How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
h, U2, once again perched at the apex of world rock cool as they prepare to release (or is that unleash?) their umpteenth album. Mullets, white flags, enormous sunglasses, giant lemons—it’s been quite a career, not all of it pretty. Ten years ago they were—well, not quite a laughing stock, but somewhere on the way to it. The expectation that follows the tag of being the biggest band in the world pushed them towards experimentation, but really these four Irish rockers were never cut out for the Radiohead route despite the creative success of the Passengers project, and by 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind they’d made a deliberate backwards step stylistically, but failed to light torches apart from the single “Beautiful Day”. Still, it paid the rent. 25 years ago they were bombastic, righteous punks, sweeping away the detritus of prog and lighting up the world with fire. 17 years ago they were stopping traffic in city centres, waving flags and preaching as hard as they could before they too were swept aside (in the UK) by acid house. But then acid begat baggy and baggy begat Oasis and suddenly being the biggest rock band in the world was desirable again, Simple Minds vanished and the door opened slowly, slowly, for Coldplay and here again come U2 and the pretty, expansive, heartfelt, profound
Straight off the bat, “Vertigo” is a good single, 3 minutes of kinetic, electric-shock rock that’s only half as embarrassing as “Elevation” was (remember “I am a MOLE / digging in a HOLE”? I do, and I also remember songs about the Playboy mansion and velvet dresses from other occasions when U2 have tried to play at being cool, daring, sexy rock STARS), and one thinks “maybe U2 are playing at technopunks again?”, because surely, post-Rapture, “Discotheque” would now make sense? But no, apart from a brief surge for “All Because Of You”, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a one-paced affair, enamoured with drawn-out ambient intros, crystalline guitars layered with reverb, four-note rumbles for basslines, choruses that go on forever and occasional, half-hearted stabs at “groove”. Meaning that it sounds EXACTLY as you would expect U2 to sound.
OK, so “Love And Peace Or Else” is the experimental one, but experimental to U2 these days means broadening the sonic palette slightly rather than altering the actual dynamic of their songwriting, and so it sounds like a U2 song with particularly heavy production rather than “U2 on the moon” (which is what Zooropa was meant to be), and as such is only about half as radical as it thinks it is. “Miracle Drug” is a slow-burning ballad that toys with profundity, and they drag out the strings and endless chorus for “Original of the Species” without ever sounding half as good as either “The Universal” by Blur or “Where The Streets Have No Name” by, um, U2. “City Of Blinding Lights”, however, is almost as good as one of those opening three tracks from The Joshua Tree, which remain the only three U2 songs I ever choose to play these days, and as such it’s very good indeed. But possibly only because of degree of familiarity which the sparkling, shimmering guitar brings, a familiarity which seems to deliberately run through every track here. Take “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, an even slower burner; its “classic U2 sound” could conceivably be lifted straight from The Joshua Tree. Strained and dated perceptions of the nebulous concept of “soul” still infect Bono’s vocal delivery (listen to the hideously overplayed rasp of that line on the Band Aid 20 single), but nevertheless he is a fine, throaty, bluesy singer, and his voice is now so familiar that it elicits Pavlovian responses in a certain demographic (notably Bono himself).
Oh U2. U2! You too. Larry Mullen Jr. doesn’t need to wear sunglass on the cover, because he’s Dorian Gray to Bono’s wrinkled, desiccated portrait, and therefore the crow’s feet are non-existent. And Adam Clayton was a man long before Usher ever was. Oh U2! What is it? What makes you the greatest band in the world for so many people? How have you weathered the storm when so many others have failed? How the fuck are you cool again, you Guinness drinking rock n roll Christians? With your lyrics about beautiful girls and sunrises and God and love and suffer-the-children-but-not-in-my-town… Oh U2 you’re brilliant, I suppose, but I just don’t get it and I’m not sure I ever will. How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb (is that a political statement?) is a very good album, in a very OK way.