During an interview with the Edge before the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind four years ago, U2’s modest, skullcapped guitarist told me the band was apprehensive when he dusted off his trademark needle-prick sound for ”Beautiful Day”; their first reaction was that it felt too predictable. On How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, however, not only is the Edge once more flicking away at his strings just like old times, but many of the grand gestures U2 had dismantled with each new, exploratory album following The Joshua Tree are also back for a return engagement. From the arrangements to the inevitable crashing-wave crescendos, echoes of ”I Will Follow” and ”New Year’s Day” rumble through the songs. All that’s missing is Bono’s old white flag.
What motivated this let’s-rock-again backpedaling for such a forward-looking band? Ego, perhaps. At the 2001 Grammys, Bono’s remark that U2 were reapplying for the job of ”best band in the world” was the first sign that these men still hunger for arena crowds and platinum sales; the latest indication is their current, craven iPod tie-in campaign. It’s a wonder that Atomic Bomb’s liner notes don’t include demographic spreadsheets.
That said, U2 are one of the few remaining bands who can make pop-chart lust work for them, as Atomic Bomb intermittently demonstrates. ”Crumbs From Your Table” is the type of glorious gallop this band can write in its pub nap, but no one does it better; the tune will surely be a highlight of the group’s next tour. ”City of Blinding Lights” energetically works the same terrain, all whoo-hoo! chorus and monolithic roar. Compare U2’s fate to that of R.E.M., who started out around the same time yet sound as if they can barely get through a song on this year’s lackluster Around the Sun. In rock & roll, at least, forced enthusiasm trumps lethargy every time.
But perpetual glory is an elusive beast, too, as U2 also learn on an album so tortured it took eight producers to finish it. Bono’s voice sounds weathered; the spirit may be willing, but the throat muscles aren’t always. Neither are the songs completely up to the band’s amps-on-11 level. ”Love and Peace or Else” wants to be a towering statement, but on what? The lyrics refer to both a fractured personal relationship and a need to reconnect — a recurring theme on the album — and to wartime images of ”the troops on the ground [who] are about to dig in.” (Despite the album title, political grandstanding doesn’t dominate the songwriting.) The guitars detonating around those words are mostly bombast, and the song turns into musical flop sweat. So it goes with other attempts to party like it’s 1989. ”All Because of You,” one of several punchy three-chorders that should be as direct as a laser beam, bogs down in logy production. The single ”Vertigo,” an unlikely mix of vigor and after-hours-club-hopping ennui, avoids that fate, but just barely.
For all that, something about U2 — their continued seriousness of purpose, a sound still very much their own — makes you root for them. Take ”Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” essentially a middling rewrite of ”Where the Streets Have No Name.” Midway through, as the music begins to crest, Bono intones, ”Can…you…hear… me…when…I…sing?” Upon hitting sing, his voice and the Edge’s guitars merge into a cathartic release. Then Bono adds, almost as an afterthought, ”You’re the reason I sing.” At least he has a reason, which, at this stage of their game, is justification enough for anyone to still care about U2.