Friday, November 19, 2004

Dismantling an Atomic Album (the "official" review)

(Starting Music: "Vertigo")

U2 has often been called the greatest rock band on earth. Of course, fans of other genres (*cough*KellyC*cough*) would vehemently disagree. I wouldn't. As much as I have and still do love the Counting Crows, I love U2 just that much more.

I've read many opinions about the band's albums from the last fifteen years. Many people, including many whose opinion I respect, argue that the quality of U2's music took a nose-dive after the seminal "Achtung Baby." And I understand those thoughts, too. Nothing will match AB in terms of sound or quality. It was a major achievement in the history of the band, just as "Joshua Tree" was.

(Now Playing: "Miracle Drug")

Some were soured by the often-hard-to-swallow "Pop." The band bathed itself in mid-nineties ironic detachment. The giant lemon-shaped disco-ball used in their concerts was perhaps emblematic of their understanding of and reaction to the world. But I think something changed. Something happened at the end of the decade. Perhaps it was Bono's involvement in world hunger and AIDS prevention and the forgiveness of Third-World debt. Maybe it was marriage, or accepting their wrinkles. Whatever the cause, somewhere along the way, U2 found their soul again.

2000's "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was in many ways a spiritual event for me. My love for the band was really based on the pre-Achtung days, when the music was less ambiguous and more clearly spiritual. In my youth, the "new" U2 of the 1990's unnerved me a bit. ATYCLB returned to the contemplative, searching soul of the band that I remembered.

(Now Playing: "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own")

I remember driving down I-35 at a pivotal point in my life, dealing with rejection and loss and perceived betrayal. Then I heard Bono's sweet promise in "Beautiful Day": "What you don't have, you don't need it now/What you don't know, you can feel somehow/It's a beautiful day..." Hope washed over me like a warm tide. It was going to be okay.

It sounds like I'm exaggerating, but I'm really not. Many tracks on the album were like that. Songs like "Stuck in a Moment" and "Peace on Earth" and especially "Grace" met me in a really personal and spiritual way.

I begin with all this to say, I'm a little predisposed to giving U2 the benefit of the doubt. It took me several listens before I really fell in love with ATYCLB. And I wanted to give "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" the same chance.

I've listened to it upwards of ten times. I love it.

There aren't any obvious reasons why I like this album. The music is par for a band of U2's experience and considerable talent. I like that The Edge's guitar is given free reign much of the time. The lyrics are just as honest and full of open emotion as ever. Bono's voice is still glorious to listen to.

This is a standard U2 album. And their standard, in my opinion, is miles above other similar (in genre, if nothing else) acts.

One reviewer referred to this album as "the respectable twin sibling of ATYCLB." And I tend to agree in some ways. But, "Vertigo" aside, this seems less radio-friendly than their last album. These songs deal with serious issues, deep emotions. The average radio listener doesn't want raw honesty and soul-searching questions. They want "Hey Ya."

(Now Playing: "Love and Peace or Else")

Track for track, this may be one of the best albums I've heard this year. I just bought Keane's first album last month, and I almost can't listen to it now, because it falls so pitifully short by comparison.

"Vertigo", you've probably heard at least part of by now. I've heard widely varying reactions to this track, but I think it's great. It was in my head for days. A great rock track, really catchy, and will be a blast in concert.

"Miracle Drug" took me by surprise, especially one of the last lines: "I've had enough of romantic love/I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up/For a miracle drug." This fascinated me. I read one reviewer's interpretation of this song, as a plea for those living with HIV; this added a whole new emotional dimension for me. Powerful ballad.

(Now Playing: "City of Blinding Lights")

"Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own" was written for Bono's father, who died in the last year. Bono sang this song at his father's funeral. In many interviews, Bono has said that his father is the titular "atomic bomb." He and his father always had a troubled relationship, and apparently it was only at the end that they found some sort of peace between them. Bono is rumored to have asked Michael W. Smith during an event, "How do you dismantle an atomic bomb?" Smith said he didn't know, and Bono replied, "Love. With love." This song seems to encapsulate that idea. Bono makes peace with the death of his father in this powerful tribute.

"Love and Peace or Else" starts out with several seconds of silence, and then industrial sounds, that lead into the first line, "Lay down." For some reason it took me several tries to really like this song. This song seems to connect the album to their post-1990 'reinvention' days. And now I mentally associate it with songs like "When Love Comes to Town" and other tracks that are so loosely composed they almost sound like live cuts.

(Now Playing: "All Because of You")

"City of Blinding Lights" is most reminiscent of pre-1990 U2. It almost sounds like it could have been a B-side from the "Joshua Tree" sessions. The tune has been stuck in my head on and off for days. And, as my friend Martha says, that's a good thing.

"All Because of You" is another one of these almost-live-sounding songs. The Edge really lets it rip on this one, and the song is richer for it.

(Now Playing: "A Man and a Woman"--I've caught up, finally)

"A Man and a Woman" is another 80's sounding track. It's an amazing song about fidelity in a relationship--a message all but absent from rock music. "But I can never take a chance/Of losing love to find romance..." You have to look at these lyrics. Wow. Every time I hear this song, it gets better. The type of song I would put on a mix CD for my wife, if I were married. *fingers crossed*

(Now Playing: "Crumbs From Your Table")

"Crumbs" is a little harder to decipher, at least for me. I've been looking at the lyrics online, and I'm getting the sense that this is really grounded in Bono's heart for developing countries. Lyrics back this up: "Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die/Three to a bed/Sister Ann, she said/Dignity passes by." He keeps talking about waiting for the "crumbs from your table." A call to Western countries to quit being so self-focused? We could use it.

(Now Playing: "One Step Closer")

"One Step Closer" is a really incredible meditation on what tragedy and hardship teach us. Throughout all of our troubles, even with our "finger red from the prick of an old rose," we each take a step closer to finding understanding. There's nothing truer than the line, "A heart that hurts/Is a heart that beats." This could be the hidden gem on the album.

(Now Playing: "Original of the Species")

"Original of the Species" is the favorite track of several reviewers I've read, but it's one of my least favorite on the album. That said, it's still pretty cool. It's got a good vibe. On the surface, it's a pretty straight-forward love song. I can't decide if there's more to it than that.

(Now Playing: "Yahweh")

"Yahweh" is the last track on the American album, and one of my favorites (if I can have, like, five). This song, in the tradition of "Gloria," "40," and "Grace," is a classic example of U2's spiritual side. "Yahweh" is the Hebrew name for God, and the song is simply a prayer of surrender. In the lyrics, the speaker pretty much gives up any concept of self-improvement, and surrenders to the healing and restorative power of God. The final line " Take this heart, and make it break," is a great way to end this great album (much as "Grace finds goodness in everything" was a great way to end the last one).

(UK readers will find one more track on their albums. I wasn't able to listen to "Fast Cars," but lyrically speaking, it almost seems like a step back into "Pop"-land. You'll have to fill me in on your impressions.)

Overall Assessment: Okay, okay, I'm biased. I freely admit that. But I really like this album. Maybe not the greatest album ever, maybe not the greatest U2 album ever (good luck getting a definitive answer to that question), but a beautiful, meaningful, earnest album from a band that proves once again that they're still at the top of the heap.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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