U2’s new album got a warm reception from the U2log.com team from the moment we downloaded the first mp3 rip off Usenet. Now that we’ve forked over dollars and euro for every single available format out there, it’s time to have a closer look.
Patrick Lynch, Chris Conroy and Caroline van Oosten de Boer review How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb:
Patrick: Confounding all expectations How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is something else again. If pushed to make any likenesses I’m reminded of the time I first became acquainted with the then new U2 of Achtung Baby. But this record is even more muscular and tight but nonetheless unafraid of risks. What it lacks in the immediate melodies of its predecessor it more than makes up for in innovation. And while maybe not as instantly gratifying as some other releases it’s a curious literary work that will have you going back for more and more. A slow burner. The ultimate ticking bomb.
Chris: I’m much more satisfied with the album than I remember being with All That You Can’t Leave Behind; it’s not a thousand miles away from that album in terms of sound, but it’s a lot less smarmy (a friend refers to it as the “motivational speaker” vibe), and while the conscious songcraft is still there, it’s less overt and flashy this time out. The only criticism I’ve heard of it that sticks in my mind is that it’d be nice if they’d been a little less polite, both in terms of sound and of tone; at this point I suppose you can argue that the U2 brand is not something that’s meant to have sharp points on it, but when the music and the songs are this vibrant and alive it’d be nice to see some politics and convictions that haven’t been worn down to a glassy finish, guaranteed to be as interpretive and open-ended as possible and to reflect your own face back at you every time. To coin a phrase, I’d say I take issue with the album’s “well-meaninglessness”: the fact that it’s got no specific agenda beyond plucking a few emotional chords — though as we all know, Bono’s always believed that a feeling is stronger than a thought. But listening to it again just tonight, I’m still very happy with how effective the band remain at conjuring up those feelings. There’s plenty of music in this world that can make you think up little movies in your head, but U2 are the only band whose music convinces me, with sheer force of passion, that the film I’m writing in my skull is the greatest movie I have ever seen.
Caroline: This is lyrically a far more personal exercise for Bono and musically a very consistent album. Consistenly excellent, that is. I don’t find it as innovative as Patrick does. To me it’s U2 doing what they’re very good at — they’ve taken their best material and honed it down to perfection. There are fewer duds on this record than on All that you can’t leave behind, and I agree with Chris about the less overt songcrafting — it makes the tunes less predictable. This record is closer to The Unforgettable Fire than any of their outings since and that’s a good thing. What I miss on this album is some sense of anger, there’s a bit of it in ‘Love and Peace or else’ and ‘Crumbs’, but they’re still quite mellow. You’d think the death of a parent would at least at some point be the cause of rage. I would have liked to have seen something with the intensity of ‘Wire’, or ‘Bullet’ on the album. Thankfully ‘Mercy’ didn’t make the final cut and ‘Fast Cars’ got extra track status. Neither song does a lot for me.
As for the the packaging, I’m keen on the black/red thing — it’s a strong image. I love the book in the ‘special limited edition’. Prunes fans among us (hello one person) will appreciate its new form of beauty vibe — check out the ‘hearts held between our legs‘ drawing. I like this album, it’s a great friend to have.
Pat Lynch: The single release of ‘Vertigo’ contains the heaviest and dirtiest U2 riff to date, but its place on the album seems more like a pop song. As a first reference point to the new record, it sounds like an old friend, with its chirpy ‘hello, hello!’ lyrics that remind us of the playfulness of ‘I Will Follow’.
Chris: You’ve heard this on the radio and formed your opinion — it’s either dumb, fun, and infectious, or grating and simplistic. Either way, I hope you weren’t expecting the rest of the album to sound anything like it, because it sure doesn’t. I don’t agree with Pitchfork Media about a lot of things, but I think it was their review that had the single most perceptive statement I’ve heard yet about this song: It gets progressively less stupid the more you hear it. Now that it’s shattered all my previous “Most Played” records on iTunes, I’ve more than come around to it. And by the way, I’m taking bets on whether or not Bono ever acknowledges the ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ debt when he sings it live — how long until he interpolates it in?
Caroline: This album’s Elevation and U2’s challenge to young contenders in a my riff-is-bigger-than-your-riff way. It’s the opening song and single in which U2 re-establish their post punk roots, ripping off the Clash’s use of Spanish along the way, and once again meet their audience head on. “Hello, hello, I’m at a place called Vertigo…” It’s The Fly making another phone call home, isn’t it? I wager this is about stage fright and finding god in the connection between performer and audience. I’m an atheist myself but I can recognise a good religious experience when it happens, though I’ll probably tell you it’s the right side of the brain taking over from the left. A song about lift off. I’d have preferred it as a stand alone single.
Chris: The only song that I still just can’t get into. I lay the blame for that squarely at the foot of Bono’s worst couplet ever, “Freedom has a scent / like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” Woof. (Bono’s gone on record as saying that’s his favorite line on the album — but then, he would say that, wouldn’t he. Bono: Defending the indefensible since 1979.) Otherwise, it sounds a bit like ‘Walk On.’ I tend to tune out immediately after that line, and when I wake up again near the end of the song, it sounds kind of pretty and interesting, so maybe I’ll be able to hook into it eventually.
Pat: ‘Miracle Drug’ is lush, dreamy. It is not clear just who the object of Bono’s affections or disaffections truly is. Bono sings of having “enough of romantic love”, (a theme revisited on ‘A Man And A Woman’) while a miraculous drug is something he has often referred to on his recent DATA campaigning. As is so often the case on this record Bono seems to be singing to a lover who has the face of the world.
Caroline: I had a hard time with this lyrically, in particular the line “I’ve had enough of romantic love” and it distracted me from the music. But I think what what Bono is saying here is that it is time for ‘Agape’, the philosophical concept of charitable love, to take precendence over ‘Eros’, romantic love. As an aside, I believe U2 as a band and community thrive on the third kind of love, ‘Philia’: loyalty to friends and family. But back to the song… I think it’s thematically linked to ‘When I look at the world’. Musically it is growing on me already.
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Caroline: It’s gorgeous, I cried. Irish men aren’t the only people in the world to have troubled relationships with their father. For anyone that’s loved and lost, fought and made up with a parent, a partner, a friend, it doesn’t matter — this will hit home. Even if it’s just a house. With thanks to Burt Bacharach.
Pat: Any press references of similarities to ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ seem wildly misguided. For on this ode to his late father, Bono, for my money, has written the brother of ‘Kite’, i.e. another powerful straight from the heart song to a parent that eerily doubles up as the warring words of lovers in trouble.
Chris: We’ve known about the existence of this song for a long time; it was written about Bono’s father and has also been known as ‘Tough,’ but we didn’t know what it sounded like. Well it turned out, it sounds amazing. Fantastically amazing. In my mind it runs away with ‘best on the album’ status, and frankly, I’d call it a ‘With Or Without You’ – level classic. If it’s not a massive hit, then there’s no justice in the world… I melt for the chorus every time (sing, Edge, sing!), and having just watched the DVD, I find it almost unbelievable that that part of the song just “arrived” at the last moment of recording — it truly does feel like it was the bit of melody that was always meant to be there, that there’s no other piece of music that could match the chorus so well. Phenomenal.
Love And Peace Or Else
Pat: ‘Love and Peace Or Else’ bubbles and boils like something from a rotten core. With its boozy foreboding beat, fuzzy interference and diluted squeal it could be an extract from War of The Worlds. Appropriately enough then a call to lay down arms, though again this could be a universal war attributed to something more personal. Something wicked this way comes; it has the dark energy of ‘Until The End Of The World’ and live is gonna be a scorcher of white-hot heat.
Chris: A lot of noise has been made about how this would be a very Achtung Baby-esque album, but if you ask me that really hasn’t panned out. This is the only track you could hang that label on, and only because it’s the darkest-sounding and most sonically experimental; it has a Led Zeppelin blues-swagger thing going on, with an interesting, heavily processed intro. A good follow-up to ‘Sometimes…’ but not a classic in its own right; it’d be a hot set-opener on the tour, though, and I still fall for that ever-present marry-the-personal-and-the-political Bonomatic theme generator (though ‘Electrical Storm’ will always be my personal #1 on that score) — and speaking of which, big-ups to Pat for that “lover with the face of the world” line; that’s brilliant!
Caroline: The song starts with a rumble reminiscent of ‘Until the end of the world’ and then the glam rock church choir sets in. A noisy, likeable tune that favours rhythm over blues. Its novelty wears off soon, as it’s not quite ‘God Part II’ or ‘Daddy’s gonna pay’. Let’s face it boys, Nick Cave captures that industrial old testamentical swamp blues sound so much better.
City Of Blinding Lights
Chris: The entire Unforgettable Fire compressed into six minutes, with a simple, straightforward, ecstatic chorus that makes most other choruses sound pointless by comparison — you can’t not shout along. If ‘Sometimes…’ wasn’t on the album, then this would be the best track, but what an embarassment of riches it is to have both…
Pat: The held note intro of ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ gives way to a tinkling Coldplay piano before more distinctive guitar riffs set in and flutter around each other. A bittersweet reflection on life (‘the more you see the less you know’) succumbs to the sweet takeover of the celebratory ‘oh you look so beautiful tonight’. Elsewhere ‘neon heat’ and ‘day-glo eyes’, and cities ‘lit by fireflies’ is pure travel writing that takes us to a magical place with imagery not realised quite as vividly since The Joshua Tree. A song of muscle made tender by that piano, a sound that charters new and fresh territory.
Caroline: ‘Big’ music makes a comeback. This tune was first mentioned to us as ‘Skyhawk’. Since then it apparently got re-titled ‘Firefly’ (Joss Whedon wouldn’t have liked that.) and it finally comes to us with yet another name. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, really, as this is one people will remember regardless. Vintage U2 grandeur with a touch of sean-nos meandering, a driving beat and, god help me, I hear a bit of the Simple Minds in it. I should hate it, but I can’t help but like it a lot.
All Because Of You
Chris: Straightforward guitar romp, very propulsive. Another ‘like it or don’t’ song, with very silly lyrics. ‘Vertigo’ without the punk textures. It’s likeable, but not loveable, though I’ve come to enjoy it more than I thought it would. And it’ll probably be a huge hit here in America.
Caroline: The first note’s really good, “here comes Wire part II,” I thought. But then, ugh, what. were. they. thinking? I like my U2 rolling more than rocking. The alternative version (in the ‘Complete U2‘ iMTS set) sounds a lot better. Yes, I do think this was stuck on entirely for the benefit of US radio.
Pat: The slice of piercing feedback that heralds the arrival of ‘All Because of You’ gives way to a more standard up-tempo rock track. With twin layered vocals (to rival ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’) and obscure animal imagery (“an intellectual tortoise”) to rival the “mole digging in a hole” of Elevation, this is probably the record’s most conventional and throwaway track.
A Man And A Woman
Pat: If U2 already have many strings to their bow, (big wide anthems, moody B sides) then a summer sound that began with ‘Spanish Eyes’ made a reappearance on ‘Wild Honey’ pops up here again on ‘A Man And A Woman’. ‘Little Sister’ Bono pines into the stillness of a summer night to a lilting flamenco accompaniment. With its ‘sleeping in the streets’ imagery and radio friendly breezy air it also makes a nod to ‘Mysterious Ways’.
Caroline: An extraordinary, sophisticated adult song that doesn’t sound anything like U2, but it gets under my skin and I like it there. Blue eyed soul, it reminds me of the solo work Tim Booth did with Angelo Badelamenti, the album Booth and the Bad Angel. Lyrically, musically, I’ll never get enough of this one. Summer nights on the Promenade Anglaise… sometimes the middle of the road is just where you want to be. Did you catch the nod to Gavin Friday in this one? ‘Saint Divine’ is a song off his second solo album Adam ‘n’ Eve — the quintessential man vs woman album.
Chris: Bono was describing this in interviews as ‘soul,’ which would normally make me wince, but by God, I think he was actually right. This sounds nothing like a ‘U2 song’ (Jacknife Lee’s crisp production is an interesting match for the tune and arrangement), but it’s really great. It’s breezy, lyrically strong, and really just surprisingly excellent all around. It’d definitely be my pick for the third single, and like Caroline, I’ll probably never tire of it, the way only ‘In A Little While’ and ‘Wild Honey’ still do it for me on All That…
Crumbs From Your Table
Caroline: Another song that seems inspired by Bono’s DATA work. It’s the new ‘Walk On’, but musically as well as thematically more complex. Who is Bono talking to in this song? A pretty girl? Or the pretty girl that is the USA?
Pat: It has the record’s most strident arrangement, sliding effortlessly and indeed joyously between a strong verse and chorus. As with ‘Miracle Drug’ the source of Bono’s mistrust is not made clear. ‘You deny for others, what you demand for yourself’. New territory musically, resulting in a rich fresh sound and highly infectious tune.
Chris: Caroline’s dead-on about this one being the new (better) ‘Walk On.’ I find it kind of hilarious that even though it was written when they were drunk, it sounds exactly like the typical U2 song — I’d have thought ‘Fast Cars’ a more likely choice for a boozy rave-up. I find it a bit tough to reconcile the selfish lover / selfish nation dialectic going on here, but maybe it would make more sense if I was tanked, eh? Waiter, another Jack and Coke, please…
One Step Closer
Chris: Another song about Bono’s father’s death, that lingers much more on the idea of death than anything else. When I read the lyrics, I thought this one was going to turn into something really special, sparse and spooky, but it’s a little bit of a let-down from my imagination. I was hoping for something more in the vein of ‘Wake Up Dead Man,’ but it doesn’t have the same desperate power…
Pat: From its ethereal opening to it slight C&W tinge ‘One Step Closer’ is sung in the same sick puppy voice as Zooropa’s ‘First Time’, while its ‘heart that hurts is a heart that beats’ lyric bears all the dark wisdom of Achtung Baby’s ‘Love Is Blindness’. Somber but knowing.
Caroline: I’m sure this song will grow on me, like ‘Grace’ never did, and I’m sure these will be the notes we will hear as we make our way out of the venue when U2 start playing live. It’s a hymn, it’s about death and it’s hopeful. Classic U2, really.
Original Of The Species
Caroline: Apparently written for or about Bono’s daughter Eve (hence the title) this is another tune that confuses me a little lyrically as Bono blurs the line between child and woman child. And… well, let’s not go there. A sweeter, more innocent… pre-sexual companion song to ‘Last night on earth’?
Pat: With a ping pong intro and soft piano backing ‘Original Of The Species’ slowly shapes up for contender of show closer with its lighter waving, arms swaying rousing chorus. Again a sort of indirect love song with an almost sad sixties sounding ‘oh no, oh no’ end refrain.
Chris: I find it hard to get deeper beneath the skin of this one than to say that it’s a really damn fine pop song. Ended up being charming and lovely when played live at the Brooklyn show, just as I suspected it would. Kind of a no-strings-attached favorite; I like it without getting too hung up on it. (If it is written for Bono’s daughter, I do find the ‘I want the lot of what you got’ line a bit, uh, questionable, but the respect-yourself sentiment is still respectable.)
Caroline: First mentioned to me as a song to look out for a year and a half ago, I must say it’s turned out a little disappointing. Maybe you have to be a believer for this kind of tune. “Ya-way, Ya-waahaay,” I think it tops the “top of a new born baby’s head” line in the most annoying lyric on the album contest. Musically, I think it’s in ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Walk On’ territory (in that I don’t like them very much either!), and not strong enough as an album closer.
Pat: “Take these shoes..and make them fit/takes this shirt…and make it clean/take this mouth and…give it a kiss”. ‘Yahweh’ is a prayer for the slightly lost, a loving sobering up ditty, the morning after the ‘Trying to Throw You Arms Around The World’ night.
Chris: They break with the tradition of the down-tempo album closer to deliver one last anthem; it’s solid but doesn’t quite have the tremendous ‘oomph’ I was hoping for, though it’s got a lot of sharp lyrics. I’ve found myself listening to the audio clip of the “alternate” version in the iTunes box set a lot; the guitar tones and beat of it draw me in much more than the “Isn’t this a lovely ending” feel of the original. I’m looking forward to hearing the full version. I’ve also ended up using ‘Fast Cars’ as my personal album closer, which ends the album on a pleasing note of goofiness that you don’t often get from the band.
Over to you, dear readers, have at it…