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Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Sam Richards
U2: HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB
"Punk rock made on Venus," reckoned Bono. But once again, the bravura masked a subtler, more personal message.
January 2009, and U2 plays a freezing mini-gig in front of Washington's Lincoln Memorial as part of President Obama's inauguration bash. Besides the obligatory Martin Luther King homage Pride (In The Name Of Love), the Irish rockers also belt out City Of Blinding Lights, listed by Obama in his Top 10 alongside Aretha, Kanya West, Marvin, Springsteen and more.
No big surprise there. A pretty neutral, populist choice lifted from one of U2's more conservative albums. Certainly U2's first post-9/11 album is a thumpingly sincere and old-school record, which even many die-hard fans criticise for playing far too safe. But it is also one of he band's most soulful, understated and deeply personal records. It could even be considered Bono's answer to Obama's book, Dreams From My Father.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb had a long and painful gestation throughout 2003 and 2004. Months of work with producer Chris Thomas, who'd previously worked with The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Sex Pistols, eventually came to a dead end. In his place, the band summoned a small army of studio boffins from previous albums, including Mark "Flood" Ellis and Nellee Hooper.
They also recruited Garret "Jacknife" Lee, partly on the strength of his work with Snow Patrol. More significantly, they recalled Steve Lillywhite, who had returned for All That You Can't Leave Behind. For fans of the band's more progressive Achtung Baby/Zooropa period, this decision was taken as proof that U2 had lost its nerve and fallen back on old certainties.
Listening to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb today, the first thing that strikes you is its boomy, upfront, guitar-heavy sound. Speaking in early 2004, Bono trailed U2's forthcoming album as "punk rock made on Venus", full of "big tunes" dominated by The Edge's powerful arsenal of guitar sounds.
"It's made by a man who is really sick of the sight of his singer shaking hands with the dodgy politicians," the singer said. "When you've got as much spleen and suffused rage as The Edge has, I think Number 11 was the only way to go. People forget just how extraordinary a guitar player he is."
Opening track Vertigo (originally titled Full Metal Jacket), a three-minute blast of crunchy fuzzpunk riffs and pop hooks, would become one of U2's biggest ever hit singles. "Unos! Dos! Tres! Catorce!" barks Bono in pidgin Spanish, ending on fourteen rather than four in a wink-wink reference to this album being U2's fourteenth, including compilations and side-projects - or so the "Paul Is Dead" conspiracy theorists claim.
"We've never really been a rock'n'roll band," Edge admitted in the promotional press notes accompanying the album release. "But with Vertigo I was trying to come up with a sound and a guitar riff that was unashamedly rock'n'roll, full on, the best of that form which I love, like The Pistols or The Stones."
There are many other meaty rock moments on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, notably the Who-ish power-chords of All Because Of You and the less successful Love And Peace Or Else, a clumsy attempt at hip-grinding blues left over from All That You Can't Leave Behind. But Vertigo remains this record's rabble-rousing, pulse-racing calling card.
However, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb also contains a deep streak of melancholy soul-searching. One of its chief guiding spirits is Bono's father, Brendan Robert "Bob" Hewson, who died of cancer in August 2001. "His demise set me off on a journey, a rampage, a desperate hunt to find out who I was, and that resulted in a lot of these songs," Bono explained in the press notes. "It's a lot more personal than a political record." The singer even switched the title to Atomic Bob in some interviews.
The album's stand-out ballad, Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own, is Bono's most overt homage to his father. Over a rippling stream of Edge's sparse guitar, the song begins as a sombre lament but swells to a mighty roar. "It's you when I look in the mirror / It's you when I pick up the phone", the singer proclaims. "You're the reason I sing".
The song was actually written in 2001, and U2 performed it at Hewson Sr's funeral. The lyric, Bono explained in the notes, is a "portrait" of his father. "He was a great singer, a great tenor. A working-class Dublin guy who listened to the opera and conducted the stereo with my mother's knitting needles."
Bob Hewson is also a spectral presence on other tracks, notably One Step Closer, a tender ballad about spiritual uncertainty, partly inspired by a Noel Gallagher quote. Bono had remarked in passing that he was unsure if his late father believed in God, and the Oasis mainman replied that at least he was now "one step closer to knowing". Gallagher gets a special thanks inside the album sleeve.
In its overall sound and mood, the majority of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb harks self-consciously back to vintage U2. In between Bono's opaque confessionals and reflections on mortality, there are references to war in the Middle East and the singer's campaigning work for African aid: "Where you live should not decide / Whether you live or whether you die...""
Sonically, the swoops and shimmers in City Of Blinding Lights are certainly indebted to the sky-punching peaks, grand vistas and monochrome emotions of the band's 1980s albums. Based on a seven-year-old outtake from Pop, the song's working title was Scott Walker, a typically modest comparison point for Bono's soaring vocal acrobatics.
There are more classic Edge moments of chiming, bejewelled guitars on Miracle Drug, a song partly inspired by a paraplegic contemporary from the band's schooldays. Original Of The Species, Crumbs From Your Table and Yahweh also tap into a similar vein of florid, echo-laden, sonorous minimalism. After years of pushing his instrument to sci-fi extremes, it seems the U2 guitarist was happy here to rest on his laurels for once.
"You get into that thing where you're worried that you sound too much like yourself," The Edge confessed to Blender magazine. "But that's what I sound like. I can't help it, that's how I play guitar. I think I just stopped worrying about it."
The album's incongruously hot-blooded finale is Fast Cars, a bonus track in Britain which did not even make the cut in some territories. An attractively deranged blast of flamenco-punk, jammed with freeform lyrics about drugs, pornography and CCTV, this feverish oddity was reportedly dashed off on the last day of recording. A strange inclusion, it makes more sense now as a kind of signpost to the Spanish and Middle Eastern travelogues woven into U2's latest, No Line On The Horizon. It also contains the sole lyrical reference to dismantling an atomic bomb.
On the eve of the album's launch, Bono was in a boisterously confident mood, typically getting his pre-emptive defence in ahead of any attack. "If the record disappears down the toilet, never registers on the charts and people say U2 have had their time, they can fuck off now," the singer declared in the accompanying press notes. "We still know we've made a great record... the one part of the deal we can't blow is being crap, and I think we've kept our end of the deal."
Released in September 2004, Vertigo rocketed to the top of the singles charts in a dozen countries, including Britain, propelled by its appearance in a high-profile iPod commercial. U2 would spend the next twelve months defending this promotional "sell out" in interviews, although they donated the profits to charity. Given that Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten are currently advertising car insurance and butter respectively, any such ethical nitpicking now seems rather quaint.
When the album followed in November, reviews were broadly positive. Uncut hailed the return of U2's old-school statesmanlike swagger, cheering "the sense of a band flexing muscles they haven't used in years... at times you suspect that they took the much-trumpeted post-9/11 Death of Irony as a personal relief." All the same, the reviewer also noted this was "the first U2 record fully acquainted with Doom... even at their most glibly bombastic, there's a melancholy undertow that they can't shake."
Elsewhere among rock's chattering classes, opinion was divided. On the positive side, NME wrote "Bono's genius is that his inner monologue is so huge and heroic that it matches the scale of the music." Billboard claimed "the sound is bigger, the playing better, the lyrics sharper and the spirituality more compelling than anything the act has done in many years." Meanwhile, Rolling Stone weighed in with a double-edged compliment: "This is grandiose music from grandiose men, sweatlessly confident in the execution of their duties."
U2 took the album on the road for a hundred and thirty-one shows in 2005 and 2006. Opening in San Diego on March 28, 2005, the stripped-down Vertigo tour was another nod to old-school U2 values. Opening and closing with the turbine blast of Vertigo itself, they performed on an unobtrusively high-tech stage, their most minimal in years. In comparison to the grand conceptual pretensions of their 1990s mega-tours, U2 played very safe, but with the impressive muscularity of a stadium-sized garage band. Grossing three hundred and eighty-nine million dollars, Vertigo became the biggest rock tour of the year, and one of the most successful in history.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb crowned U2's mainstream comeback, consolidating the huge success of All That You Can't Leave Behind four years earlier. It earned eight Grammy awards, one more than its predecessor, and coincided with U2's induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in March 2005. Bruce Springsteen gave a fantastic introductory speech, hailing Bono as "shaman, shyster, one of the greatest and most endearingly naked messianic complexes in rock'n'roll..."
And yet, for all its acclaim and awards, U2's eleventh studio album is burdened with an enduringly lukewarm reputation among fans and critics. For some, it is a soggy slab of Coldplay-rock, which is ironic, considering Chris Martin's gang learned most of their tricks from the U2 manual.
Others claim it is too close in style to All That You Can't Leave Behind, little more than an exercise in treading water and re-establishing the U2 brand. But if that was the plan, it fell flat. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb sold significantly less than its predecessor - nine million instead of twelve million. Not as low as Pop, at seven million, but a poor performance by U2 standards.
It is undeniable that this album falls short of the high expectations that U2 created with their best, most adventurous work. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is one of the band's most stylistically conventional releases, lacking the abundant exotic textures and tangents that the largely absent Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would have brought to the table. Steve Lillywhite gives these songs a coherent and glossy sound, but also keeps them prosaic and earthbound.
But in fairness, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb offers plenty of treasures for fans of U2's more traditional, classic songwriting side. Vertigo still stands out as a stadium-punk anthem unmatched in the band's history. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own is a majestic tearjerker, City Of Blinding Lights are both heart-stirring anthems, and All Because Of You and Fast Cars an unexpectedly sexy beast.
At its best, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is not a hollow pastiche of old-school U2 but a new take on former glories from an older, wiser, forty-something perspective. There is more hard-won humility in their bombast now, more genuine grief behind their tearful testifying, and more soul in their rock'n'roll. Beneath their slick Obama-friendly polish, change has come to U2.
Tracks: Vertigo / Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own / Love And Peace Or Else / City Of Blinding Lights / Miracle Drug / Original Of The Species / Yahweh / All Because Of You / A Man And A Woman / Crumbs From Your Table / One Step Closer / Fast Cars
Released: November 22, 2004
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite, Chris Thomas, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Flood, Jacknife Lee, Nellee Hooper and Carl Glanville
Chart position: UK: 1 US: 1