I love U2. I worry about U2. Hearing their debut single "Out of Control" and seeing them play in Ireland, I fell for their undismayed punch and tenacity. They were an expansive and exclusive pop group and I couldn't see them failing. Since then they've walked purposefully into the turmoil of a changed and unchangeable rock world, its expectancy and competitiveness, and they're not braving it as well as they can.
The group, noticeably singer Bono, were always worried that a certain conventionality was cramping the group. To counteract that, since the beginning of the year, casting newly-opened ears all around, U2's music opened up like a flower. Their music uncoiled.
This development happened as they signed to Island, wilted under well-intentioned sycophancy, worked with hero Martin Hannett, leaving him behind as the association harmed them more than helped, and released two singles. The singles indicated that U2 were something more -- for better or worse -- than a post-Skids/Jam punk-pop group.
Live, U2 have been appallingly erratic: nervous, overeager, musically unsure. This yearning to develop their pop pushed their music into the shady areas where the accusation "heavy metal" was easily levelled. Since they've signed to Island I've been faced with almost unanimous derision from friends whose musical passions are usually the same as mine: they don't like U2. At all.
As with Penetration -- whose dynamic but decorative music U2 have renovated with infectious potency -- their structural inventiveness and the shifting might and fragility of guitars have seen them dismissed as a slipshod and plain post-Boomtown punk group on the verge of a turgid HM excess. I can't understand that.
The group have sacrificed the easily achieved immediacy and accessibility of a straightforward pop group for a multi-climactic, archly atmospheric, articulately over-emphatic, tantalisingly gentle sound that can rise to a dramatic peak of power and swoop to an elegiac whisper. It's still pop, still conceived with a fresh, flushed brashness. The problem is, U2 try too hard, go for something special, transcendent, EPIC, and nearly miss out. Too much style, not enough experience.
The production of Boy is therefore important. In silly hands, U2's gooey ambition could have ended up sounding like a fidgety, badly camouflaged empty heavy pop. Steve Lillywhite's production is strict enough to harness U2's tearaway ambition. U2's desire to pad out and puff up the music is never allowed to run amok. Lillywhite allows the Edge's moody meritorious guitar to flare and flutter all over the place, sets the drums loud and looming, the bass big, and then puts Bono's expressive vocals high up in the mix: wide-scale drama all the way, stylishly emphasising the good things in U2. It's not elaborate, but it's not up in the clouds.
As is common with most debut LPs these days, Boy is a compilation of lifetime best. (Hopefully a beginning. U2 have a long way to grow.) The opening "I Will Follow," a song about losing warmth and safety, is immediately grand. "Twilight," a precociously clear vision of growing up, is effectively restrained and harmonious, tripping guitars typically bursting out over a trim rhythm. "An Cat Dubh" is florid but fluent. The sensitive and willful naivete of "Into the Heart" crystallises the soft disillusionment of Boy: U2 don't yet know enough to be totally pessimistic. A new "Out of Control" is a fleeting meeting with the disregarded straight pop: the old breathlessness with their new precision.
Side two's racy, reflective "Stories For Boys" drops into the slight impressionistic "Ocean." The Edge's guitar work is constantly a highlight on this LP. His pattern-work on "Day Without Me" is light and striking. The excited tenderness of "Another Time, Another Place" shows that U2 will be flamboyant, but they won't lose impact. The Edge's guitar swarms all the way through "Electric Co." almost toppling the song over, and the final acoustic-based weepie "Shadows and Tall Trees" will truly test dissenters' patience for U2's evocative pop.
Musically, then, the word is sophistication not spontaneity. It's left to Bono to carry any abandon and passion. He sings heartfelt, beautifully observed lyrics of innocence, failure, sadness with a fearless sentimentality -- something else that upsets the non-believers -- and poignant urgency. A mixture of the ordinary and the bizarre, a series of shadows, menacing, lyrical vignettes that are sung as if they're dear dark secrets being wrenched away. They are songs of emotional uncertainty and extreme insecurity. The title Boy refers to Bono, his boyish rapt imaginings, to the recurring use of the word "boy" in the songs, as Bono symbolises his confusion and reflects beneath the music's meticulous presentation, the essential innocence of U2. (A decaying of innocence.) The sense of wonder. It mixes peculiarly with the music's obstinate melodrama.
I find Boy touching, precocious, full of archaic flourishes and modernist conviction, genuinely strange. It won't eradicate the grey feelings people have about U2, but it reinforces the affection I have for their character and emotionally forceful music. It's not radical, in many ways it's traditionalist, but it's honest, direct and distinctive communication with not a sign of complacency of foolish certainty.
I love U2. You may worry about me loving U2. Don't.
© NME, 1980.