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A Sort of Homecoming

 

U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Interscope, 2004

Rating: 4.1

 

 

Posted: November 21, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Four years ago, when U2 released All That You Can't Leave Behind, the album was hailed as a return to "classic" U2 -- a return to the sound that had made the band great. Almost every review one read, or assessment one heard, spun a variation on that theme. This begged the obvious question: Exactly what is the sound of classic U2? Is it the youthful New Wave of Boy? The sharper, more martial rock of the political War? The atmospheric washes of The Unforgettable Fire? The wind-swept rustic plateaus, craggy bluffs and bombastic, self-searching anthems of The Joshua Tree? Even (Yahweh forbid) the misguided mimicry of American roots and soul, the ungainly, unfocused sprawl of Rattle and Hum?

One thing seems certain: It certainly didn't include anything the band did during the 1990s. Fans who hailed All That You Can't Leave Behind as a return to "classic" U2 were, no doubt to the last man, reacting against the sharp left Euro-pop turns of Achtung, Baby, the sleek, electro-clashing Pop and the gaudy, ill-advised Zooropa. And that's why it's ridiculous to posit the existence of one overarching, identifiable U2 sound -- the band has survived over the course of 25 years by continually evolving on a musical level, as its hit-and-miss sonic adventures in the '90s made crystal clear.

Nevertheless, now U2 has released How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and again the band is being congratulated for sticking to what it does best. Rolling Stone's tiresome Rob Sheffield, whose writing is all flash and no depth, swoons like Brenda Walsh melting under Dylan McKay's smoldering glaze, crowing that "This is grandiose music from grandiose men, sweatlessly confident in the execution of their duties." In less grating terms, Newsweek's Lorraine Ali gets to the heart of the matter: "(T)hey apply that winning U2 formula: Bono's raggedy vocals, the Edge's shimmery guitar and plenty of Guinness (OK, I guessed on that last one)."

That observation is key. Atomic Bomb is a reduction of U2's most definable characteristics into a very basic formula: impassioned vocals lent extra gravity by Bono's wavering voice; guitars that chime like bells; thick, meaty rhythm section workouts; slowly seductive hooks that build to triumphant, emotional, endorphin-releasing choruses.

And on that level, it succeeds admirably. The spunky "Vertigo" is a breezy sprint through jagged, two-chord garage rock. "Crumbs From Your Table" and "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" are surging singalongs in the vein of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or "Kite." The standout "Miracle Drug" is a heartbreakingly effective swoop through tender verses and unapologetically tear-jerking choruses.

Likewise, "City of Blinding Lights" gets good mileage out of an ingratiatingly understated melody -- countered by the head-bopping stomp of "All Because of You" and the fuzzy, droning bombast of "Love and Peace -- or Else." (The latter sounds more like an intriguing B-side, with slightly grating lyrics calling out to "You daughters of Zion / All you Abraham's sons," than a single-in-waiting like the rest of the songs here.)

As compulsively listenable as these songs are -- and they are, more so than those on Leave Behind -- it's hard not to notice that there are no musical risks being taken here. Yes, when U2 takes bold chances with its music, it sometimes results in a Zooropa or a Rattle and Hum. But it also results in an Achtung, Baby or an Unforgettable Fire or a Joshua Tree. Atomic Bomb is so streamlined that it makes Leave Behind -- a broadly mainstream record itself -- seem fussy. There's not even an "Elevation" here, the closest Leave Behind came to (briefly) approximating the electro-boogie edge of the Achtung-Pop era.

And one can't help but interpret this as being representative of an overarching eagerness to please. U2 has always sought to be as many things to as many people as possible; few rock bands have ever been as matter-of-factly direct about their naked ambition and love of being loved (and that's saying something). But up to the turn of the 21st century, the band was clearly following its own muse, confident (sometimes rightly so, sometimes not) that audiences would fall behind, or at least make the effort to do so. But Atomic Bomb sounds scientifically calculated to strike all the right chords that people associate with the U2 brand. Not even Left Behind took such pains to accommodate casual listeners.

Fortunately, that calculation doesn't extend to the lyrical side of things. This is a weighty record, limned with loss (especially the loss of Bono's father in 2001, as on the muted, meditative "One Step Closer"); distance ("Miracle Drug," inspired by a paraplegic poet, written from the point of view of someone -- presumably the mother -- eager to "see what you might see"); mortality ("Time won't leave me as I am," Bono wails on "City of Blinding Lights"); love in all its many forms ("Man and a Woman," "Original of the Species").

And, of course, spirituality: "All Because of You" can be heard as a riff on faith, although it works just as well on a secular level. (The ringing closer "Yahweh," of course, leaves no doubt as to its subject matter.) And there's an awful lot of kneeling going on here: "Your love is teaching me how to kneel;" "I kneel 'cause I want you some more;" "I'm not easy on my knees." All of which makes Atomic Bomb one of U2's more thematically cohesive records.

Which goes a long way toward helping this record go down smooth. Ultimately, it's a good thing for U2 that Atomic Bomb does such a good job of striking those aforementioned chords, of stimulating the pleasure centers the band's long been known for stroking. In the end, how much you crave the boundary-pushing U2 of old will determine whether you find what you're looking for in the album's easy accessibility.

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