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 past future of rock is theirs again. Oh well. Is it any good?

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.

Reviewed by: Nick Southall

Reviewed on: 2004-11-23

Recent Reviews By This Author

Roots Manuva - Awfully Deep
The Chemical Brothers - Push The Button
M83 - Before The Dawn Heals Us
Can - Monster Movie / Soundtracks
2004 Year End Thoughts - Nick Southall

Log In to Post Comments
Posted 11/23/2004 - 10:52:35 AM by milliard:
 haven't read the review yet, but i have to say it's good to see that SOMEBODY is giving this an F
Posted 11/23/2004 - 01:16:18 PM by carmela:
 oh, i just loved the last phrase "is a very good album, in a very OK way"
Posted 11/23/2004 - 05:18:06 PM by beercan:
 Er, milliard, last time I checked, a "6" was not an "F". Meanwhile, while some of Nick's review was pretty funny, if he was half as clever as he thinks he his, he'd still be totally pretentious.
Posted 11/23/2004 - 07:12:06 PM by scaramouche:
 If he was half as pretentious as you think he is, he still wouldn't be Bono
Posted 11/23/2004 - 09:27:51 PM by mvdu76:
 Well, yet another stupid Stylus review. For a review that says how I feel, see Edna Gundersen's at USA Today. This album is excellent.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 12:26:26 AM by skuter666:
 Edna's review is "atomic bombastic" (tm), hyperbolic, historically revisionist, and ridiculously premature. Let's take a waitsee and watch how it settles before we declare it the best album of their career, let alone the greatest thing since penicillin. But then, I place U2's peak at 11 O'Clock Tick Tock. It goes up to 11, see?
Posted 11/24/2004 - 01:23:32 AM by mvdu76:
 This review is what is bombastic - and he doesn't even like U2 - but I guess we'll never agree. I go by what MY ears tell me. No one else's.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 03:52:34 AM by NickSouthall:
 Why the fuck are you even reading reviews then? A review that does not hold the same opinion as you is not "stupid", it simply doesn't hold the same opinion as you.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 04:00:41 AM by clem_bastow:
 U2 are like The Police; you know they're good - or at least considered to be - only you don't really know why, and don't really want to admit it either way. I think it's a good album, an improvement on some of their recent stuff, but it's no 'Joshua Tree'.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 11:26:39 AM by mvdu76:
 It is stupidly written IMO.. you should be able to accept criticism. I only read reviews for entertainment value. But since I've disliked so many at Stylus lately, I may just stop reading here. Reviewers have no real influence. They're just more ears.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 12:32:46 PM by NickSouthall:
 Please yourself.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 03:16:03 PM by milliard:
 i dunno beercan, i haven't exactly "checked" lately, but if i remember grade-school, where i'm from a grade of 60% is pretty much an F. to be fair we can call it a D--. in any case, this certainly ain't no positive review. and i for one am glad. the last thing we need is another U2 album. i haven't heard this, and don't plan on buying it. i have been seeing the advertisements on the tele for it though, which have been pretty disgusting. btw, any of you (bono/U2 fans or not) who haven't heard the negativland cover of "still haven't found what i'm looking for" should check that out. it's brilliant and funny. so much in fact that it drew negativland a "bonofied" law-suit! oh well, as was mentioned in the review, i'm sure it's hard paying the rent when you're U2.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 03:31:14 PM by milliard:
 oh yeah, clem, it's no mystery to me why the police are so good: it's cause they evoke an ancient spirit deep down inside of me that moves immediately to my ass muscles causing unrestrainable shaking, and a lot of it. i do like the comparison though, becuase sting and bono remind me a lot of each other. they're both greedy, reprehensible, cursed men who ruined everything.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 04:57:54 PM by mvdu76:
 Well, I already boought it, and U2 never gets tired where I[m concerned.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 05:02:58 PM by mvdu76:
 BTW, milliard, doesn't look like we agree on ANYTHING. The Police are great. U2 and Police forever! In response to the post about the grade scale, the school grading scale is not used here. A 5 would be like two stars out of 4 - or a C. A 6 would be C+/B-. And a 10 is what this album is. :-)
Posted 11/24/2004 - 07:00:49 PM by mvdu76:
 OK, I've said all I intend to in regards to this album. This album is U2 at its heart and soul, and that's why I love it. Of course, others can disagree, but I've had too many snobs looking down at me for liking some pop music, so I get assertive. Maybe I'll become a reviewer and get my voice out there since I think a lot of reviews seem unfair. Everyone have a great Thankgiving.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 07:01:34 PM by mvdu76:
 Meant Thanksgiving of course.
Posted 11/24/2004 - 11:16:26 PM by milliard:
 ah, i apologize for not checking, as i actually confessed to in a smart-assed remark! yay for me, i'm a dick! sorry, i'm pretty new to the site, hadn't really noticed the ratings guide. checking around other sites, however, i notice that a 6/10 is a rather low score in a lot of cases. not usually indicative of "good", as it is here. thanks for pointing that out to me about this site, mvdu. i stand corrected. ps. while we agree on nothing apparently, viva the police!! (: enjoy a meal and a nap tomorrow!
Posted 11/25/2004 - 12:34:31 AM by skuter666:
 I enjoyed this review. Quite a bit. I disagreed with some of the specifics, but on the whole it very much illustrated an experience common to a lot of us. Which is that we listen to U2 in cherrypicked fashion, because only the true believers love all – or most of -- their moments. The rest of us have idiosyncratic and often exclusive playlists. Nick is still inspired by the first three tracks of Joshua Tree, all of which I find unlistenable. For me, the essential U2 would be an ep that consisted of 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, I Will Follow, Gloria, One, Numb, Lemon and It’s a Beautiful Day. I have pretty much everything U2 but for this latest album and while I respect the rest of their work, it’s only in an abstract and uninvolved way. I feel as if I should love it all, but I usually end up merely in admiration.
Posted 11/26/2004 - 12:17:22 AM by tallcool1_69:
 what the hey - i actually like Pop. I liked the stuff where they moved away from being U2 for a bit. Rattle & Hum is a shocka, and why listen to their last disc Whatever It Was Called when you can listen to Joshua Tree?
Posted 11/26/2004 - 05:58:38 AM by Lambert:
 Okay. I have a question for all of you. How do you feel about the Zooropa album? I understand the album wasn't very well received when it first appeared, but when I listen to it I cannot help but thinking it is the best album U2 ever made. It did something to me other U2 albums lacked. Achtung Baby was fantastic, but Zooropa is even better. How do other people feel about this?
Posted 11/26/2004 - 01:56:14 PM by Sotoalf:
 Count me in as a Zooropa fan, an album I love as much (if not more than) as Achtung Baby, and I'm far from a U2 fan. It's probably the best Bowie circa 1977 rip/update ever recorded; Eno sounds like the fifth member, and for once that cliche means something. The title song and "Lemon" seemed to capture pre-millenial tension almost as chillingly as any of Tricky's soundscapes. By the way, I've now heard HTDAAB a couple of times: I love it. A much better album than its overrated predecessor.
Posted 11/28/2004 - 09:11:01 AM by meatbreak:
 I'm not sure when it became acceptable to rate U2. I don't think that time has actually arrived yet. Have we forgotten just how vulgar and crass, unimaginative and derivative, commercial stadium rock is. Bono certainly never has. File under Vile
Posted 11/29/2004 - 01:10:57 PM by berger:
 get over yourselves...you either love U2 or you don't...if you love them (as I do) you basically accept everything they do without question..that's what love is. unconditional. I for one can find a bit of merit in EVERYTHING these lads do..and, I can see faults. But I'll still love 'em forever. That's faith. That's love. That's U2, and that's all.
Posted 11/30/2004 - 03:45:00 AM by NickSouthall:
 That's also fundamentalism.
Posted 12/02/2004 - 08:45:35 PM by Lambert:
 Excuse me, in Holland there's a great tune going on: Mr. Z - "Bootykiller". Check it out.
Posted 01/06/2005 - 10:23:53 PM by tallcool1_69:
 Lambert... in answering yer question... i don't mind Zooropa. at least it was different? i'd give it a 7 outta ten. ok... maybe a 6.5 - but it far from sucked.
Posted 01/20/2005 - 07:49:09 PM by patient:
 when it comes to U2 i really dig war, achtung baby, and kind of dig joshua tree and october. i havent heard zooropa, sounds interesting. el oh el, and whoever said that about loving u2 unconditionally cracked me up. why would u love them if they made a shitty cd?
Posted 01/25/2005 - 06:42:57 AM by Daniel_Fullard:
 C for me as well. I really was taken a back by the album at first. I wasnt expecting such a solid effort from u2 in 2004 but then what I call the "u2 factor" kicked in and the songs began to irritate me. Its a decent album with some really cracking songs but Bonos voice annoys me after a while and its an album I wont be able to listen to ona regular basis as it is the "u2 factor"
all content copyright 2004 stylusmagazine.com