In early 1983, U2 lead singer Bono tried to predict how listeners would react to his band’s new album: War, Bono told a reporter, would feel like a “slap in the face.” It was almost an understatement, as pretty much everything about U2’s third record—from its opening drum-march to its politically agitated lyrics to its title—was steeped in confrontation. Thanks to early breakout hits like “I Will Follow” and “Gloria,” U2 had made a name for themselves. Now, they wanted to make a point. Working again with Steve Lillywhite, who’d helped shape the jagged-glory sounds of Boy and October, U2 headed into Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios in 1982 with an arsenal of songs and no shortage of talking points. Bono and the other members of U2 (guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.) were young men in their twenties, a time when the world should have felt wide open. And yet the news was serving up one early-1980s disruption after another: violence in Northern Ireland. Unrest across Europe. And a seemingly constant threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation. U2 decided to address those dangers head-on, lyrically and musically. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” opens War with a wallop: a flurry of military percussion, stabbing guitar lines, and anguished electric violin squelch, all of which serve to amplify Bono’s fury and frustration about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “New Year’s Day”—the album’s first single, and an unlikely chart-climber—employs tight harmonies and some aptly chilly piano lines in what must be the only international pop hit to be inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland. And you don’t have to dig too deep to find Bono’s nuclear fears surging through “Seconds” (“Push the button and pull the plug/Say goodbye, oh, oh, oh”). Yet for all the real-world ferocity that creeps into War, the album also finds Bono slowing down to find solace in his faith: “Drowning Man,” an eerie and ethereal throwdown for God that takes the electric violin of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into a gentler, dreamier direction. And the album’s closing number, “40,” which was recorded in a last-minute rush, takes inspiration from Psalm 40, and closed the band’s live shows for years to come. Faith, fear, politics—with War, the members of U2 pushed their hot-topic passions into the rock ’n’ roll discourse, and found that the more they turned up the volume, the more people wanted to listen (in the UK, War pushed Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the charts). To listeners, War may have been a slap in the face. But to U2, it was a welcome kick in the ass—the record that pushed them to keep pushing.

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