In honor of the recently released Live Aid DVD (see "Phases & Stages"), let's check in with a few of their contemporaries. No one has heard from Simple Minds in years. The poor guy from Big Country killed himself a few years ago. The Alarm resurfaced, briefly, on VH1's Bands Reunited earlier this year. Thanks to Donnie Darko and Interpol, Echo & the Bunnymen are back in vogue, but haven't done anything of consequence since 1987. Neither have the Smiths. New Order is still kicking around, more or less, but it's a long way from "She's Lost Control" to World Cup anthem "World in Motion."
R.E.M., U2's dance partners at the first Clinton inauguration oh those many moons ago, finally appears to be losing its religion for good. Only the Cure has had such lasting influence and impact while regularly releasing new, interesting, challenging albums, like this year's self-titled feel-good hit of the summer. Switching tax brackets, Prince is back in a big way with Musicology, but only after a nearly decadelong fallow spell. And of all the performers mentioned in Bowling for Soup's cheeky "1985" (Springsteen, Madonna, Blondie, etc.), U2 are the only ones who've done anything this year besides sing at a few John Kerry campaign rallies.
Even at this late date, many people scoff at the idea of U2 as rock royalty. The reasons are familiar: Bono's too preachy. The Edge only knows one riff and a couple of chords. A monkey could play Adam Clayton's bass parts. Larry Mullen Jr. is always behind the beat. They write the same song over and over. That thing with the lemon. OK, that last one was pretty stupid. But Rattle and Hum was a long time ago. These days, they're not trying to sound like anyone but U2, and it's obviously working. They're selling millions of albums, winning Grammys, packing arenas and stadiums, and cracking radio playlists targeted to audiences 20 and 30 years their junior.
Long dismissed by the downtown cognoscenti, their distinctive sound is now the cornerstone of vanguard-dwellers like the Killers, the Walkmen, Franz Ferdinand, and Snow Patrol. U2 has long since earned their spot in the pantheon, and like many of their heroes, could have packed it in years ago. Instead, they've released another album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Atomic Bomb, their 11th, doesn't get in your face, it punches you in the gut with one hand and pulls your heartstrings with the other. For context, simmer the moodiness of The Unforgettable Fire with the wide-eyed faith of Boy. Gird it with a healthy dose of Achtung Baby grind. Filter the best guitar moments from War through Pop's studio-savvy postmodern screen, with Bono in full-on Joshua Tree proselytizing mode much of the time. Mix up a cocktail in the Zooropa lounge, and don't forget All That You Can't Leave Behind. Let it Rattle and Hum around your car for a while, and it'll be next October before you take it in the house. "There's no way we could get away with living the way we do if we made a crap album," Bono said recently. They haven't.
As they did on All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 stitch together Atomic Bomb's sound by cherry-picking elements from various phases of their career. For every one of Edge's pealing arpeggios, there's gobs of Zooropa fuzz. The acoustic guitar underpinning several songs, rockers and ballads alike, is offset by Clayton's futuristic basslines, several of which sound plucked straight from Pop. Edge layers so many of his signature sounds the ringing echoes, the rusty-blade riffs, the swooping steel on top of one another it's like several versions of the guitarist playing at once, each wearing a different-colored wool skullcap. Mullen, the model of dependability, plays drums. Twenty-five years of hanging around have left him and Clayton tighter than a Huntsville cell-block.
The soul transfusion that began in Berlin with "One," and hovered amorphously around Zooropa and Pop before becoming the foundation of All That You Can't Leave Behind, is now complete. The bomb of the title is Bono's father Bobby Hewson, with whom the singer had a tempestuous but close relationship. He passed away in 2001, and his death is the album's nucleus, the genesis for the disorientation of "Vertigo," the wrenching grief of "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," and the serene acceptance of "One Step Closer." Bono's repeated references to kneeling represent filial piety as much as religious supplication. As on Achtung Baby, itself borne out of a stormy period of marital and inter-band turmoil, the lyrics are deeply personal. For all his lyrical misfires over the years "a dry and waterless place," from "The Unforgettable Fire," is one favorite every once in a while Bono conjures real poetry. "A heart that hurts is a heart that beats" captures Atomic Bomb in one line.
"Vertigo," perched atop Billboard's Modern Rock chart for the last month, is the starting point, the precipice. Mullen bangs his sticks together, Bono counts off in Spanish, and everything thereafter is free fall. Edge's monster riff circles overhead, taunting Clayton and Mullen, as Bono conducts a whirlwind tour of heaven and hell. The vast "Miracle Drug" adjourns to the hospital, but it's not about stem cells. Love is the drug. Love is pretty much the only answer to any question U2 ever asks. How to dismantle an atomic bomb, anyone? Guess. "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," which Bono and Edge sang at Bobby Hewson's funeral, fades up on Bono alone in a corner of some deserted Dublin pub before expanding into a full-fledged hymn. Edge shows once again why he's got the best falsetto in rock & roll, and Bono actually sings, "You don't always have to be right." Who ever heard of such a thing?
"Love and Peace or Else" blasts U2 back into the political arena in no uncertain terms. Bono chants down Babylon via Sinatra and Tom Waits, while Clayton and Mullen swing it like Count Basie. Edge treats his guitar like an electrified dagger, unleashing some of the nastiest squalling he's ever done. This will kill live. So should "City of Blinding Lights," which plays like one of those video effects where hundreds of headlights zip by at superspeed. The flailing "All Because of You" is one of the most punk rock songs in U2's catalog and likely began when the boys were goofing around on David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" one day at sound check. It also contains the album's funniest line: "I like the sound of my own voice, I didn't give anyone else a choice." Even Bono's harshest critics will have a tough time arguing with that.
The divide between love and romance is one of Atomic Bomb's tertiary themes, Bono declaring at one point, "I've had enough of romantic love." But on the soulful "A Man and a Woman," New Wave piped into a Moroccan hash bar, he gives his inner Yeats free reign, pining for a "little sister" who is "honey on my tongue." Elvis and Dwight Yoakam were unavailable for comment. The masterful "Crumbs From Your Table" is easily the most politically harsh song to include the lyric "cool down mama." Bono's indignation at the West's indifference to Third World suffering oozes out of the speakers, but the last three minutes belong solely to Clayton and Mullen, who dig down deep for some of that greasy Achtung Baby roll.
"One Step Closer" and "Original of the Species" are essentially the same song, a slow-building two-part epic that climaxes with Bono prostrating himself before a blinding light that's either God or the reflection from Edge's sunburst Les Paul. Closing prayer "Yahweh" is typically ambiguous, as "all this pain before the child is born" could be about Jesus or the two kids Bono and wife, Ali, have had since All That You Can't Leave Behind. The baby images reinforce the rebirth/renewal theme and intersect another recurring motif, the idea of submitting to a higher power. Whether it's Yahweh, Jesus, his dad, or just rock & roll doesn't matter. "Still waiting for the dawn," Bono sings. And so U2's great journey of healing has brought the band back to the beginning, ready to do it all again.
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