Just to make sure I stay on the right side of the fence, the first thing I want to say is that I don't HATE October. It is just the album that I find the least interesting, least rewarding and least well-done out of U2's entire catalog. If there were one U2 album that I would consider preventing from being made, it would be October. I've quite enjoyed U2's tendency to revisit deeper tracks over the past couple tours, but "Gloria" and "Scarlet" are the two I find least compelling. It's the U2 album I never go out of my way to listen to.
Part of this may be a bit of misplaced, collective guilt. I'm a very happy resident of the Portland metro area, so the fact that Bono's original October lyrics went missing here has always been a source of shameful pride for me. As Bono's story originally went, he was in his dressing room when two young women entered and chatted him up. After they left, his satchel had gone missing and he assumed they stole it. Later on, it was revealed that Bono had just forgotten it, as members of the band seem prone to doing with their creations. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, U2 ignored Portland for almost 20 years after his lyrics disappeared, and I can't help but wonder if the incident with the lyrics played a role in that. I remember the laughter when the band finally returned in April 2001, and while on stage, Bono said he was ready to forgive if he got his lyrics back. I remember even more laughter when in December 2005, Bono announced on stage that the lyrics were returned and the sordid chapter was closed. The lack of coherent lyrics is one of the things I most dislike about October, and I know my lovely city played a role in that.
I rarely like train-of-thought lyrics. I rarely like nonrhyming lyrics. Alanis Morrisette's songs are usually hell on earth for me. This is probably the primary thing I dislike about October. Bono's lyrics were lost, they were recording near a tropical beach, and the words suffered from these distractions. They ramble, they're free-form, they make no effort to rhyme, and they mostly come off like Bono's just saying whatever's at the front of his mind. Normally we call that Bongolese and it's reserved for outtakes. With October, it is almost an entire album in Bongolese.
I'm not a religious person. I'm usually bouncing around somewhere between atheism and agnosticism. However, one of the things I like most about U2 is their Christian faith and how they express it. They use it to present honesty in their songs, both about the good and the bad. It allows them to write genuinely joyful, wondrous songs, even when the subject matter they're writing about is somber. Bono's thorough knowledge of the Bible has given him the tools he needs to write immense lyrics like those in "One Tree Hill," "The Fly," or "Crumbs From Your Table." It permits them to see the joy in life of "Miracle Drug," or the pain of "Wake Up Dead Man."
October, probably U2's most overtly religious album, was the band's equivalent of speaking in tongues. Compared to Bono's other lyrics of the time, this album's words seemed to go nowhere. "I Fall Down" has verses that are practically juvenile. "Stranger In A Strange Land" takes a young man's experience with a genuine diversity of culture and perception and gives it all the weight of an angst-ridden 13-year-old's diary entry. "Tomorrow," while dealing with the heavy subject of his mother's funeral, has melodramatic moaning, the gusts of ridiculous wind, and a lyrical devolution at the end that feels almost like an old-time tent revival session. Bono has said in interviews that October's lyrics are partly about not being able to write lyrics, about having writer's block. The album suffered greatly for this.
Musically, the album is better than it is lyrically, although not by a lot. "October" has some wonderfully sparse piano music in it. "Is That All" is not a particularly heavy track, but it does have October's most energetic, engaging music, and was a wise way to end an otherwise uninspiring album. "Fire" has some really great guitar work from The Edge, but it regrettably stole that guitar work from the far superior "Saturday Night." All of those pluses are undone, however, by the train wreck that is "With A Shout." It's a song that rambles, has a ridiculous horn section, and engages in the sort of blatant religious imagery that makes Christian music such an unambitious, unadventurous genre in general. There's no attempt at poetry within the lyrics, just raw expression. Bono has proven time and time again that he's more than enough of a poet to be able to mix the two. There are exactly two songs in U2's catalog that I would be perfectly happy to never hear again: "Love Rescue Me" and "With A Shout." On the latter, at least, The Edge agrees with me.
The album's artwork is soooooo bland: a picture of the band on the Dublin docks, with an overcast sky and brown text. At least with the re-release they cut out the white field and track listing around the picture. This made it all a little more palatable. The music video for "Gloria" was a live-action version of the same overcast sky and brown text. There is nothing compelling, uniform, or intriguing about that album. Bono has said the band used that cover after a battle with their label over their artistic integrity. He feels they made the wrong choice on that one. Boy oh boy, did they ever.
When I consider U2's catalog, I'm glad that October is a part of it. Without it, War probably wouldn't have been made, which would mean that The Unforgettable Fire probably wouldn't have been made as a response to War, and so on. It's one of their "mistake" albums in the vein of Rattle And Hum, Pop, and now it seems No Line On The Horizon. For me, though, the difference is that those albums all had much more potent visions. They all had some really good (or, in the case of Pop and No Line On The Horizon, amazing) music. They were able to stand on their own two feet as truly artistic products, regardless of what the press or the buying public felt at the time of release.
October isn't like that, though. It doesn't have any great art in it, to my ear. It doesn't say things I want to say better than I can myself, as all other U2 albums do. It doesn't let me listen to feelings I wish I had, as all other U2 albums do. It just exists. While it's got songs I very much enjoy, like "Is That All" and "October," as an album it doesn't feel like anything more than a placeholder. It doesn't hold its own within their overall catalog. For a U2 album, that's unforgivable. So, I don't hate it, but as an individual piece within U2's artistic progression, I can't really justify it either. I can't say that about anything else U2 has done.
© @U2/Ryan, 2011