The late-1990s had been a difficult time for U2, with their previous album Pop (1997) getting indifferent reviews. Some questioned whether, with the rise of a new generation of rock bands led by the likes of Green Day and Sum 41, U2 had a place in the modern music industry. But the success of All That You Can't Leave Behind had reinvigorated U2, leading Bono to declare quite immodestly: "[We're] reapplying for the job. What job? The best band in the world job".¹ Following the end of the successful Elevation tour in 2001, the band spent the next three years releasing a 90s hits compilation - The Best of 1990-2000 (2002) - and the EPs 7 (2002) and Exclusive (2003).
The album opens up with 'Vertigo'. With its strangely plucked guitars and Spanish in the opening, it's a signature of the new sound. With 'Captain' Bono, at the helm, this is a very worthy effort which combines Clayton's stylish bass lines with The Edge's trademark high-pitched distorted guitar. Over power chords and shredding a-plenty, Bono delivers some of their strongest lyrics in years, for instance: The night is full of holes/ As bullets rip the sky/ Of ink with gold/ They twinkle as the/ Boys play rock and roll/ They know they can't dance/ At least they know... There is a hint of self-deprecating in both these lyrics and the song in general; it's as if U2 are making out that they are settling into their image and can live with their flaws.
'Miracle Drug' takes things right down at the start. Right from th beginning you sense that this is an attempt to match something along the lines of 'With Or Without Out'. On the down side, it features one of the worst lyrics on the album - Freedom has a scent/ Like the top of a newborn baby's head (sure it does, Bono). But while this can't even come close to that Joshua Tree masterpiece, it's a very good effort and a worthwhile equivalent for those who don't appreciate U2's 1980s sound, which admittedly can be a little rough.
This down-rock tone continues and improves on the next track. 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own' is Bono's tribute to his father, Bob Hewson, who passed away with cancer in 2001. Despite the cumbersome title, this is a brilliant effort. Bono is at his heartfelt, introspective best, and the lyrics could not be more genuine. He and his father did not always see eye to eye and they chronicle this, as you would expect. Musically, this is also a strong effort, notable for The Edge on backing vocals and sensitive playing from Mullen - although, to make one criticism, even at this stage he has been rather quiet on this album.
The first song on the album to underwhelm is 'Love And Peace Or Else'. Just looking at the title it's clear that Bono is switching into preacher mode. Despite its rather atmospheric opening, the song is relatively hollow and has the feeling of a rehash. Valid though the message is, it's one which Bono has said many times before in much better ways, and when he's this direct it rapidly becomes tiresome. To make a further criticism, Bon is allowed too much room for manoeuvre in relation to the rest of the band. As I said of October, a U2 with a flailing, unrestrained Bono is usually a U2 to avoid.
But before long, we ditch such criticism as we come to 'City Of Blinding Lights'. As on 'Vertigo', the signatures are all there - The Edge excels on his echoey guitar, Clayton is brooding on the bass and there is good stuff coming from Mullen. But the track is lifted and its sensitivity increased by the inclusion of piano, something which made October a lot more listenable. It doesn't work to have it on every U2 song, but here it's exactly what is needed to turn this from better-than-average rock song into a concert favourite. The song sees Bono at his spiritual apogee as he sings about heaven and beauty in a way which no other 40-year-old rockstar can carry off. It's a splendid, rousing song which showcases the absolute best in a band still at the top of their game.
Bono manages, having orchestrated such a triumph, to drop the ball on the next two songs. 'All Because Of You' may be a much more clever effort as far as the lyrics are concerned, but as far as the music is concerned, it's heavily clichéd. The Edge is relying on power chords to keep Bono in check, and while on this count he succeeds, he does so at the expense of whatever power the song possessed (as an inside, this frequently happened in The Who but with the vocals undermining the guitar - check out The Who By Numbers (1975) if you don't believe me). 'A Man And A Woman' sounds too much like 'Wild Honey', one of the lesser tracks on All That You Can't Leave Behind. To come straight to the heart of its faults, it's a dull way for Bono to show off his vocal range and play out with the mixing desk like a no-good Lindsey Buckingham.
'Crumbs From Your Table' drags things back temporarily from the land of boredom and self-parody. Rather than linger in sweet musings about relationships, Bono cuts to the spritual and Biblical chase with this song about Jesus. Though he does slip in the odd political hint - Where you live should not decide/ Whether you live or whether you die - this is a toned-down, straight-spirutual U2 which manages, because of this to gel together a very reasonable number. As is 'One Step Closer', for that matter. The sleeve credits Noel Gallagher for his help on this, and it shows in the restrained yet beautiful guitar work, as if Gallagher had broken all The Edge's fingers and then taught him to play again from scratch. The production is also very beautiful, with equal space given to all the players - imagine the surprise then, when it turned out that Steve Lillywhite was behind it. It seems the guy who cocked up October has got better with age.
It's just a shame that this creative coup doesn't last. 'Original Of The Species' was panned by MTV, and rightly so. It features that most clichéd of features on a rock track - a full violin section. A word to the wise, Bono - orchestral arrangements belong in classical music, progressive rock and rubbish ballads, not in stadium rock. Lines like I'll give you anything you want/ Except the thing that you aren't are difficult to comprehend and Bono's voice in grating and annoying on this, the track you are most likely to skip over on this shaky album.
'Yahweh' is the only time on the album when we find a track to match the brilliance of 'City Of Blinding Lights'. The reason is clear before you've even heard the first chord. Bono has once again disposed, more or less, of the politicking and the emotional diarrhoea and gone for the straightforward song about his Maker. Sure, he does slip in the odd reference, as before, but when vocally he has never sounded better you are willing to forgive or overlook it. Lillywhite has struck gold here by restraining both Bono and Mullen while The Edge strums away in passion.
The closer, 'Fast Cars', has a Spanish guitar feel to it. This doesn't harm it necessarily, but overall this is a lazy effort, and while 'Yahweh' would not have been a good closer, that hardly makes this a better choice. Sure, Clayton is given plenty of room - but to do what? There is some cheesy echo on Bono's vocals which make them sound even more off-putting. In general it's a bad way to end the album - a very bad way indeed.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is not U2's best album by any criterion. There are many unhelpful flaws. Just like David Bowie, U2 here have entered into and consolidated a 'neo-classical' sound, taking the best bits from their back catalogue and writing new songs around their styles and themes. The difference is that Bowie can do it without slipping into self-parody, which is the track which this fall into on a number of isolated occassions. That said, on a number of occassions, the finest moments gel together into a number of good and great songs. As a general guide, the best songs are those on which Bono forsakes his role as the political saviour of the world, and focusses on his relationship with God. It's a good addition to their catalogue and a sign of consistency which often deserts band once they pass a certain age. Nevertheless, perhaps U2 are wise to change direction at this stage, since following this up with more of the same would probably be a foolish waste of money. All signs point to the new album being a success, but it must be precise and well-approached - even after 31 years in the business, U2 still have something to prove.
¹ Josh Tyrangiel, 'Bono's Mission', Time, February 23 2002 - available at http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,212605,00.html. Accessed on July 29 2007.