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"The key to his appeal: humanness." — Bono, on former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Revolutions and Revelations: Exploring War's Timeless Commentary



When U2 embarked on The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, one of the reasons they cited for creating the tour was the continued relevance of the album — an album that was born 30 years ago. While I agree many of the themes on The Joshua Tree are indeed applicable to today’s world, I’d argue that their more junior album, War, which turns 35 this week, is even more congruent.

Song by song, here are the parallels:

Sunday Bloody Sunday

The first lines of the album, “I can’t believe the news today,” are referenced so frequently that a quick Twitter search yields pages and pages of tweets quoting them. Granted, U2 was writing about Ireland in the early `80s, but the song’s universal message can translate to just about anything at any time, and carry the same weight.


In “Seconds,” the threat of nuclear war is looming. The memorable sample within the song, interspersed between The Edge’s brutal harmonies, is taken from the documentary Soldier Girls. The film is about dedicated American women training for the military in the Deep South. With its sexist overtones evident in how the male superiors treat the female recruits, it could easily be used as a case study for the current #timesup movement, and how far we haven’t come with women’s equality.

New Year’s Day

Remembering the creation of one of their biggest War hits, “New Year’s Day,” Adam Clayton is quoted in U2 Into The Heart by Niall Stokes as saying, “It was an unsettled time. You looked around and there were conflicts everywhere. We saw a lot of unrest on TV and in the media. We focused on these.” No matter where you are in the world, you can probably agree today’s news-viewing experience is similar. But when the band was writing this song, they had the rising communist regime in Poland in mind, though the “nothing changes” line was pleasantly proven wrong when martial law was lifted in Poland the following year … on New Year’s Day.

Like A Song

“Like A Song” was a response to critics who accused the band of not being rock ’n’ roll enough for their reputation, but it’s hard not to find the following lyrics somewhat prophetic about the progression of Bono’s activism:

But I won't let others live in hell
As we divide against each other
And we fight amongst ourselves
Too set in our ways to try to rearrange
Too right to be wrong, in this rebel song

Let the bells ring out, indeed.

Drowning Man

Perhaps the most requested live song from this era, “Drowning Man,” is written from the viewpoint of a loving God. The ache in Bono’s voice as he echoes “Hold on and don’t let go” implores a jolt of urgency while offering a sense of hope. A common theme in today’s social commentary is finding that hope in trying times, no matter where you draw it from.

The Refugee

The title of this song alone seams it into the fabric of today, as the issue of migration to escape persecution is such a hot one in many nations right now. Though the lyrics are somewhat sophomoric, “She’s a pretty face, Born at the wrong time in the wrong place,” Larry’s drums more than make up for the simplicity with their powerful, tribal vibe.

Two Hearts Beat As One

The only true love song on the album, this tune was written on Bono’s honeymoon and explores his love for his then-new-bride, Ali. Considering he reminds us on each successive album how madly in love he continues to be with his life partner, it’s safe to say this one remains relevant (at least in the Hewson household). 

Red Light

The song that stemmed from the band’s first experiences observing prostitutes in locales such as Amsterdam implies that they’d like to save the main character from herself. 

I talk to you, you walk away
You’re still on the down beat
You say you don’t want my help
But you can’t escape
If you’re running from yourself

The “tragedy” of circumstance must have made a big impression on young Bono, to pour out these empathetic words. This many years on, it’s up to the listener to determine whether the message is hopeless or liberating.


Tackling themes of suicide and addiction in music was nothing new during the `80s, but the personal way Bono approached this storytelling made “Surrender” more impactful. As Bono tells us about a wife and mother he once encountered in New York City, the character of Sadie emerges real as she hovers on the 48th floor “to find out what she’s living for,” transporting the listener inside her desperate mind. With youth suicide rates on the rise, the conversation is vital to have in today’s society.


Taken from the biblical psalm of the same name, this song — which was famously recorded in a rush — has one of the longest shelf lives of any on the album. A favored closer for hundreds of live shows, the calming hymn that repeats the refrain from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” serves as a peaceful meditation on mercy, emerging from the pit of miry clay.

 (c) @U2/Tassoula E. Kokkoris, 2018.


Ed. note: A selection of our original coverage of War throughout the years can be found here.