Let’s just get this out of the way first: U2 is not now, and never has been, the best band in the world.
People love to bestow that honor on the Irish Fab Four, and it just ain’t true. But for a while there, in the early-to-mid-‘80s, they were perhaps the most important band in the world, and I think that counts for a lot. In a time when most acts strove for artificiality, U2 stood for something. A lot of things, actually – they were the most political and spiritual band to crack the top 40 during that bizarre decade, and their sincere belief that their music could physically change the world was refreshing. Sure, they got ridiculed for it, and they get ridiculed even now, but there’s a certain kind of bravery that comes with standing up on a world stage and singing a song like “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
The first U2 album I heard was Under a Blood Red Sky, their live document from 1983. (I’m not sure, but I think I borrowed it from Chris Callaway.) I was eleven. I had no idea about the politics behind “Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” and I was blissfully unaware of concepts like “earnest passion.” These songs just moved me. They sounded more real, more powerful, than anything I had heard. “New Year’s Day” especially – that one still gets me.
As a kid, I was full of passionate beliefs, most especially in the power of music, and I think I responded to that same sense of idealism in U2’s early work. Listening to War or The Unforgettable Fire, it’s obvious that the band strove to paint the sky with colors, most of them deep and foreboding, and worked overtime to change minds and move hearts. The first five U2 albums are what I have repeatedly referred to this year as big dreamer records. They are the work of a band who believed, fervently, that they could do anything, and one brave enough to put that belief out there.
I believe that the magic of U2 is their uncanny ability to make simplicity fascinating. If you diagram their songs, they are ridiculously easy. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is three chords. “Bad” is two. To this day, one of their most moving numbers is still “With or Without You,” and that one repeats the same four bass notes for its entire running time. Their rhythm section sticks to straight time and eighth notes, for the most part, rarely displaying a sense of adventure. Nearly every song from the early albums is easy and anthemic.
And yet, they touch the soul like few bands ever have. When the boys in U2 are on their game, they bypass all that intellectual hooey and dive straight into the bloodstream. Take the aforementioned “With or Without You,” one of several huge hits from 1987’s The Joshua Tree. By the time the four-minute crescendo has reached its peak, Bono’s soaring voice and the Edge’s otherworldly guitar have enveloped you and carried you skyward with them. If the song were more complicated, even a little, it wouldn’t work as well. (And speaking of repetitive-yet-effective songs, one track later they’re assaulting you with “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Has there ever been a more ominous song? You can feel those fighter planes…)
I’m rhapsodizing the early work, because starting with 1991’s Achtung Baby, U2 stopped doing it for me. With a few exceptions per album (“Ultraviolet,” “Stay,” “Do You Feel Loved”), Bono and the boys decided to stay earthbound, to tinker with electronics and wield irony like a bludgeon. It’s been said that in the ‘80s, U2 was all about what they believed in, and in the ‘90s, they were about what they didn’t believe in. That’s as apt a description as I can conceive – ‘90s U2 albums were about excess and artificiality, and the huge tours matched that sentiment. Let it never be said that U2 does anything by halves, yet by the time of 1997’s Pop you could tell that this decade-long experiment was wearing on them. (And the less said about PopMart the better, I think…)
In most things, but most especially when it comes to music, I am a cynical idealist. I want to believe in music that can tear open the heavens, but nearly everything I hear these days is lazy and lifeless. I think a lot of music fans are like me – we want to be inspired. We want to love everything we hear. We want to rapturously embrace every CD we buy. We’re just so used to it not happening that we expect mediocrity. Thing is, in order to be inspired, we need artists who deal in inspiration. We need our musicians to believe in what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
For the entirety of the ‘90s, U2 fell short of that. With the exception of “One,” all of their big singles from that time period just whizzed right by me – “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Lemon,” “Discotheque,” “Staring At the Sun,” etc. None of them made any impact on me, and the corresponding albums were bought and absorbed, but none of them affected me. There were glimpses here and there of the band they used to be, but they had lost their heretofore unswerving faith in the scope of their own creations. They had stopped painting the sky and started settling for billboards.
I have this theory about the younger generation of music fans. Many of them have only really known U2 as a lousy techno-pop band, and they don’t understand the loyalty and passion the band creates in its devotees. Every new U2 song they’ve ever heard has been second-rate. Younger listeners can’t quite fathom why their older counterparts keep buying new U2 stuff – they’re just like any other old band who used to be good, but aren’t anymore. And it’s true. We were just like fans of the Rolling Stones, who keep buying lousy new records hoping for that old spark that will never be rekindled. (Of course, Stones fans have been hanging on to hope for more than 30 years now…)
But we knew. If ever there was a band that would reward patience and faith, it’s U2.
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard “Beautiful Day,” the dazzling lead single from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I was working in a record store, and I had only days to go before packing my stuff up and leaving Maine for good. The opening was disheartening, all synths and programmed beats, but then the chorus kicked in, and the Edge found his six-string again, and Bono sang his heart out for the first time in my adult life, and all was right with the world. The album followed suit – though it rarely reached the heights of “Beautiful Day,” it pulsed with revitalized strength. Upon repeated listens, I realized that I may have overrated it – it does fall to pieces in its final third – but I couldn’t mask my joy at hearing this band’s rebirth.
Turns out, it was just the warmup act.
Let me put this as plainly as I can. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2’s 11th album, is their best, most inspired, most inspiring work since The Joshua Tree. All the while sporting the band’s dumbest album title ever.
By now, you’re all sick of the first track, “Vertigo.” Because of the band’s controversial deal with Apple, the song has been hammered down America’s throats via that ubiquitous iPod ad. (Yes, he’s counting “one, two, three, fourteen” on purpose. Get over it.) Its annoying omnipresence doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s U2’s most rockin’ song in ages – it’s dumb, fun, blistering and superb. But if history has proven anything, it’s that you can’t trust the first single from a U2 album. Those looking to Pop for a whole album of “Discotheque” were disappointed, and similarly, if you want 11 quick rock songs like “Vertigo,” you won’t get them here.
Atomic Bomb is a surprisingly mellow affair, full to bursting with expansive anthems that finally – finally – make full use of the Edge’s spine-tingling guitar work again. “Miracle Drug” is a classic U2 song, made even more so by their re-use of the bass line from “With or Without You.” This one soars, taken skyward by Bono’s vocals and the gorgeous guitars. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is similarly fantastic, a slow ballad about the recent death of Bono’s father. When it crashes into its stunning bridge section, it’s the most U2 moment I can remember hearing since high school.
“City of Blinding Lights” is the most standing-on-a-mountain-shouting-at-the-sky song here, and it’s a wonder. U2 have taken everything they’ve learned about pop craftsmanship during their decade of irony and adapted it to their old style masterfully. “City” finds the Edge spinning a web of guitar tones beneath a glorious piano melody, and just where you’d hope the chorus would come in and send it into orbit, it does. Nothing here lies still. Even an experiment like “Love and Peace or Else” explodes into one of the Edge’s most stabbing guitar breaks since “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and when they lock into a groove, as on “All Because of You,” the result will have you air-drumming furiously.
Best of all, unlike every album they’ve made since Joshua, Atomic Bomb steadfastly fails to disintegrate by its final tracks. “One Step Closer” is a little too subdued for this record, but “Original of the Species” kicks it back up with a great chorus, and closer “Yahweh” is a superb upbeat hymn. There is nothing skip-worthy on this disc. It’s all good.
My only issue with it is Bono’s lyrics, which lean towards trite more often than not. U2 long ago stopped trying to affect political change through their music, and the focus here (despite the title) is on love and loss. Occasionally, Bono will haul out a stinker like this: “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” But when he digs deep into his own life, as on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It,” it’s heartrending. He’s the worst part of this foursome, and yet he’s crucial to their U2-ness. Just try imagining this album without his voice, his straining yet heartfelt delivery. I don’t know what it would sound like, but it wouldn’t be U2.
And this album, finally, sounds like U2. They have never been the best band in the world, but for a sad long while there it seemed like they believed they were, no matter what tripe they recorded. The attitude from the U2 camp lately can only be described as humility. They said it themselves, they’re reapplying for the job, asking for devotion again, and they know that you start with writing great songs and making great records. They’ve made a great one here. It’s not quite in league with their best stuff, and they might never hit those heights again. But hey, I never thought U2 would sound this energized, this powerful, this important again. For the first time in 17 years, they’ve moved me and captivated me again, and that’s more than I ever expected. They may not be the best, and they may not even be the most respected anymore, but they’ve done right by this fan. I love this record.
Welcome home, boys.
See you in line Tuesday morning.