Not since The Who defined itself with "I Can't Explain" did a band map its career as early as U2 did with "I Will Follow," the first track on its staggering 1980 debut, Boy. Incredibly, four Irish lads barely out of their teens already had a distinctive, fully formed sound so massive that it took over the world. That sound—by now an over-familiar amalgam of Bono's messianic wailing, The Edge's epically echoing guitar, Adam Clayton's insistently murmuring bass, and Larry Mullen's no-frills drums—explodes out of Boy with the confidence of guileless prodigies relying on instinct and verve to make up for youthful inexperience and shallowness.
The handsomely packaged "deluxe edition" two-disc re-issues of Boy and U2's second and third albums, 1981's October and 1983's War, trace the band's maturation process as it grew into its outsized music, with B-sides, outtakes, remixes, and live cuts providing context (and illuminating, though occasionally flat rough drafts) for records that set the stage for U2's rapid ascent to the top of the stadium-rock heap. Boy showed U2 had a strong enough musical identity to command the world's attention from the very beginning, but the flawed-yet-fascinating October is about the struggle to find something to say once you have an audience. But for all their lyrical vagueness, songs like "I Threw A Brick Through A Window" and "Tomorrow" are never less than riveting, and—perhaps in ways he didn't intend, given how muddled his words are—Bono captures the feeling of early twentysomething spiritual confusion pretty much perfectly.
Fortunately, that confusion didn't carry over to the stage, judging by October's bonus disc, which collects live tracks from early tours where U2 learned how to make big emotions seem intimate. By War, Bono mastered the art of the grand symbolic gesture—his inspirational iconography on anthems like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" is still covering up for his lyrical shortcomings 25 years later. Greater triumphs were on the horizon, but U2 had already found what it was looking for just three years into its storied career.