In honor of the recent re-releases of U2’s first three albums, and in eager anticipation of their upcoming studio release, The Hurst Review is pleased to present the first in a three-part series highlighting some of the overlooked and underappreciated entries in one of rock’s most distinguished catalogs. In this installment: Their recently re-released second album, 1981’s October.
Coarse, rough around the edges, and seemingly unfinished, October is generally written off as one of the weaker, lesser U2 albums– a party line that might have more to do with expectations than quality, as the album is certainly different from the rest of their body of work, but by no means deserving of its slight stature. Certainly there’s no other U2 album like it– and certainly it has a very different feel than the one that came before it, Boy, which enjoys much more acclaim than its follow-up– and that difference involves much more than the introduction of pianos or uilleann pipes into the band’s palette. It probably has much more to do with the conditions under which the album was recorded; following a near-breakup, U2 was forced to bang out their second album in a short amount of time, pressured to deliver on the success of their debut, and, to top it all off, Bono’s notebook, containing all the album’s lyrics, was stolen, leaving him to more or less improvise these songs in the recording booth.
The resulting music is so vastly different from anything else U2 has done, before or since, that it’s no wonder the album is a bit of an outcast even within their own canon. Notorious for their perfectionist tendencies, U2 tends to make albums that are polished, sleek, and very carefully crafted. Not so with October; never before and never again would Bono and his mates deliver such a rough, Edgy, gloriously flawed set of songs, one that feels as tossed-off and of-the-moment as their other albums feel meticulously planned and executed. It’s the only U2 album to ever feel more like a rough draft than a much-revised final draft– so it’s no wonder the album is sometimes seen as a bit slight.
In reality, though, it’s not a minor album in the least, nor does its roughness make it less enjoyable; actually, it’s among the grittiest, most energetic and wonderfully ramshackle albums the band ever cut, with songs like the charging anthem “Gloria” and relentless rockers like “Rejoice” and “Fire” ranking among the band’s most ferociously gripping rock numbers, and acoustic songs like the rousing “Tomorrow” and the wistful “October” showing sides of the band we don’t see very often even today. With this spontaneous and unpolished studio craft, the record is almost disarming in its vigor and its messiness, and, along with Boy and War, it remains the best, most unvarnished showcase of U2’s kinetic energy as a rock band.
That alone is enough to qualify the album as truly underappreciated, but what makes it a lost classic is the songs. Far from slight and far from naive– two common knocks against the album as a whole– Bono’s songs reveal a man desperately trying to keep faith in the midst of spiritual crisis, a man thrust into the spotlight and thus beset by insecurity and fear. It’s a very different Bono than the one we’ve come to know today, and the rushed, off-the-cuff nature of the songwriting here, though lacking the elegance and poetry he would develop on later albums, is all frayed nerves and sharp edges, songs filled with doubts and contradictions and the kind of honesty that such desperate conditions tend to create in an artist. When Bono sings, “O Lord, if I had anything/ Anything at all, I’d give it to you” in “Gloria,” it becomes clear that this is a very real and very honest set of confessions from a songwriter who’s trying his best to please God but not sure if he’s quite up to snuff– and as such, it’s genuinely moving. The sketchy quality of the writing only makes it more powerful, as the music matches Bono’s nervy, anxious emotions.
As a memento of a very particular place in U2’s development as a band, this album is pretty much unparalleled, but its grit and its disarming honesty– those things that generally get the album relegated to minor U2 status– are the very things that made it timely in 1981, and timeless in 2008.
Josh Hurst, The Hurst Review