New U2 albums are never quite what I expect them to be. I generally consider that a good thing. Every second or third release from this band seems to represent a landmark of sorts in the evolution of their sound. Case in point are the likes of War, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind all highly successful, defining entries in U2’s discography. The steps in between include both live releases (Under a Blood Red Sky and Rattle and Hum) and less commercial, more experimental dalliances (Passengers: Original Soundtracks, Volume 1 and Pop come to mind). Then there are those albums where you can almost tangibly sense the band in mid-transformation albums like The Unforgettable Fire and Zooropa. U2’s latest, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, falls squarely into this last category.
I have to confess that, upon first listen, I was somewhat put off by Atomic Bomb’s punchy debut single, Vertigo. As I suggested above, whatever I’d been expecting from U2’s new album… it certainly wasn’t this. Still, as is often the case with this band, the longer I lived with the track, the more it tended to grow on me. More importantly, it has yet to overstay its welcome surprising given the song’s near overexposure thanks to Apple’s recent iPod ad campaign. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), when I finally previewed Atomic Bomb in its entirety, I was once again thrown for a loop. Vertigo is unlike anything else on the disc. It takes a certain amount of daring to tease a new album with a song that’s largely unrepresentative of it, but then U2 has never lacked audacity.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is very much a logical progression from U2’s previous studio release. If you take All That You Can’t Leave Behind and spin it with a hint of the band’s more recent single, Electrical Storm, you come to a pretty good jumping off point from which to approach this latest work. You quickly get the sense that Atomic Bomb is very much The Edge’s album musically, owing its leaner character to his ever driving guitar hooks. There are subtle touches layered into several of its eleven songs that musically recall elements of The Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Standout tracks include Miracle Drug, All Because of You and (my favorite) City of
But if Atomic Bomb is the sound of a band that’s playfully examining where it’s been, it’s also a thoughtful examination of larger, more forward-looking themes. Such grandiose topics as War, Peace, Life, Death, God, Love they’re all touched upon here in turn, in an interesting balance. Two of the album’s more poignant tracks (One Step Closer and Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own) sprang directly out of Bono’s reaction to the death of his father (in 2001). Bono and company also manage to reflect on the unsettling place in which Humanity currently finds itself in several songs, including Vertigo (“The night is full of holes, as bullets rip the sky of ink with gold, they twinkle as the boys play Rock ‘n Roll…”). Sometimes this rumination works well, sometimes not quite so much. But if the band's reach occasionally exceeds its grasp (Yahweh) and there is the occasional misstep (Love and Peace or Else), there's an emotional honesty present here that's surprisingly refreshing.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb might not truly be a great album. but it is a very, very good album -- rich for its simplicity, confidently executed and ultimately compelling. It's an album that you'll have to live with a little while before you begin to fully appreciate it. That aside, I have the sneaking suspicion that a number of these eleven songs will age well within U2's larger body of work. Like The Unforgettable Fire before it, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb grows more rewarding with each new listen.
Release Date: November 23, 2004
Tracks: 11 - Time: 49:29
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite
Vertigo / Miracle Drug / Somethimes You Can't Make It On Your Own / Love and Peace or Else / City of Blinding Lights / All Because of You / A Man and A Woman / Crumbs From Your Table / One Step Closer / Origin of the Species / Yahweh.
Bono - Vocals
The Edge - Guitars
Adam Clayton - Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr. - Drums / Percussion.