U2 | How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Island)

After 24 years of releasing albums, conquering the pop charts and critics’ pick lists, and influencing the political landscape, what world is left to conquer? Maybe only the world where you are conquered.

 

Bono’s father Bob died while the band was on its Elevation tour. This album keens for him in a way that suggests that the mourners have had far too much practice. They have. From the first cut on their debut album (“I Will Follow,” obliquely referencing the death of Bono’s mother Iris) through an argument with Michael Hutchence’s ghost (“Stuck in a Moment”), the catalog of U2 reads like one long elegy.

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” is the only track here confronting father-death head-on, but each track on the disc bleeds in its own way. The guitars are shrill, piercing; the melodies continually force the singer to howl notes far above his range. A broken heart shows up in the lyrics of half the songs, but almost every reference equates this pain with love: “Here’s my heart and you can break it”, “The heart that hurts is the heart that beats.”

All the sacrificial lambing leaves little room for libido; only “Vertigo” and the marvelously titled “Love and Peace or Else” show off any sexiness. The groove of “Love and Peace or Else” winks at the sermon in the lyric, making what could have been an obnoxious song the clear highlight of the album. Overproduction swamps “Crumbs From Your Table,” which is a darn shame because the lyrics are near perfect—though the listener will have to get acquainted with a certain Syrophoenician woman to make any sense of them. (No, I won’t tell you. Google her or look for her in the gospel of Mark.)

I like to hear more restraint in production; the constant barrage of synths, piano, and guitar overdubs makes for a certain sameness of sonic landscape. “One Step Closer” is a lovely change—at least until the ending, when drums kick in and threaten to overpower its delicacy. On some level, though, this sort of misstep is endearing, since it proves that after all these years, U2 still hasn’t figured out how to end a song.

They have figured out that The Edge possesses an incredible voice. The medium is the message when he sings the high bits in “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”—he proves Bono can’t make it on his own. For the most part, Bono makes his vocal limitation his strength, but if Edge’s voice has an upper limit, you’d never know it from what he does here.

After 24 years of releasing albums, conquering the pop charts and critics’ pick lists, and influencing the political landscape, what world is left to conquer? Maybe only the world where you are conquered. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb explores no new sonic territory and many of its lyrics are stolen from other U2 songs. But it’s scratching at a door that has not opened for anyone in the band, no matter how often they’ve watched it pull others through. What other band could release an album with this ultimate audacity?

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