Recording of February 2005: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Interscope B0003613-02 (CD). 2004. Steve Lillywhite, prod.; Carl Glanville, eng.; Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Chris Heaney, others, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 49:08
Twenty years ago, in a grungy, badly lit club in Edinburgh, Scotland, I saw a show that changed my musical life forever. There, packed together on a stage the size of a postage stamp and looking every bit as young and green as I was, were The Edge, Bono, Larry, and Adam, bashing out their bombastic new single, "Pride (In the Name Of Love)." I was smitten. At that point, Bono was still more normal person than rock star. And even in that tiny room, where Edge's guitarscapes didn't really have enough room to unfurl, it sounded as if they were going to be a great band.
Much has changed since those heady early days. First there was the rock-star bloat that swelled between 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung Baby. The Zoo TV tour, with Bono, as his alter ego, "Fly," prancing around in his lamé jumpsuit, was the peak of the band's narcissistic excess. As so often happens, success bred an imagined license to experiment, and two (three, counting Original Soundtracks Vol. 1) slave-to-fashion stumbles followed: 1993's techno-influenced Zooropa and that chunk of experiment that was the band's "dance" mess, 1997's Pop.
By the late 1990s, it remained an open question whether the U2 ship had sailed over the horizon, whether they'd lost their grip on a vision, whether one too many experiments had made them a Frankenstein's monster stitched together from parts of every passing musical fashion. The next experiment looked to be the one that would do them in.
But just when it seemed as if the band had forgotten who they were and had run out of new images in which to (badly) remake themselves, along came 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, two inestimable talents who had also produced U2's Unforgettable Fire in 1984, the new album was a tonic to ears thoroughly alienated by Pop. U2 had again become a rock'n'roll band (albeit one still meant for arenas), as they were when they first formed—as Feedback—in Dublin in 1976.
It's clear now that All That You Can't Leave Behind was just the prelude to U2's rolling back the years and going gloriously old school—as if they'd never left. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is Bono and Edge's return to being a big, outspoken rock band, both sonically and in terms of the kind of pop hooks they once specialized in, which once swept across an eager world. Producer Steve Lillywhite and a bevy of engineers have labored to give this disc's sound the kinds of space and detail that are rare in rock records.
Unmistakably reminiscent of The Unforgettable Fire in its size and snap, the new album has been kick-started thanks to an exclusivity deal with Apple's iTunes for the first single, "Vertigo"—a smart marketing move to some, proof of a sellout to others. Atomic Bomb will find favor with fans of U2 being U2—the band that made War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree, pop albums every one. If you're a fan of the more experimental records, then this one may sound tired and rehashed. For me, the driving, punk-edged "Vertigo," which will undoubtedly become a monster rocker when the band tours arenas later this year, is a killer opener; The Edge and Bono channeling just enough "Teen Spirit."
Bono, whose vocal dramatics are sometimes so similar to the late Freddy Mercury's that it's scary, is back to being the band's soulful, politically committed face and full-on rock star. In the ballad "One Step Closer" or the album's other rock tune, "All Because of You" (which opens with a gorgeous skronk of feedback), he proves again that he's one of rock's finest vocalists. Bravado and grandiloquence, the twin demons of arena rock, are again his weapons, and he's in no mood not to use them. He sings about war in "Love and Peace or Else" (he's against it), about omnipotence in "Yahweh," (he's a believer, sorta) and wails about love in perhaps the album's laxest effort and most egregious lyrics, "A Man and a Woman" ("How can I hurt when I'm holding you"). While Bono may be the band's most visible member, the musical cohesion evident here suggests that all four have decided that being cool is less enthralling than being real in the way they know best.
If Bono is back to being U2's face and throat, The Edge is back to being the band's driving force. In "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," which Bono sang at his father's funeral in 2001 ("Where are we now? / I've got to let you know / A house still doesn't make a home / Don't leave me here alone"), the guitarist's layered, wall-to-wall riffs and stylized plucking have never been more rhythmic or panoramic.
It remains to be seen whether U2's current fire is unforgettable or, better yet, the beginning of a new golden era for the band. Whatever the future, it's rare to see such a long-lived band return from uncertainty, pull together, return to the inspiration they once had as a club band, and find in it not only more to say, but the passion with which to say it.—Robert Baird