I listened to U2's last album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," while I was doing some household chores this afternoon. It was and continues to be one of the best albums I've ever owned. A desert-island, top-five selection. I wasn't too far off the mark when I wrote my review of that album back in 2004. If anything, I've come to appreciate it more.
[Full disclosure: There are some things I'm predisposed to like, some writers, musicians, actors that I'm admittedly in the tank for: Stephen King, Orson Welles, Nathan Fillion (c'mon, he's friggin MAL). U2 is a band I'm naturally predisposed to. So I'm gonna work at being even-handed here. But I just want to get this out of the way. I'm a fan. Get over it.]
So how does the band's latest offering stack up? Let's take it track by track:
1) No Line on the Horizon
I have to admit, the first time I heard this track, I wasn't as impressed. But the second or third time, I started to anticipate the title/refrain, and later caught myself humming it throughout the day. This is a hard-driving rocker, and it will be a blast in concert, especially when the crowd sings the refrain with Bono. And the bridge, when Bono just lets loose with the long "whoa's" is lovely. Anytime Bono gets to flex the vocal chops is welcome. Thirty years later, he's still got it.
Another track that I didn't take to right away. It begins with the vaguely "Achtung"-like intro of drums, before sprinting into the vocals and guitar-riff that seem pulled off of Side 2 of "Joshua Tree." But the real reason this song works for me is the lyrics--which I missed on the first few passes. Here's verse two: "I was born to sing for you/I didn't have a choice/To lift you up and sing whatever song you wanted me/I give you back my voice/From the womb (?) my first cry/It was a joyful noise." This one will end up in your neighborhood "U2-charist" service. A praise song if I've ever heard it.
3) Moment of Surrender
This song, I fell in love with immediately, partly because it both sounded like U2 and...didn't. There's an ethereal quality to the instrumentation that reminds me of David Bowie's recent work. And the vocals. Wow. There's such passion in Bono's keening. The organ swelling behind him recalls gospels, spirituals, a feeling magnified by the harmonies on the chorus. As I listen, I find myself contentedly closing my eyes and rocking back and forth to the steady beat of the drum. And there are these claps thrown in. That's great. The Edge's sliding guitar solo is smooth and beckoning. The song is more than seven minutes long, and it doesn't seem like enough. The repetitions, key changes, additions and subtractions of intruments keep it fresh until the final chord is strummed, and you get to breathe again.
4) Unknown Caller
Slow build on the guitar intro, as the melody peeks its head out into the open. Then the chords, the heartbeat of the toms, the chorus of "whoas." The song follows the standard U2 formula until the chorus, which is, oddly, choral. Unison, forceful, compelling. Another singalong for the concert. The song builds and builds, as the guitars give way to an organ and french horn, which give way again to The Edge's deft solo. The guitar, along with the organ, fade us out.
5) I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
The only track I'm just not crazy about, oddly enough. The falsetto rings false. The lyrics are kinda simplistic, as are the rhyme schemes. It's like they were trying to construct a youth anthem full of idealism and optimism, but they're neither youthful nor idealistic. The only saving grace of the song is the "baby baby baby" interlude, which feels like it belongs in a much better song. I mean, look, the song isn't "Miami"-bad, but it's just not great. A mis-step, one of few.
6) Get on Your Boots
The first single. Like the last "first single," "Vertigo," it's pretty divisive. Among my circle, some loved it, and some hated it. Vertigo grew on me over time. Same with GOYB. The verses are okay, though the cadence reminds me too much of Larry Norman's "Reader's Digest," in cadence. But the chorus is keen. And the bridge. "Let me in the sound, let me in the sound, sound." Definite crowd-pleaser. This one will cause an earthquake of bouncing fans at every concert performance.
7) Stand-up Comedy
This one is all about the Edge's riff and Adam's bass. The lyrics aren't that exciting, though there are a couple lines I really like ("Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas"). There are some songs that I don't dig when listening with headphones or at the office, but which pass the "truck test." This may be one of those songs that need to be blasted full-volume at 70mph on a highway in order to be appreciated.
8) FEZ--Being Born
Then there's this bizarre and awesome interlude that combines snatches of other songs (like GOYB) and remixes them into a strange electronic track. Strongly reminds me of Mr. Bungle, actually. Then it switches gears completely and becomes essentially the prototypical U2 song. It's like the embryonic stem cell of U2 music, bearing all the elements that they use to make their albums. The same vocal pieces, the same guitar strums, the same use of key changes. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just funny. If you want to "get" the U2 sound, listen to the second half of this track, which in many ways unravels the band's musical DNA.
9) White as Snow
When I first listened to this track, I sensed a subtle homage to cowboy music, with the acoustic guitar picking. It felt like a campfire song. I can just see Bono picking this one, straw cowboy hat atop his head. Then as I listened something started to bother me. I recognized it, but couldn't place how. Finally, I realized that there's the faintest hint of "O Come, O Come Immanuel" in the melody, plus a few key changes. But the lyrics are what get me. He sings of needing a lamb as white as snow. The song seems to be about redemption, a theme fitting the musical allusion above.
Another great rocker. The lyrics border on gibberish, but I still enjoy Bono spitting them out. The momentum of the song makes me sway immediately as I listen. Again, another chance for Bono to open up his voice a bit. There's a bit of the Beatles in the inside-out logic of the rhyming lines. (Manders mentions Bono's turn as "Dr. Robert" in the Beatles-inspired film "Across the Universe"; yeah, I definitely hear that.) But this song, at its heart, is just a great track for each of the band members to flex their muscles a bit. It could be a lot of fun live.
11) Cedars of Lebanon
The final song on the album. A brooding, desolate sounding song (quite a contrast to the soaring "Yahweh"). When the verse begins, I am momentarily reminded of Kevin Max's "Alas My Love" from DCTalk's "Supernatural" album. A coincidence, of course, but funny to me. The lyrics speak of love lost, remembrance, longing, and then turn toward more political imagery, soldiers and tanks, children drinking dirty water in war zones. The titular cedars of Lebanon are an image in the Bible of strength and perserverance. This may weigh into the interpretation of the song; a love that lasts? a people who withstand constant war? a heart that refuses to surrender to the darkness around it? Not sure. The final lines are haunting: "Choose your enemies carefully because they will define you/Make them interesting because in some ways they will mind you/They're not there in the beginning, but when the story ends/Gonna last with you longer than your friends."
That's it. Eleven tracks.
Final judgment? There are a few weak spots, but overall a great album and a great exhibition of a band who, after thirty years, are as talented as ever. Not as experimental as some may like, but the band has stayed true to itself and its sound, and as a fan, I'm pretty happy with that. I may end up adding a half-point or more after listening to it in the truck, but right now, I'm pretty satisfied to give it:
8.0 out of 10
The CD hits the street March 3 (here in the States). Be sure to pick your copy up. I know I will.