An intellectual tortoise – How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)

So once you’ve made your comeback, where do you go from there? U2 responded to the success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind by doubling down on the bet that people wanted more of that “classic” U2 sound. But how to make it sound different from ATYCLB, which was itself a statement that they were returning to a classic sound? The follow-up, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, embraced U2’s roots to an even greater extent. It races even further into the reaches of the past, showing once and for all that U2’s days of weird experiments and electronic dabbling were done for good.

After the success of ATYCLB, U2 found themselves once again one of the biggest bands in the world. The extremely successful Elevation tour reasserted their live-show dominance, and their 1990’s output was even made more palletable by tinkering with less-loved songs on Best of 1990-2000. After gathering for a follow-up in late 2002 and early 2003, it looked like U2 had something ready to go in the summer of 2003. The sessions evidently were quite muscular, filled with a lot of hard-rocking songs and beefy riffs. But it what would become a discouraging pattern, they chickened out at the last minute and revisited what they had, finding the riffage a little one-note.

Atomic Bomb didn’t come out until the fall of 2004, but those riff-heavy sessions left their mark on the final product all the same. This might be the brawniest U2 album, and it begins with “Vertigo,” the lead single and opening track. It’s a guitar-driven assault, with a roaring riff and urgent vocal line. Its omnipresence in the fall of 2004 ensured that everyone would get sick of it in a hurry, but there are some subtle notes that have kept it afloat for me. I especially like the Boy-like guitar harmonics in the trippy bridge, before it thunders back into the final rendition of the chorus. It’s not the deepest song, but it still serves its purpose, which is to be a hard-hitting blast.

Other songs, like “Love And Peace Or Else” and “All Because Of You,” also trade in meaty guitar lines and driving beats. Lyrically and sonically they are both quite direct, mostly functioning at face-value. While the rest of the songs don’t rock as hard, they are still pitched at a fairly obvious level, which gives the impression that everything here was calculated to make it into rotation on the local Top 40 radio. U2 was never the subtlest of bands, but this is the first time that it feels like their approach was truly to strip away as many layers as they could until they were left with U2 in their barest sense. When the band goes for the big statement this works really well, like on “City Of Blinding Light” and “Original Of The Species,” the two best songs on the album. But in other places it results in stuff like “A Man And A Woman” and “Crumbs From Your Table,” bland tunes that don’t have many interesting angles to fall back on.

It’s not helped much by Bono’s lyrics, which sometimes seem to be more concerned with making something rhyme than making it make sense. Witness the way he says “an intellectual tortoise,” itself kind of an iffy line, but made worse by pronouncing it so that it rhymes with “voice.” Elsewhere, on songs like “One Step Closer,” “Love And Peace Or Else,” and “Yahweh,” it feels like he’s only able to express personal truths in the most banal way possible. No doubt a lot of U2 naysayers think this was always kind of an issue, but Atomic Bomb still feels like a step backwards in terms of sophistication on the lyrical level.

But then there are moments that feel genuinely transcendent, and as was the case on ATYCLB they are mostly in the first half. The truth is that U2 has always been the kind of band who trades in big obvious ideas, but when they are able to elevate them with huge hooks it doesn’t really matter how eye-rolling the central idea is. “City Of Blinding Lights” shows how effectively they can combine the gut-punch guitars with those soaring melodies, paired with a solid lyric about a young musician discovering fame and missing what has been left behind. “Original Of The Species” is the other obvious highlight, shoring up the back half of the album when momentum is flagging. An ode to a new child, it has one of my favorite U2 musical moments, when Bono’s “doo-doo” and the Edge’s guitar combine perfectly into a bridge that feels like a distillation of everything wonderful about U2. Still elsewhere, songs like “Vertigo” and “All Because Of You” drive forward so relentlessly that it doesn’t matter if the lyrics are a little dumb. Sometimes it’s enough to just be a really fun song.

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb shows its seams more than other U2 albums. Like Pop it was recorded over a long period with a lot of different producers, and as a result it doesn’t quite gel into a whole like the work that’s come before it. It also puts the final nail into the coffin of 1990’s U2, even moreso than All That You Can’t Leave Behind. That album at least pointed a way forward, but this one feels more like a retreat to previous strengths. And yet it is still an album with undeniably powerful moments. If it was a step into the past, it was at least an intentional and confident one. At its best it shows that rock doesn’t have to be a young man’s game, not when executed by mature musicians who have learned how to focus their own strengths.

Into the heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.

It may not seem obvious reading this article, but there was a time when Atomic Bomb was one of my very favorite U2 albums. It was the first album they released after I became a fan, and for at least a couple years it was on constant rotation in my CD players. It’s only been in the last year or two that its flaws have become more obvious to me, especially it’s shaky lyrics and lack of nuance. I would now probably place it in the middle of the pack of U2’s discography, though that shouldn’t be seen as a slight. For one thing it is up against some genuine classics, and for another it is still an emotional favorite and a pretty good album in its own right.

From the sky down
In which Nate ranks each U2 album in order of his favorites.

1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
3. War
4. Pop
5. The Unforgettable Fire
6. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
7. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
8. Zooropa
9. Boy
10. Under A Blood Red Sky
11. Rattle And Hum
12. October

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