U2: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Label: Island Records
Sound/Style: Bracing and ambitious rock combining visceral impact with conceptual substance
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—This long-anticipated album’s politically provocative title fires a semi-comic blank that finds U2’s outspoken and enigmatic Bono leading with his heart, but following closely with an intellectual left hook. Indeed, the boxing analogy works on numerous levels, as the disc throbs with the fury and finesse of a prizefighter on the comeback trail. And it frequently depicts the genders as a pair of bruised middleweights caught in a desperate half-embrace. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb tackles a divided and troubled world, not with slogans or protestations. Instead, it examines fundamental conflicts—as well as unavoidable intersections—both between the sexes and between mankind and the Creator.
The superstar quartet’s head-butting creative process could be likened to neutrons under extreme pressure, with ego, faith, passion, aggression and surrender all colliding in a simmering and combustible mixture. This vibrating hybrid gives substance to lyrics that address deadlocked dichotomies like love paired with logic and beauty coexisting with ugliness. While certain pieces speak to specific issues, including inter-relational tension and romantic versus spiritual love, the record’s larger, more ambitious message is threaded throughout its 11 tracks, making for a heady listen.
Bono’s words alternate between obtuse personal thoughts and visually palpable images that burn into the consciousness, like the final verse of the leadoff single, "Vertigo." In it, a crimson-nailed dancer, while transfixed by a hypnotic beat, causes her crucifix to sway back and forth in a surreal fashion. "Vertigo"—seemingly an allusion to the present-day experience of humankind’s fall from grace—sets the musical tone for Atomic Bomb. Though the tracks vary considerably in tempo and intensity, nearly all carry the two-pronged current of mystery and power so prevalent on "Vertigo."
Shrewdly, U2 takes rock touchstones like the primal potency of early Kinks and Who records and the unrestrained force of punk and grunge-metal, but harnesses these into a slower burning heat. In so doing, the band produces a breathing, pulsating warmth that avoids modern rock’s oft-alienating edge while abandoning none of its impact. The sonic collage "Love And Peace Or Else" is a microcosm of the disc’s textural diversity. It combines antique synthesizers and penetrating guitar work to create compelling sonic noise, subterranean low-end eruptions and a chiming musical centerpiece wedged between a relentless, chant-like riff that recalls Gary Glitter’s "Rock And Roll Part 2."
Songs like the taut "All Because Of You" and "City Of Blinding Lights" look unflinchingly at darkness—both internal and external—but devotionally defer to a merciful and omnipotent God. In the former, Bono sings "I’m not broke but you can see the cracks/you can make me perfect again/all because of you…I am;" in the latter, he offers "The more you know the less you feel/some pray for, others steal/blessings are not just for the ones who kneel…luckily."
"Yahweh," which both echoes and intensifies the warbling drama of classic-era David Bowie, closes the disc with an unambiguous, iconic-sized nod to the Almighty One and the earthly agony of awaiting the kingdom still to come in a world laboring under a curse: "Yahweh, Yahweh/always pain before a child is born/still I’m waiting for the dawn." With How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2 has completed the prolonged and difficult birthing of a work that shows them again on the razor’s edge of rock and reconfirms their role as a relevant and contemporary voice for Christianity in the mainstream.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.