U2 spent the 1980s becoming the biggest band in the world, then spent the 1990s tearing their signature sound apart and dreaming it all up again.
Now in their 25th year, it is evident the legendary Irish quartet has tried to bring the best of both worlds with them into the new millennium.
It’s too early to tell just where U2’s new album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” ranks among their deep catalog (I’ll reserve final judgment until hearing the songs on the 2005 world tour, and maybe not even then—some things take awhile to sink in). But taken in conjunction with their 2000 gem “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” it’s clear Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. still have a lot to offer in the 21st century.
Although it isn’t the rawk-fest originally promised, “Bomb” is a more straightforward guitar manifesto than any U2 album since 1991’s “Achtung Baby.” While “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was akin to the band’s pop/rock classic “The Joshua Tree” from 1987, “Bomb” is more in line with 1984’s (highly underrated) “The Unforgettable Fire,” albeit injected with some of the punches and tricks the group discovered in its albums from the ’90s.
First single “Vertigo” stands up to the best of U2’s modern rave-ups, giving songs such as “Elevation,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” a run for their collective money. (Don’t give me any grief about those ubiquitous Apple commercials, either. This song will stand the test of time, long after you’ve forgotten those TV spots. Admit it: Before you saw it for the hundredth time, you thought it was cool.)
Meanwhile, the gorgeous “City of Blinding Lights” belongs in the same company as U2’s best anthems. Driven by a classic Edge reverb riff, the song’s chiming chorus induces goosebumps, as Bono tries to ward off the cynicism of middle age and reclaim the optimism of his youth.
On an album that has no glaring missteps, it’s hard to pick standouts. “All Because of You,” is an uptempo stomper that would feel right at home on 1989’s “Rattle and Hum” alongside “Desire” or “Silver and Gold”; elsewhere, the sinewy “Love and Peace or Else”—a plea for peace in the Middle East—could easily slide into a slot on 1997’s “Pop,” while “A Man and a Woman,” one of Bono’s best love songs (and there are a lot of them), features this beautiful line: “I could never take a chance/Of losing love to find romance.”
Despite its auspicious title, “Atomic Bomb” is largely an apolitical album. Its heart belongs to the third track, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” a true U2 classic if there ever was. Hearkening back to the band’s best song (“One”), Bono rips his soul wide open in an ode to his late father, who died in the middle of the band’s last tour. Grandiose and intimate at the same time, “Sometimes” exemplifies the continued brilliance of U2’s music. For two and a half decades, they have been able to make the minute details of life seem epic and the epic seem intimate.
“How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” isn’t Part II of “The Joshua Tree” or “Achtung Baby,” nor does it push past the boundaries explored in the mid-‘90s on “Zooropa” and “Pop.” Instead, this collection cements the group’s transition into a new era. With their last two albums, U2 seem to have finally settled on a sound—on a skin—after 25 years of searching.
This is us now, these songs proclaim, and we’re not going away any time soon.
(Just in case you were wondering, “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” are A+)