Welcome to my asylum for ideas and thoughts on movies, politics, culture, and all things Bruce Springsteen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Easy, Don't Build One

That's the answer to the title of U2's latest album, "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb." I would like to read others' comments, but I will agree with the vast majority of critics and fans alike: this is a modern classic from a band that continues to evolve while holding onto the strengths of its past. On my second listening of the night for this album that was released today, I'm finding that the band has truly carved a path in popular music that is alarmingly fresh and yet so familiar. This is also the first U2 album since the giant 800-pound gorilla that I have instantly loved from the initial spin. I loved "Achtung Baby" but was thrown for a loop the first several listens due to the fanatical obsession I had developed with the band's late-80s sound. "Zooropa" was the band's weakest album of its career and the one album of the band's that I sold back. "Pop" was interesting and yet unapproachable and it became the only album that I chose not to purchase. I eventually acquired it through an old roommate who felt the same way about it.

In 2000 when the rumors that the band would be releasing a new album that was "to return the band to its roots," I questioned whether the group was going to just bang out ten retreads and not charter any new ground. I purchased "All That You Can't Leave Behind" dreading the commercial-radio overkill of the first single, "Beautiful Day." The first several listenings brought mixed reactions; a decent release but nothing that I would find myself returning to. After several months of occasional spins, I found myself grasping Bono's lyrics and finding the solid songwriting in every cut. Unfortunately, I happened to miss both legs of the Elevation Tour that accompanied the album and wondered what would ever happen to the band in a post-9/11 world.
Enter "Atomic Bomb," an album that marries Bono's Biblical allusions with heavy guitars by the Edge and grooves that will truly level arenas when played live next year. All eleven cuts, from "Vertigo" to "Yahweh" rock hard. Layered guitars and vocals, fuzzy bass lines and the familiar rhythmic drumming of Larry Mullen, Jr. make this grip the listener by the ears refusing to release him or her until the disc stops nearly fifty minutes later.
There is not a trace of "The Joshua Tree," the albatross that brought superstardom and near-collapse or its bastard cousin (and dear favorite) "Rattle and Hum". This album is mainly a marriage of "The Unforgettable Fire" chorus-laden delayed guitars from The Edge with the sensibility of "Achtung Baby's" songwriting. "Achtung" brought the band into the "alternative" forefront, and much of that can be found, especially on the driving songs of the middle portion of the album. Traces of "Pop's" electronica can be heard with faint rhythm beat accompanying the drumming while Bono brings much of his vocal phrasing and lyrical focus from "Leave Behind." If one listens carefully (but maybe too selectively), s/he can catch the subtleties of "War" that brought the band its first major attention over twenty years ago.
Here's what I hear:

1. Vertigo - the smash hit that reminds fans that U2 can rock right down modern popular tastes yet still be the only band able to pull off such a song. Perhaps the hardest rocking song the band has ever written and a great lead-off.
2. Miracle Drug - while starting off a bit too familiar like "With Or Without You," the song moves into its own with syth-strings and sparse guitar parts that allow Bono and company slam into a fantastic chorus that makes one wonder whether the band recorded an unrelased album entitled "The Unforgettable Baby You Can't Leave Behind."
3. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own - a song written by Bono for his dying father. Touching acoustic introduction that flows into a touching goodbye.
4. Love and Peace Or Else - one of the major "message" songs of the album that starts a la "Zoo Station" but rumbles into a Depeche Mode ("Personal Jesus") groove that solidly cooks for nearly five solid minutes.
5. City of Blinding Lights - "Wire" and "The Unforgettable Fire" and a touching tribute to New York City as well as all peace-loving human beings that live all across the world. Touching and yet grinding, as The Edge's delayed and layered guitars push the song into the classic sound that all fans love. Adam Clayton's bass drives the song until the chorus brings the band to a sonic zenith with piano/guitar pairings, falsetto harmonies, and a counter harmony on guitar that questions whether or not that 1987 release may have been bumped off the pedastal.
6. All Because Of You - great modern "Pop"-esque intro with the PHATTEST rhythm guitar and Bono's best "Fly" falsetto harmonies. Along with many other songs to this part, a very prominent acoustic rhythm guitar, which adds a great touch. This song, like others to follow, are loaded with Bono's questioning his religion while clutching his faith. Never one to hold back in his doubts, Bono, in my opinion, has strengthened countless Christian fans of the band who (as this writer) can find assurance and grace in the face of their own questions and denials. Watch this song just kick major ass by the third minute. And it's a song that claims "All because of you, I AM." No subtleties here, and one that believers will probably cheer for.
7. A Man And A Woman - a step back in intensity and Bono's first foray on the album into the territory of relationships. Much gray lyrically and with an interesting acoustic guitar giving the song a very early 80s sound. While not the strongest song, perfectly placed since one can only be crushed by a steamroller momentum from the first six tracks.
8. Crumbs From Your Table - yet another Biblical reference in a song dirivative of "Until the End of the World" which also brought Gospel-based lyrics back to the band's tunes. Mid-tempo grinder that shows off The Edge's guitar playing.
9. One Step Closer - Reminiscent of "Grace" from the previous album as well as "Heartland" from 1988 (okay, a very very very little bit of Rattle and Hum here), I'm calling this one the sleeper track of the album. Yes, dammit, they're still ALBUMS. Don't agree? Go sit on a vinyl copy of the ZoSo album while spinning it backwards.
10. Original Of The Species - the album is now winding down with the second ballad in a row, but this one sounds like The Beatles wrote backing string score and Jeff Lynne ran into the studio to produce the cut. Bono always wanted to be John Lennon and this may be the closest he gets, though the band's tribute to Lennon in the 2001 renditions of "Bullet the Blue Sky" from the live DVD concert always bring chills. Don't know what I'm talking about? Watch the screens in the final seconds and ask yourself why a pair of glasses ends the song.
11. Yahweh - Fantastic way to end an album and probably the band's strongest closer since, well, EVER. "All I Want Is You" was a beautiful ballad, "Love Is Blindness" was a depressing dirge, "Mothers of the Disappeared" trickled out into a Sting-meets-Peter Gabriel political tribute to the horrors of the wars of Latin America, and "40" was Bono's cry to God for grace. This final track returns to the religiosity of the "October" album with the intensity of the band's best live moments. One of my favorite cuts on the album.

I would love to hear others' comments about this album. I believe that the band will have its arms full come Grammy night; stadiums will have to be booked this summer, and Bono and company will again wear the crown of Rock and Roll Kings at least for the next year. This album is that big. Congrats, boys; I found what I was looking for.