U2 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

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U2 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

In this era of clamped-down security, record companies no longer hand out advance pressings of superstar albums, and reviews are frequently based on one listen in an office or conference room. Since one of the things that makes a great album great is its depth, and since I’ve heard it just once, I can’t tell you whether How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb will bloom or wither over time. But I’m sure about a couple of things: the record is loaded with thought-provoking songs, and The Edge has brought his A-game.

When U2 made All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, the world was a very different place; nonetheless, the album’s key songs, “It’s a Beautiful Day” and “Walk On,” seemed to speak directly to a collective need for affirmation in post-9/11 America. Four years later, with the shit hitting the fan on a global scale, the planet’s most responsible rock band reacts to crisis on a grand scale and the widespread anxiety it provokes as you’d expect: with solemn concern and an undimmed humanistic hopefulness. At the same time—because The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. never lose sight of the fact that U2 is a rock ’n’ roll band before it’s a stage for political commentary, a beacon of spiritual guidance, or anything else Bono might aspire to—the fundamental priorities of Bomb are rhythmic, dynamic and textural.

On “Vertigo,” the infectious first single, The Edge rips out arena-rawk power chords, and the track’s visceral impact first obscures, then reinforces, the sense of unease connoted by the title, as the lyric alludes to “a feeling so much stronger / than a thought,” and “everything I wish I didn’t know.” We discover that it’s night in the jungle; tracer bullets light the sky and danger is everywhere. Meanwhile, in a restaurant or club, the song’s narrator asks for the check and gazes at a crucifix swinging from the neck of a girl dancing nearby. In the eerie bridge, a voice commands, “Just give me what I want / And no one gets hurt.” These stories don’t add up, but then neither does present-day reality. The listener can opt to stay on the track’s churning surface or dive into its narrative innuendo—it works either way. In this sense, “Vertigo” could be the band’s way of showing how the album as a whole might be approached.

Consider “Love and Peace,” which can be taken either as U2’s answer to The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” a modern-day political protest song, an apocalyptic parable or all of the above. The track’s musical drama builds incrementally around Bono’s gospel-inflected vocal, as a heavily distorted bass line is joined by handclaps, martial toms and, finally, hammer-of-the-gods guitars. Kid A-brand static introduces the bridge, on which Bono reports, “The troops on the ground are about to dig in,” before returning to the refrain, “I wonder where’s the love and peace?”—which functions as a concrete, contemporary parallel to Nick Lowe’s rhetorical “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”

At the same time, U2 has no problem jettisoning the thematic cargo and just rocking out on the Stonesy riff-fest “All Because of You,” which is clearly designed to get heads nodding in the old-school manner. Neither does the band have any qualms about referencing itself—the streets have names on “City of Blinding Lights,” a 16th-note-fueled celebration of NYC. The sultry groove of “A Man and a Woman” falls somewhere between Sade and Robert Palmer, while the string-enriched “Original of the Species”—which is at once a power ballad and a lullaby—has the character of U2 acolyte Coldplay. So there’s enough formal and thematic variety to keep the record from coming off monochromatic or, god help us, didactic.

Overall, the album is unabashedly grand and inspirational. Bono wrestles with mortality on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” (inspired by the recent death of his father)—which sounds like this album’s “One” or “Walk On”—and the relatively muted “One Step Closer”; he provides a dramatic context for the AIDS crisis (“Miracle Drug,” “Crumbs From Your Table”); and he raps it down with his Maker on the closing “Yahweh,” culminating in a practical request, given the state of the world, to “Take this heart and make it brave.”

My impression is that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is more consistent than All That You Can’t Leave Behind; indeed, this album may well possess enough substance and power to put it on the rarefied level of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. That’s the best-case scenario. Hmm… Actually, best-case scenario: Bomb turns out to be U2’s best album ever. Worst-case? Its zeitgeist-capturing preoccupations leave the band stuck in a moment it can’t get out of. But I doubt that—and I can’t wait to hear it again.

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