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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Chicago Tribune NOVEMBER 21, 2004 - by Greg Kot
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb shows a band settling into middle age, recycling its past.
One way to appreciate the new U2 album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb - perhaps the only way to appreciate it - is to pretend the last fifteen years didn't happen.
It marks a retreat from innovation and daring, and re-immerses the Irish quartet in the comfort zone of its earliest successes, right down to employing the same producer with whom Bono and the boys collaborated on their first three albums. If Achtung Baby (1991) announced U2's readiness to reinvent itself in the tradition of the art-punks they admired, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, which arrives in stores Tuesday, suggests a band settling into middle age by recycling its best riffs and ideas. No matter how thrilling these moments may sound today to U2 die-hards weaned on War or The Joshua Tree, they are destined to pale in coming years as second-hand versions of those classic albums.
A queasy deja-vu feeling settles over the album from the outset. Kicking open the door with their new television ad-cum-single, Vertigo, Bono and guitarist The Edge sound desperate to acknowledge the existence of Jet's single-cum-television-ad Are You Gonna Be My Girl. The garage-rock riff is from The Vines' Get Free, the melody lifted from The Supremes' You Keep Me Hangin' On, and the vocal a blustery reminder of a more innocent, more ambitious U2.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Vertigo can also be more charitably perceived as a homage to the band's beginnings at the crossroads of punk, glam and the new psychedelia at the turn of the '80s. The Ramones, Virgin Prunes, Public Image Limited, and Echo And The Bunnymen all figured in U2's early sound, and they all reverberate through Vertigo, with its primitive chords, percussive pick scraping and skyscraping vocals. When Bono belts out the word "Feeeel!" it's like a lightning bolt straight back to U2's first album, Boy, which brimmed with naive possibility. Produced by British new-waver Steve Lillywhite, Boy sounded Important, a wide-screen portrait of the artists as young men ready to conquer a stadium near you even though they were still unknown outside Dublin.
Lillywhite went on to produce the first three U2 albums, including the breakthrough War (1982), and he returns to the Irish quartet's studio for the first time in two decades on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb His presence as part of a tag-team of producers including Chris Thomas, Daniel Lanois and newcomer Jacknife Lee continues the band's full-scale retreat from the heady, experimental and sometimes wobbly heights of the '90s back to the assured grandeur of its '80s work.
After a series of bigger-is-better albums culminating with The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby plunged U2 into a more troubled, tumultuous world in which the band waged war on itself. Achtung Baby and the even more experimental Zooropa were daring re-inventions, showing a band preoccupied with texture and groove as much as anthems, a band that couldn't play it safe even if it meant blowing itself up in the process. But after Pop (1997) flopped commercially and critically, U2 retreated, licked its wounds and re-emerged with its most conservative album to date, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000). The strategy worked: It was the quartet's best-received album in a decade, a midcareer save along the lines of The Rolling Stones' retro-rocking Some Girls.
But the greatest bands only get one chance to make their back-to-basics album, and All That You Can't Leave Behind should have been it. There's nothing wrong with a band playing to its strengths, but How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb turns a parade of U2 signatures into cliches: the reverberating Edge guitars, the diva-like Bono vocals, arrangements that ebb and surge between cavernous stillness and roof-rattling crescendos.
As a lyricist, Bono returns to familiar themes: He sings about love as mystical sacrament, unfathomable bond between the sexes and cure-all (read between the lines and it's the solution to the question posed by the album title). He also paraphrases Bob Dylan on the notion of rebirth and renewal; All Because Of You nicks a line from Dylan's It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), and My Back Pages should have been footnoted in City Of Blinding Lights. Yet somehow Bono credits only Oasis' Noel Gallagher for lyric inspiration in One Step Closer.
A ballad Bono sung at his father's funeral, Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own. comes off as a more personal take on the band's central lighter-waving achievement, One, a twinkling canopy of hushed dynamics that slowly morphs into a towering elegy before falling back gently into silence. It's beautiful, until one realises that it's lifted from U2's ballad-writing textbook.
The singer also obliquely touches on his noble work as something of a rock-star missionary, drumming up AIDS and debt relief for third-world countries, most notably on Crumbs From Your Table, which takes a few shots at the holier-than-thou mentality of the Christian right wing: "You speak of signs and wonders, but I need something other." Yet the best Edge can come up with is to punch up some of his stormiest licks, circa 1987.
Miracle Drug takes off where countless U2 anthems left off, with an ambient midsection that echoes the lost-in-space interlude in Gloria. Love And Peace Or Else swims back into the ominous undercurrents of Bullet The Blue Sky, with Larry Mullen's drums strutting out of sonic quicksand.
One Step Closer reunites the band with Lanois, who co-produces, but without a payoff on par with their finest collaborations: These foggy atmospherics sounded fresh on The Unforgettable Fire in 1985, but here they create a feather-bed to flop in after the ideas have run dry. A Man And A Woman is a pedestrian ballad and Yahweh aspires to become a rock 'n' roll hymn, but it doesn't have a strong enough melody to pull it off. Original Of The Species adds a leaden string arrangement that only emphasise the song's lack of swing.
The album contains kernels of promising ideas. City Of Blinding Lights bottles some of the excitement felt in U2's initial collaborations with Lanois and Brian Eno, as Adam Clayton's bass races like an excited heartbeat underneath a sky filled with swooping and swooning guitars. All Because Of You is the most straight-ahead rock track of the band's career, electrified by the sound of Edge's guitar, which draws blood with its rough-edged slicing and dicing.
Sonically, that's as exciting as it gets, and it's not nearly enough to suggest anything like a step forward. Fans who embrace this album will undoubtedly be comforted by how closely it hews to the band's trademark sound. But U2 carries weight and meaning because it has always challenged its fans as much as embraced them. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb shrinks from that high standard by offering U2 by the numbers.