and simplistic riffs were a far cry from the atmospheric sophistication of The Joshua Tree.

My initial disappointment grew to glowing admiration, as the simpler songs allowed for more passionate performances. U2 of the Boy era exemplified the thematic youth of the album — enthusiastic, unbridled, open.

U2 cannot unlearn what it has learned, and the band’s latter-day works cannot help but be stadium efforts, super slick and ultra commercial. (They are the biggest band in the world, after all.) Retrospectives of the band’s work glosses over the early years in favor of the more widely popular. Must it be? It must not.

The deluxe edition of Boy reminds listeners of a time when U2 didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. It’s actually comforting to hear them actually, well, suck.

But only in the technical sense. As youthful as "11 O’Clock Tick-Tock", "Stories for Boys" and "Electric Co." can be, they’re still great songs, emblematic of the period but sounding sturdy today.

But the U23 EP included in the deluxe edition’s second disc of miscellany finds the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. still trying to get into lock step. The Edge’s thin guitar work is a mere rough draft of the ingenuity that would emerge. Bono sings his heart out, of course, and back then, he’s a wild fire, not a steady flame.

A number of live tracks capture the thrill of the band’s show, while some outtakes and b-sides place the band much closer to their punk roots, a place far from where they inhabit now.

I didn’t perform an A-B comparison of the remastering, but unlike The Joshua Tree 20th Anniversary Edition, the Boy remastering feels very much present. The same goes for the other albums in this remastering campaign — October, War and Under a Blood Red Sky. (Any word on The Unforgettable Fire or Wide Awake in America?) The tracks come across crystal clear, even in less-than-favorable listening environments.

But Boy itself has increased in stature for me. The rawness of the material makes me wish U2 would stop being so cosmopolitan and just write something simpler and more direct. In fact, the entire reissue campaign has got me thinking the first three albums are pretty much the peak for the band. I love The Joshua Tree, no doubt, but the early albums will trump the later ones anyday. Even Achtung Baby.

(Of course, anything can top Pop and Rattle and Hum.)

Collectors will find much to like about the deluxe edition of Boy, and if you want to skip all the extras, the remastered sound of the album highlights its charms.