Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and what a calendar it’s been. Over the past 363 days, the band has sold several million copies of its latest near-masterpiece, played 97 concerts (all sellouts, with two more tonight and tomorrow at MSG) to rabid fans in Europe and North America (and soon the world), released a DVD to commemorate the Vertigo//2005 experience, pushed Apple’s iPod into uncharted territory, and been featured on television too many times to count.
It’s the latter that has me all worked up this morning. U2 was on CBS twice last week—they participated via taped recording in a Johnny Cash tribute special Wednesday night and then were featured in a lengthy story for “60 Minutes” on Sunday.
For the Cash show, the band pulled out “The Wanderer,” closing track from 1993’s “Zooropa” which featured the Man in Black himself on lead vocals. For this performance, Bono took Cash’s part, and I am continually amazed at the resurgence in his voice after essentially a decade of decline. This was the first time “Wanderer” has been played live (that anyone in the public’s ever heard, anyway), and it made me wonder where it’s been all these years. The rendition was absolutely brilliant and a fitting tribute to Cash, whose life story is currently on silver screens all across America in the fabulous biopic “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
The “60 Minutes” piece was similarly outstanding in that I was surprised I could learn anything new from a U2 interview at this point, what with all the media saturation they’ve received in the past year. But I was literally laughing out loud right off the bat when Bono was asked, “Do you still want to be the biggest band in the world?” and he replied with a classic, “Want? What want? Line them up!”
He then went on to talk about the Beatles and had the guts to say they had “their heads up their arses” in the late ’60s, allowing the most important group in rock and roll history to implode because of ego and money. Kudos.
Bono also praised the Bush administration and conservative Christians for their roles in making AIDS relief in Africa a reality. Meanwhile, he slammed the French for being the world’s biggest snobs (priceless); Adam talked about why they fled Britain (where the Irish weren’t looked upon with favor, to say the least) and found solace in the arms of America; Larry discussed what it was like growing up in a country where you feared for your life on a daily basis; and The Edge tried to explain how they manage to keep a level head in a world where they live like (or better than) kings.
Usually I tape U2 stuff on TV, but, unfortunately, I didn’t set the VCR last night. I honestly thought to myself, “I’ll have heard all this stuff before, so why bother?” Now, of course, I wish I could watch that interview again. It stuns me that U2 is still capable of stunning me every time I see them.
But let me get back to the album that started all this madness. In my review of “Atomic Bomb” (click the November 2004 link on the right side of this page to find it), I wrote it would take hearing the songs live before making final judgment on where this collection stands in the U2 pantheon. Little did I know it would be nearly a YEAR before I got my eyes and ears on the band, but it was certainly worth the wait. (In case you missed my obscenely long review of U2 in D.C., click on the October 2005 link.) As far as the new songs went, Vertigo//2005 was everything I could hope for, because all of the “Bomb” songs I heard came off not just well, but great, including “Yahweh,” which should have been arranged acoustically on record, the same way it’s performed in concert.
For the recent (enormous) interview with Rolling Stone, in a bit of genius, Bono was asked to review all of his own albums. What he says about “Atomic Bomb” puts into words much of what I, too, feel about the record: “It’s the best collection of songs we’ve put together [I don’t agree with this, though]—there’s no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me.”
I would argue “Atomic Bomb” is a second-tier U2 album, behind only “Achtung Baby” and “The Joshua Tree,” and right alongside “Zooropa” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Do U2 have another masterpiece in them? At this point, with the Vertigo tour already slated to extend well into 2006 (there have been rumors of a North American stadium leg over the summer), it will probably be 2008 at the earliest before even the possibility of a new album—more likely 2009. By that time all of the boys will be nearly 50-year-old men, and it will take a Herculean effort to maintain relevance in a world skewing younger and younger all the time (although, I said the same thing about this record). Bono believes his band hasn’t done its greatest work yet. If that’s true, I believe that in order for them to find another “masterpiece,” they won’t be able to try and recapture and reimagine the sounds of their youth. Instead, the next album will have to be something from left field, something so completely different and thrilling, something un-U2 and U2 at the same time, that it shakes everyone up—for, what, the third or fourth time?
U2 have already done more in rock and roll as 40-year-olds than any of their predecessors—ever. If they are somehow able to stay relevant in their 50s … well, I guess I shouldn’t put anything past them at this point.