U2 - How to dismantle an atomic bomb
There are some bands you just fall out of love with. Despite enjoying just about everything from U2's early days to the mid-90's my enthusiasm for the Irish superstars has all but disappeared. Their last effort (quoted in despatches as a return to form) All That You Can't Leave Behind left me bemused and sniggering at a band whose latest re-invention was to return as themselves, they'd packed Bono's Fly shades but sadly had forgotten their songs.
To backtrack, The Joshua Tree seemed to be the pinnacle of U2's journey through mainstream Eighties rock and arguably the decade itself. Rattle And Hum saw the wheels wobble as they tried to encompass a range of music out with their reach and a critical mauling ensued. Then came along Achtung Baby; an album which ditched their pious baggage and showed a willingness to reflect on their flaws with admissions of hedonism, guilt and fear. It successfully debunked their overblown status and begun to flirt with art rock and club culture but more importantly it covered new territory and was full of great music. Several experiments followed in the shape of cold futurism (Zooropa) and ambient/avant pop( Passengers) which left many fans bewildered.1997 saw Pop the first proper U2 album in six years but the record didn't deliver as the band's sound fell between two stools (rock and dance/electro experimentation) and the subsequent Pop Mart tour had the critics sharpening their knives yet again. If it seemed U2 had an identity crisis ( Paul Hewison's various stage guises to escape his Bono persona) and were stuck in an artistic rut then a Greatest Hits package heralded by a thirteen year old B-side only seemed to emphasise the point.
Well the good news is that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is clearly their best album for thirteen years. The reason is simple; they have worked very hard on consistently strong songs, the key element missing from their music for a long time.
The uniformity of the album's sound (production sees the return of Steve Lillywhite) is belied by the multitude of mixers and assistants on board. There is little doubt that the band and their assorted helpers have slaved over this album getting the songs to knit properly. This album is however designed to sound great on lesser musical equipment-a good system will reveal compression and a loss of clarity is evident when the sound is separated, the drum sound is especially muddled. Still U2 didn't become the biggest band in the world worrying about niche corners of the global market.
The 12 tracks come in at 53 minutes and it is probably fair to say there is isn't a track that fails to deliver on some level. The highpoints include opener Vertigo which is everything Beautiful Day wasn't -a slice of big statement raw energy rock and roll and Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own. This is a heartfelt paean to Bono's father who passed away in 2001, an honest reflection on their relationship and all the more touching for the fractious detail conveyed. Musically it holds its own too with a nice acoustic introduction and a well crafted song that soars in the chorus. This track reflects most of the album in that the songs are well constructed, many of them highlighting several strong sections, great instrumentation and arrangements.
The Edge is on top form throughout and whilst there are multiple echoes of earlier U2 styles everywhere, the aforementioned song quality, assured rhythm playing and confident vocals lends itself to forgiveness.
There are minor moments though, One Step Closer brings a nice mood change but lacks conviction and the overwrought synths on Original Of The Species might have been best left out.
Elsewhere Bono's occasional lyrical lapses are swept along by the energy of the music as songs like Miracle Drug, A Man And A Woman and Yahweh demonstrate. However there a couple of decent tunes that sink under the weight of Bono's intent. Crumbs From Your Table and Love And Peace Or Else are both (at least partly) political numbers (the Palestine conflict and world poverty) which in cold analysis lack the incisive observation or the tightly honed lyricism required to succeed. Whilst I don't subscribe to the cynical view on Bono's various causes that doesn't exempt him from criticism on his day job. Doubtless though these songs may well attract some listeners to the issues in question but a more mature or developed slant on Bono's writing is missing.
The album finishes with the exotic Fast Cars, a well executed song that recalls Patti Smith's Dancing Barefoot, its fast acoustic guitar and mixture of Mexican and Eastern sounds fit a driving Bono lyric.However the album is very similarly paced which makes it something of a flat listen although I don't doubt it is the type of album that will see a varied cross section of songs picked as fans favourites.
This album will do little to change the minds of the anti-U2 brigade and maybe they've already achieved that once anyway, despite the odd blemish it would be churlish not to recognise it is a strong return to form. The music press in the UK all made the same point that U2 are probably the only band from the early 80's to have retained longevity, relevance and quality-true to an extent but only their massive populist standing has led to the momentum that has kept them going, thirteen years is a long time to wait for an album near to their best work, few bands survive that size of quality gap.
For me personally the lack of subtle touches, the rigid tried and tested formulas and the adult realisation that U2 are only great some of the time means I haven't totally changed my mind about them. The album whilst good lacks the invention to see it ranked amongst their classic work. In the meantime they continue to sell concert tickets by the truckload and show every sign of a Rolling Stones style career, lets just hope their recording future shows more progression and invention.
© Ben campbell
Vinyl quality is alright. U2 record all their music to a Mac in not very impressive audio. 53 minutes for an LP is too long and this record should really be spread
out on 3 or 4 sides. But the vinyl is clean and quite well pressed. Outer picture
and inner picture sleeves.