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December 2004 Pick of the Month

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb 
Artist: U2
Label: Interscope Records
Tracks  11 tracks

For hardcore fans of any artist, a new album is not so much a new release, it's an event. It's one usually accompanied by activity that comes out of expectation and out of a desire to fulfill a ritual: the wait outside for the store to open, or the longer wait at a pre-arranged signing session, and then the wait for the first chart placing as the new material, unfamiliar at first, starts to sink in and bed down in your consciousness. I remember such experiences as a thirteen year-old fan of British band The Jam, as each new single was anticipated so keenly, I probably presumed that the rest of the record-buying public would only feel the same as I did. 

You'd be forgiven for thinking that they do, over this particular release, judging by the hype that's proceeded it - leaving aside the Apple TV adverts and the iPOD deals, the interest garnered by the starring role of a most unusual world-statesman led to a large amount of belated goodwill for a band with longevity and consistently-high musical standards which are no longer in question. So, when asking is-it-any-good, it's nice to know that it justifies all the fuss. Indeed, so awesome is HTDAAB that, at times, as one reviewer already put it, "...it leaves the listener gasping for less."

U2 talked initially, of making a real 'rock 'n' roll record', and afterwards remarked that "This Is the One." It may well join The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby as the trio of essential U2 albums. But get this: rumours of it being 'the sound of the original group' have been highly exaggerated. There's strains of all the previous albums, but it's closest in sonic terrain to their last outing, All That You Can't Leave Behind

The opener, and single "Vertigo" you should already know, and with "Miracle Drug" - a likely live crowd-pleaser, next year--quickly following, the emotive Sometimes "You Can't Make It On Your Own" has U2, by now, reaching for transcendant heights. The atomic bomb that exploded in Bono's life was the death of his father Bob, in 2001, and this and other places on the record are a naked account of his struggle to come to terms with his bearevement. 

A strong start and the emotional intensity changes after that. They get deep down and dirty and "Love and Peace or Else" is reminiscent of BRMC's "Spread Your Love." That particular 'Frisco combo's lyrical concerns were often religious in language, although coming from a dark place. U2's are specifically full of light. "City of Blinding Lights" continues those themes and harks back to some of those on 1997's Pop. It's one of several cuts that sound even better at night - travelling late in a car, or looking across moon-lit water...it's one that highlights that the band are still receptive to new musical influences, with the slightest hint of Keane, Doves and even David Gray, here and there. 

Arguably, the heaviest mother on the record is the Jane's Addiction-esque "Crumbs From Your Table," inspired by Bono's dealings with right-wing Christian fundamentalism whilst pleading the cause of the Third World and flagging-up the AIDS pandemic. Sadly, the Bride of Christ never seemed so glamerously vacuous. 

For the most politicized group in history now, this is still a warmly spiritual album. Their Christianity is more to the fore than their
placarding. The politics are oblique, as shown on "A Man and a Woman," the band's first foray into reggae. What a bummer this song could've been. U2 stray dangerously close to Enrique Inglasious territory but the slightly-swampy feel keeps to Bob Marley and Moloko, thankfully. 

At the height of their career, The Jam's singer songwriter Paul Weller wanted to make the best album of all time, suffering a nervous breakdown in the process. The resulting work was to be their last. U2 wanted this album to be their Who's Next - it's certainly a case of where next, for the world's biggest band. Because, despite the awesomeness of HTDAAB there's still the feeling that they could step up a gear, if they had to. 

How high can they go?
 

John Cheek 12/17/2004

On “City of Blinding Lights” from this U2’s eleventh studio album Bono sings, ”Time, time/Won't leave me as I am/But time won't take the boy out of this man.” This album should have called Man and they should have got the face of Peter Rowan whose innocent face appeared on the original Boy.Twenty five years on, he could have graced the cover with the facial lines of time and a declaration of experience. As Green Day copycat the Clash, The Darkness exploit a manufactured hybrid of glam rock and heavy metal and The Strokes bring back the spirit of New Yorks CBGBs, so U2 have ripped off a seventies band--U2! They have done it with an authenticity that is joyously alarming! That chiming sharpness of Edge’s guitar is revived and youthful exuberance lives in the souls of these forty-something rock stars. Please stay a child somewhere in your heart they sing on “Original of the Species” and they have done just that while their souls, their minds and the quality of their songs are enriched with life experience,  spiritual wisdom and musical collaborations.

U2 is kind of like a soccer team on an unbeaten run. All That You Can’t Leave Behind found them a little nervous. Did they still have the ability to win? After championship honors in the Elevation season, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has them playing the best stuff of their career. It is strident, smooth, sharp and cuts through your defense. This is the beautiful game at its very best; more honors are assured. That they still should be on this good a form at this stage of their career is for a book not a review but it sure adds to the amazement. 

These songs are going to sound awesome live. We have been imagining the tailspin of the lead-off single "Vertigo" for a few weeks now. Well, you can add to that the straight-ahead, earsplitting riffs of "All Because of You," the slow burning atmospherics of "Miracle Drug" before the ecstatic mix of science and faith kicks ass and the strident "Crumbs from Your Table." What shape the menacing rhythms of "Love and Peace or Else" will take is maybe the most intriguing question asked and as for "City of Blinding Lights," well, "you look so beautiful tonight" was surely written for Bono to throw poses at the crowd as he whips up a glorious frenzy. 

The Elevation tour was a revelation to the world about U2s continued relevance but it was more than that. It lit the fuse for a band that could have been heading for middle-age mediocrity. It sent them off in an adrenaline rush to write an entire album that demands to be performed. Bono has been talking about needing eleven or twelve reasons to leave the family for two years. Maybe family members should be feeling a little insecure because these loved ones have honed very big reasons as if they were determined to get out of the house for awhile! These are songs written to be performed. You can sense big stadium stages and Bono doing laps and spinning with arms out stretched. It is celebratory, hopeful and panoramic in melodic splendor. It all paints the biggest of visions trying to reach to the widest horizon and beyond.

Bono's lyrics, though most songs co-credit Edge, are as unconventional as always. He's not a Dylan or a Springsteen and occasionally there are clumsy words, ropey rhymes and contrived couplets. It is not about the seamlessness of Bono's poetry, though. It is about the emotional depth of the bands concerns that lifts them a cut above the rest. To go back to the comparison of this to __Boy__, the man here is dealing with the loss of his father in a different way than the boy then did with the loss of his mother. That loss is a real emotional thread to the album generally and very specifically to "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own," which was sung at his father's funeral and "One Step Closer" inspired by Noel Gallagher in one of their metaphysical yarns.

The mourning period which Bono exorcised live on the Elevation stages in London and Dublin (captured on the __U2 Go Home__ DVD) sent Bono off on a bender for a time and has evidently got him looking in the mirror with microscopic intensity. This is without doubt the band's most personal album. Bono laughs at himself--"At times, some people got way too much confidence, baby" ("Origin of the Species"); "I like the sound of my own voice/I didn't give anyone else a choice" ("All Because of You"); and "Boys play rock 'n' roll/They know they can't dance/At least they know" ("Vertigo"). Looking for his father inside himself is revealing and the hurt of the relationship makes for an honest and vulnerable pop icon.

Elsewhere prophetic insights scan wars in Palestine and Iraq and the injustices of Aids and poverty. The boy of Boy knew nothing about world issues. The man cannot  keep his mind off them. Bono's attempts to save the world meeting Popes, President and speaking at Harvard graduation, the Labour Party conference and anywhere else that would have him has been well documented. Campaigning for those less fortunate with that intensity cannot help but change your perspectives and surface in all your conversations or, in Bono's case, songs. "Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die." Is what Bono has been trying to say that AIDS is not a charity issue but a justice issue? It is about human rights. Why should people die for the lack of something that we take for granted in the global village of 2004?

In that same song, "Crumbs from your Table," he cuts to the heart with, "Would you deny for others/What you demand for yourself?" Such incisive preaching to the selfish West should cut deep. In this song, it is directed to the Church. Bono has been reunited with the Christian Church over the past few years as he has spoken to Christian colleges, musicians and leaders to try and ignite the compassion of Jesus for the marginalized of Africa. "Crumbs from your Table" is a very close relation of "American Prayer" which he sang with Beyonce at the 46664 concert in Cape Town at the end of 2003. It is about belief becoming flesh. The beliefs we have in our head and speak with our mouths are no good to the hungry, the exploited and the diseased: "You speak of signs and wonders/I need something other/I would believe if I was able/But Im waiting on the crumbs from your table." The irony is that the something other is what the Church thinks it has in extraordinary miracles but the miracle that the poor need is the ordinary sharing and justice of very everyday things.

My own opinion of All That You Can't Leave Behind was that the line that really drilled to the core of the society was, "It lives outside of karma." The gentle pontificating of the Christian doctrine of grace questioned the idea that all roads lead to God not in a judgmental way but in saying look--grace and karma are very different ideas and thus these beliefs are not the same. The drilling here is hitting the recurring theme of marriage. U2s love songs have been few and far between and never shallow. "A Man and Woman" is their most fully formed creed on the subject. In the celebrity world, where Bono lives and is loved by all, he suggests a need for a clearer definition between love and romance. "I could never take a chance/To lose love to find romance," has already been hinted at on "Miracle Drug:" "I've had enough of romantic love." Here is the singer still with his childhood sweatheart sharing his secrets. Love will wait, it cant be numb and only true love can keep beauty innocent. It should be given away free with every magazine that sticks the perfect shape on its cover and gossips about every celebrity break up and make up and suggest that this might be away to live. 

Faith as always is everywhere throughout. U2 is God-drenched even suggesting in the interviews around the release of the album that they can't write anything until God walks through the room. There is a lot of falling on your knees in these songs and the whole thing ends with a full on rock prayer - "Yahweh." At least it should be the end, but for some bizarre reason in the European version they add the experimental and out of place "Fast Car," which could have been shared as a single B-side or download. It takes away the spiritual conclusion, the altar call, the benediction, and, for a band so intentional as U2 is, it is almost unforgivable. Are they softening the spiritual blow for secular Europe whereas American can take the Christian concentrate with diluting? Hard to tell but for me and mine, well end with Yahweh;

Take this soul 
Stranded in some skin and bone
Take this soul 
And make it sing
Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Dont make a fist
Take this mouth
So quick to criticize
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss

Take this heart 
Take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break

Steve Stockman  11/29/2004
 
 
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine. 

In the film Rattle and Hum Larry Mullen Jr famously described that undertaking as a “musical journey.”  How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb likewise is a musical journey, albeit through U2’s back catalogue.  Like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, they throw a few grimy rock numbers amongst a bunch of archetypal, soaring, ringing anthems, with the occasional deviation into more grown-up musical styles.  Album release hype marked it as harking back to the raw, youthful energy of Boy, and the opener and first single “Vertigo” certainly gives that impression.  But the album then slips quickly into the classic, middle-period sound of The Joshua Tree.  In the '90s, particularly during the re-evaluation period of making Achtung Baby, the explicit aim of the band was to not sound like U2, but post-irony it seems that Mr Mullen (always the most uncomfortable with the mirror balls and sonic experimentation) in particular has put his foot down-­“we’re U2, let’s sound like U2!”

“Vertigo” may have the urgency of “I Will Follow” or “Out of Control,” but it’s more like when they learnt to rock in the 1990s, on tracks like “Until the End of the World”, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”, and more recently, “Elevation,” when, as Zoo TV tour DJ B P Fallon suggested, they finally sounded like men rather than boys.  After a no-nonsense Larry Mullen drumbeat, The Edge lays down a classically rock’n’roll riff which any guitar player will recognize as brilliant in its simplicity.  Its brother-in-stylistic-arms “All Because of You” is an even more urgent stomping garage rocker.

With its ringing harmonics, “Miracle Drug” is the flipside of modern U2-­sincere and optimistic.  Like “Beautiful Day” and “Walk On,” it’s traditional U2, and as elsewhere on the album, Bono’s Christianity is obvious in the lyrics, as he sings about the still small voice and quotes Jesus: “I was a stranger, you took me in.”  But he also sings, “the songs are in your eyes”-­a classic Bono-ism.  Like on the emotional “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” where he sings “you’re the reason I sing,” these lines are what U2’s critics deride them for.  “Sometimes…” is a response to Bono’s father’s death, and uses a style of direct address, as on “Stuck In a Moment…”.  Like “If God Will Send His Angels” and “One” in its quiet build-up, it’s punctured by a falsetto arc like on “Electrical Storm” and The Edge’s oscillating guitar.  As on “Kite”, Bono is dealing with growing older, trying to make sense of his flawed relationship with his father, saying the things he couldn’t say to him in life. There aren’t many rock singers displaying their wounds like this.

While Bono sings of giving up romantic love for something more mature and enduring on “Miracle Drug,” on “Love And Peace Or Else” there are references to the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the war in Iraq.  Its sinister feel, like “Exit” from “The Joshua Tree,” is set-up by deeply rumbling bass notes, before it becomes an industrial-blues number like something from P J Harvey’s “Dry,” quite removed musically from the album’s other tracks.  “A Man and a Woman” is different again, like Sting’s World Music-influenced dalliances, and while there are precedents in U2 songs like “Three Sunrises” and “Sweetest Thing,” it seems a little out of place here (though the cruise ship feel is tempered by a nicely scratchy Bono vocal, as if he’s been up all night).

“Crumbs From Your Table” and “City of Blinding Lights” are more obvious examples of U2 sounding like U2.  “Crumbs From Your Table” revisits the textbook Edge harmonics and bigger-picture sentiments of “Miracle Drug.”  Helicopter guitar, pulsating bassline and minimalist piano like on “”New Year’s Day” drive “City of Blinding Lights” onward and suck in all but the most cynical.  There is a synthesis of the kind of new tech catchphrases Bono was cobbling together on Zooropa and Pop, and the grander gestures of The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire-­ a line like “neon heart dayglo eyes” is contrasted with “I miss you when you’re not around”.

The last big surprise is “Yahweh,” sitting somewhere between “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “In God’s Country,” and even featuring a Daniel Lanois mandolin.  It enters abruptly, with the band disregarding any uneasiness about milking the traditional U2 sound.  If Pop had a song titled “Yahweh,” you’d expect a dark lament about His seeming disappearance.  In the same vein as “Do You Feel Loved,” Bono sings “take these hands,” “take these shoes,, etc., but instead of that song’s cynical perspective, this one is a beautifully humble prayer.

Critics have been falling over themselves in proclaiming this album a new classic.  That may be a bit premature.  It’s classic in the sense of a classic U2 sound, but the best of past U2 albums were groundbreaking in a way this is not.  This continues down the path mapped out by All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  But then again, while U2 are not the condensed genius of the Beatles, in the last twenty years there’s been no one to hold a candle to them.  They continue to make music that as a whole soars beyond the sum of its parts.  The only danger is becoming, like The Rolling Stones, a parody of themselves.  Let’s pray not.

Nick Mattiske   1/9/2005


 
 
 
 
 

 

   
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