How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (Interscope)
Every generation, a band comes along that people say changes their lives. Cliché, yes; overstated, maybe. But we all know that feeling, when we first discover the music that made us feel like we found something special. For lots of kids in the mid-1960s, the Beatles held that power; Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Stones did it for the next generation. For many of us who came of age in the 80s, that band was U2.
After the bloated excess of 70s classic rock, U2 made it seem like music COULD make a difference again— socially, politically, personally. They did it with a unique soundscape that was alternately anthemic and ethereal, and miles away from the formulaic AOR (Album Oriented Radio) that dominated the airwaves of the early 1980s. What set them apart? U2 eschewed the scaled-down DYI approach of their post-punk and new wave contemporaries in favor of grandeur; the band always seemed more at home on an arena stage. Epic LPs like War and the band’s haunting videos for “New Years Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” cemented U2’s status as the “Band That Mattered” for many in the 1980s.
But as the years went on, this reviewer’s musical tastes changed and diversified, and so did U2. We went our separate ways, so to speak, for a good decade or so. But with interest peaked by the U2 iPod commercials and a glimpse of their recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, I decided to roll the dice and buy the new U2 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb unheard. Surprisingly, listening to it made it seem as though as if the past 15 years never happened-- sort of like an old favorite restaurant that you rediscover years later, and voila’, the food you once loved is back.
The first impression you get from listening to Bomb is that it just plain sounds good, at a very visceral level. I could attempt some in-depth analysis of why, but quite simply stated, “The Edge’s delay pedal is back!” Could something so simple be so consequential? Yes.
The Edge’s liberal use of delay and reverb pedals and his rhythmic approach to lead guitar forever changed the equation for rock guitarists. That approach colored U2’s first decade of music and gave them their trademark sound. Sadly, those affected tones have been missing from their sonic palette since the band “re-invented” themselves with Brian Eno in Berlin in 1991. Throughout HTDAAB, the Edge’s guitar rings, chimes, taps, delays and soars — like a trip in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine that reminds us just what we’ve been missing.
In fact, Bomb continues a conscious march backwards for U2, a direction first hinted at on 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but it takes the embrace of “classic U2” to new levels. Some will decry the fact that U2 is no longer breaking any new ground musically or attempting to keep up with the latest trends — which coincidentally (or conveniently if you’re a cynic) are a return to the sounds of the 1980’s via bands like the Killers, Interpol or Franz Ferdinand. Others will say it’s just a matter of U2 playing to their strengths and reclaiming a sound they essentially popularized and made their own.
Adding to the “back to the future” approach on Bomb, all the band’s producers from yesteryear have been brought back into the fold: Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois. Even longtime U2 photographer Anton Corbijn, whose stark desert images for the Joshua Tree helped the band achieve icon status, contributes cover artwork.
All of the ear candy and production details wouldn’t mean a thing though if the songs weren’t up to par, and U2 has set the bar pretty high through the years. The propulsive “Vertigo” leads off Bomb and is easily the band’s strongest single in eons. Yes, it’s a conscious attempt at recreating their War-era bombast and Bono’s silly “hola; como esta?” call and response (surely designed to sell more records in the Spanish speaking world) will rub some the wrong way, but it’s undeniably powerful and catchy as hell. Can you get the song out of your head?
Other standout tracks include the soaring “City of Blinding Lights”, with its staccato piano and echoed guitar slowly building to a blissful chorus; the sweetly soulful “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, maybe the closest thing to a true love song Bono has ever written and a clear indicator of the shift in his lyrical bent over the years from the political to the personal; and the ringing chimes of the memorable “Crumbs from Your Table.” The band’s more ethereal past is also revisited with the “Mothers of the Disappeared”-esque dirge of the Eno/Lanois-produced “Love and Peace or Else.” Notably, Bomb’s 11 tracks clock in at an economical fifty minutes, leaving you wanting more. In an age of eighty minute CDs, that’s a refreshing development.
After 25 years together as a band, the four original members of U2 are expectedly tight and in command dynamically. But more importantly, U2 sounds like they’re focused and having fun again. The mock-irony and detachment of their 90s repertoire has been replaced by an urgency and grandeur reminiscent of their previous oeuvre. With that step backwards, U2 have taken a giant leap forwards towards reclaiming the title of the biggest, boldest, and most important rock band in the world. For longtime fans, it’s a welcome and unexpected surprise.