“What I Learned on My Pompous Vision Quest of Listening to U2’s Album October in the Month of October”

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Part of why I do this is that I can never agree with anyone on anything, particularly on music. But then, life is based on disagreement, in a sense. There’s competition in almost everything we do. 

And no, this particular foray of mine isn’t borne out of the will to compete, but it is somewhat of an impetus to self-serve, and, basically, find an alternative to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song I just find too annoying to shut up about. Now, with early U2, there’s a lot of good there, I don’t think there’s any question. The whole debut album Boy, in fact, complete with its spunky, anthemic and ubiquitous opener “I Will Follow,” is something can completely be endorsed. It runs a satisfying gamut of straight-ahead pop-punk like that and brooding, ethereal numbers like “Shadows and Tall Trees,” which isn’t so much a ballad as it is a full-on ode to non-corporeal heathenism. 

Just to touch on everything before The Joshua Tree, which of course hardly needs any more discussion at this point, I’ll just mention War as generally an oblong attempt at ideology, which I don’t think belongs in music unless it’s absolutely necessary and urgent, and The Unforgettable Fire as encapsulating of two scintillating singles, “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Bad,” but generally hard to synopsize or tab with a common sort of identity thread of all the songs. I remember having October on my hard drive as long ago as eight years or so, off of a CD I’d burned from the library, and now of course I have dirty, unlimited access to it thanks to Spotify. For whatever reason it didn’t make an impression, but that is to say, it neither made an impression as hackneyed, the way War does, or as a stab at hip aesthetic, one artistic trap to which Zooropa and Pop seem rather prone, on the whole. And yes, the world is coming around to how great Achtung Baby is, much to my satisfaction. It’s like Winston Churchill said, “Americans always do the right thing, but only after every other possibility has been exhausted.”

Ultimately, anyway, this self-righteous, horn-rimmed-glasses-clad blogger’s quest of the full “October” experience has pretty much left me with more questions than answers. One of them is, surprisingly, “Is this U2’s best album?” It’s the second U2 album, the first being Boy, and it came out in October, just like Boy did, but one year later. It’s also got the same producer, Steve Lilywhite, and the band lineup is the exact same (actually to this day U2’s lineup hasn’t changed a wink). So, certainly, they’re comparable albums, and indeed I find Boy very palatable and routinely put it on front to back. Obviously, The Joshua Tree is the general forerunner and in no way am I attempting to disprove that here. 

Just to elaborate, anyway, I started listening to October about an hour or so ago, on a chilly day but under completely sunny, blue skies. I think about halfway through or so I looked up to a completely gray sky. I was like, it was just sunny, right? Now, as I’m writing this, it seems like the sky is housing a sort of brawl between the clouds and the blue, for which will hold reign. There’s no sign of rain but there’s this unflagging, dark stillness looming.

Similarly, U2’s album October is composed of shifts and metamorphoses. It toggles, at different points, between optimistic and brooding, peaceful and violent, concrete and abstract. “Gloria,” at first, trumpets in with a kind of a hint at the proud, strong penchant for anthem that would come to full realization on the band’s latter ’80s efforts. It’s followed then immediately by “I Fall down,” a track with a curiously optimistic tone considering the chorus admission of “When I wake up / I fall down”. It’s a song in which the primary mood, or mission statement, is a little hard to pin down, almost bespeaking a sort of quest on the songwriter’s part that goes deeper than the typical trappings of our everyday lives, or something existential like the impending changing of the seasons, perhaps. 

In general, October is an album full of a lot of activity and even really a kind of funky undercurrent, with Lillywhite apparently not above cranking Adam Clayton until he shakes your ear drums. It encompasses such a dynamic fusion of styles, with guitars of course too clean and clear for punk and more aligned with the hazy, disjointed post-punk efforts of XTC and Wire, leading the way then for the Pixies and ’90s alternative. For all its focused, disciplined rock song construction, then, all structure seems to disintegrate on the mid-album standout “Tomorrow,” where the booming groove pounds in in the wake of so much ethereal detritus (I’m pretty sure I heard bagpipes somewhere in that mess) that it’s just as disorienting, and, I guess, encapsulating of how it took me a long time to know what in the world to make of this freakin’ album. 

Another track that keenly bears mention is “Scarlet.” “Scarlet” is absolutely, entirely like something out of a dream, with beautiful piano licks draping the bass and snare cadences that are vaguely kind of military, as in hypnotic the way something that ordered and traditional can be. Bono’s vocals even contribute to the otherworldly effect, particularly by continually stating the word “rejoice,” which of course you’ll recognize as the title of one of the tracks on side A. Before you can blink, then, “Scarlet” is over, followed somewhat oddly by “Is That All?” seeing as it would seem to make the perfect closeur, and also seeing as the surreal one-word message of “Scarlet” would seem to offer such supreme model for living life. October is an album with an identity crisis that it wears on its sleeve, indulging in the rich, contrastic hues of fall and rife with anxiety and a keen, exciting sense of transition. In equal parts, it’s a substantive album that will grow on you and also an enigmatic riddle, dismissive of central theme and Dionysian in its opaque multiplicity.