How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Interscope Records, 2004
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/23/2004
I am not one who subscribes to the "cult of U2" and thinks they're bigger than Jesus, Allah, Buddha and Donald Trump combined. Yes, I think they've made some great music in their 20-plus year career, and they've earned some accolades they most definitely deserve. But I don't sit around and worship The Joshua Tree as if it's one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Hell, I have yet to listen to, much less buy, U2's last studio effort All That You Can Leave Behind.
In a sense, this works to my advantage when approaching U2's 11th studio disc, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. I enter this one with zero preconceived notions, zero expectations, and - believe it or not - zero bias. Diehard fans may have trouble treating this one as its own creature - and I can't say I would do any different if I were in their shoes.
But after spending a good chunk of the weekend listening to this disc online (legally, mind you - U2 did the smart thing and streamed the whole disc a week prior to its release), I came away thinking that Bono and crew had made a very enjoyable disc, though it does seem to have a lack of one thing. That thing is permanence - and that may not be a bad thing in the long run.
The first single (and lead-off track) "Vertigo" is an okay start to the show, but it dares to hint back to the days of Pop and "Discotheque," a period of time that both U2 and their fans desparately want to forget. Make no mistake, it's a catchy song, but after repeated listens (and I'm not talking about all the commercials for Apple's iPod), it's one that doesn't have a lot of staying power. "Miracle Drug" is the first song that suggests that Bono and crew are entering some sort of mid-life phase, declaring "I'm through with romantic love / I'd give it up for a miracle drug" but seems to be looking for a deeper connection into someone's psyche. This isn't to say that U2 can't come up with some cornball lyrics (example: "Freedom has a scent / like the top of a newborn baby's head.")
What is striking about How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is that U2 seems to do a two-step occasionally on this disc. On one side, they'll make a solid musical statement that does tend to harken back to their "glory" days, such as on "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," only to slide into a bit of mediocrity the very next track (in this case, with "Love And Peace Or Else". It almost seems at times that the band is searching for a niche they can call their own without seeming overblown or pretentious.
Fortunately for the band, they do seem to find that magical mixture. It starts to develop on "City Of Blinding Lights," a track which does hold out some promise but falls a little flat in the end, but then leads into a solid one-two punch of "All Because Of You" and "A Man And A Woman", two songs which equally hold promise to be killer follow-up singles. On one hand, "All Because Of You" is a powerful rocker which is some of the best U2 in this vein I've heard since "Mysterious Ways". On the other, "A Man And A Woman" carries a surprisingly powerful payload despite featuring a more laid-back sound - something I do wish the band had utilized more on this particular disc.
Regrettably, U2 can't keep that momentum going; "Crumbs From Your Table" is a step backward, lacking any real direction or focus musically. (I do, however, like the guitar work from The Edge coming out of the choruses - simple, yet powerful, something he's done his whole career.) That focus is re-discovered one song later with "One Step Closer," a more gentle and introspective number which again calls to mind some of the more quiet moments of albums like Achtung Baby or Zooropa, and even has hints of "The Unforgettable Fire" to the structure. Yet this one is pleasing without sounding like a copy of any previous song (and, to the zealots who take any possible negative comment about U2 as blasphemy, I'm not saying they copied any song of theirs). That mood is continued with "Original Of The Species," a track which almost has a Dusty Springfield-type vibe at times - something I actually thought fit the band well in this outing. The more I listen to this track, the more I believe it is the best on the album.
The closing number, "Yahweh," seems to be the strongest evidence of the link between the music and the death of Bono's father a few years back; the track almost seems like it's commending his father piece by piece - strengths and weaknesses - to God while looking at life ahead of him. If only it had a little more of a punch to it - either in terms of anger or sadness - but it does tend to lose some focus in the chorus (though the question, "Why the dark before the dawn?" does express a hint of some anger).
In the end, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is a disc which demands to be seen on its own strengths and weaknesses, refusing any expected links to previous successes like The Joshua Tree. This particular disc is certain to both please and confound long-time fans of the band, though it's by no means a dive off the deep end like Pop was. If anything, this focuses on a band who recognizes they're growing older, but still have something to say musically. In that regard, they have succeeded.