Over the past 25 years, U2 have been many things: young punks, mainstream superstars, political activists, and arena rockers (just to get started). They’ve been seen as inspiring, pretentious, committed, and excessive. With their last release, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 embraced their true position as pop icons by creating catchy, occasionally moving, but not incredibly intense music. “Beautiful Day” alone was worth the front-loaded album, until it almost wore out its welcome in the media. With How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (ending the longest release drought of U2’s career), everyone’s excited to proclaim the group’s return to its earlier, harder sound, but that’s just not true. Instead, U2 relies on its pop sensibility, creating memorable guitar hooks and following the blueprint of the last album, just minus the fullness of the sheen.
By the time this album actually reached stores, the public had been saturated with the debut single and leadoff track, “Vertigo”. Its most persistent appearance comes with an iPod commercial that the networks have on a nearly continuous loop. As with “Beautiful Day”, this song’s only defense stems from the fact that it’s so good. Your snobbish side wishes it wasn’t so — it’s in a commercial as soon as it’s on the radio, if not before — but it’s one of those tracks you can only hate if you choose to. The opening count-in, the Hola!‘s, Bono’s clever phrasing, the chorus lead-in of “oh-oh-oh-oh”. Bono’s penned accessible lyrics, but they contain enough ambiguity to remain interesting, a quality useful in helping fans to sing along without feeling like dolts.
That accessibility’s aided by the crisp production. Steve Lillywhite, and obvious choice, heads the production. He’s helmed plenty of important recordings, including the early U2 albums, the Talking Heads’ Naked, several Morrissey albums, and work by the Dave Matthews Band, XTC, Travis, and Peter Gabriel. Long-time colleagues Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (who co-produced The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree) provide additional production work. The resulting sound is exactly what you would expect from a trio who are well-respected and on the inside of U2’s work. The central guitar, bass, and, drum parts stay fully separated, and the electronic effects and synthesized sounds maintain their importance without gaining prominence on any tracks.
With the old crew all in place, it’s not surprising that comparisons to the old U2 sound come up, and they’re not entirely unwarranted. “City of Blinding Lights”, for example, has the quick, clean strumming that made “Where the Streets Have No Name” a classic. It also has, however, a reliance on the synthesizer for mood. The effect works wonderfully, U2 sounds updated. On this track (unlike others to come), the bombast stays in check and Bono’s questions sound earnest without being overzealous. The same strengths of “Vertigo” shine here: the wordless syllables, the guitar hooks, and the smart lyrics. It’s undeniable that this band is the same one that recorded tracks like “With Or Without You”, the group’s connection to their emotionally harder numbers is less apparent. “City of Blinding Lights” and “Vertigo” are great pop tunes, but they lack the musical and lyrical guts of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.
The transition to such deliberately mainstream pop is both easier and harder to follow because of Bono’s outspoken politicism. As his band’s audiences has grown, Bono’s had increasing opportunities to discuss his platforms. Oddly, though, his music has been losing the political edge that’s become such a focal point of his personal (or at least non-musical public) life. Bono’s probably the leading celebrity activist in the world right now. He never drops out of protesting sight for long, yet this album, despite its title, stays apolitical throughout almost the entire disc. “Love and Peace Or Else” has the title (and Elvis Costello allusion) to be the album’s radical moment, but it lacks the musical weight for either an anthemic call or an intimate question. The track’s big moments reach into pomp, and the emotional ones reach into melodrama, as with the lyrics “Here’s my heart you can break it,” the type of phrase that has too often bogged Bono down. I’ll hold out hope that music can help bring change. In this era, the revolution won’t be televised, but it might be webcast, just not to an iPod U2 Special Edition.
Even during political moments, the group’s never hesitated to use religious imagery, often constructed around conflicted, thoughtful takes on faith (as in “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, especially the Rattle and Hum version). On Atomic Bomb, the questioning faith has been replaced with boring requests, bland praise, and banal observations. “Yahweh” (a traditional name for the Judeo-Christian God) visits clichés like “This love is like a drop in the ocean” while pseudo-philosophizing on issues like “Why the dark before the dawn?” and “Always pain before a child is born”. The main guitar part sounds as if the Edge wrote it in his sleep — sticking close to the formula without livening it up.
It’s a shame that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has to end with the dud of “Yahweh”, because it’s actually a quite good album. It’s neither aggressive nor retro, and U2 sounds better for moving forward, even if they seem increasingly diluted in delivery at times. Unlike so many of their younger peers, U2 aren’t writing protest music. They also aren’t trying to shift musical paradigms. Instead, they’re writing pop songs for a large and expectant public (a populist step in its own right). They’ve avoided the bubblegum, but they’ve kept the hooks and emotion. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb isn’t the best album they’ve done, but it’s still better than most of what’s on your dial these days, even if that dial is tuned in to a commercial.