How to dismantle an atomic bomb, an interesting choice of title for U2’s 11th studio album. A fitting aspiration for pacifists worldwide, but, when put in the context of a rock n’roll band (and of late U2 are at pains to remind us constantly that that’s what they are) it goes right against the grain. Rock n’Roll bands, if they dare to use nuclear energy in their titles, generally go in favour of explosions (or if you’re on the same planet as George Clinton Atomic Dog, but funnily enough he’s in the minority there). It’s interesting because the title points out exactly the problem with this album – it’s been tinkered with and made safe. When the dust settles on this, it’s going to be seen as an interesting, but strangely unfinished album.
For U2 fans it will offer plenty of highlights, and it’s far from being a bad album. There are plenty of killer tunes here, and plenty to speculate upon lyrically. There are even a number of tracks that almost seem to push the envelope on what U2 normally do.
By now the album’s opening track Vertigo has been blasted into the popular consciousness enough that it merits little discussion. It’s energetic and loud, and has the odd snippet of interest lyrically (Bono on his knees again – a biblical reference, or as Niall Stokes of Irish magazine Hot Press suggested with Achtung Baby, a none too disguised obsession with oral sex?!). As a statement of intent it’s not bad, though neither is it subtle. Tom Sutcliffe of the BBC rather unkindly suggested that it worked as a song in the sense that if you bang even the bluntest of nails repeatedly enough they’ll go in.
There was a different album finished this time last year, by U2. After a meeting between the band members, so the story goes, Clayton and Mullen vetoed the release of the album, saying that it just didn’t have the songs to merit a release. At which point Steve Lillywhite was brought in to produce the record. And, with no disrespect to Lillywhite, that’s exactly the problem. As a producer, he’s tidied up the songs, and made them radio friendly, as well as highlighting various jingle jangle sounds from the Edge’s early repertoire. This record is the best argument for not getting back together with ex-es, as Lillywhite, embarrassingly, keeps dropping into the conversation, sonically, that they have a 'history’ together. The end result is that on too many songs the band are dangerously close to paraphrasing themselves. The biggest offenders being City of blinding lights, Yahweh, and a Man and a Woman, all of which sound like U2 are ripping someone off – themselves.
As Bill Flanagan’s book U2 at the end of the world suggested, there seems to be an eternal struggle in U2 between experimentation (Bono and the Edge), and consolidation (Clayton and Mullen). On How to dismantle an atomic bomb, Clayton and Mullen are in the ascendant, determined to get U2 back to basics, but what we get is a U2 going through the motions. They do it well, possibly better than any other band in the world right now, but it’s not going to go down in history as their most inspired moment.
Love and Peace, or else is one of the moments where, with the right producer, this could really have taken off. The biggest and rawest riff that the Edge has come out with, at least since Salome, coupled with a raw delivery by Bono. The problem is that it’s still held back. Just imagine what someone like Rick Rubin or Gil Norton might have done with this, and you can understand the dissapointment. It’s still better though, than most of the preening pop music that passes for rock in the charts these days.
Crumbs from your table provides one of the best quiet moments on the album. It starts with a pastiche Edge guitar part, making you think that it’s going to turn into Where the streets have a sequel or I still haven’t found… part II, but within two bars it changes, contradicting expectations. It’s quietly understated and intelligent, with a chorus to die for.
There are, as ever, various big themes going through the record. The death of Bono’s father is certainly present, most obviously on songs like Sometimes you can’t make it on your own, and One step closer (Its chorus “One step closer to knowing” apparently inspired by Noel Gallagher, as is the pronunciation – it sounds on first listen as “One step closer to Norway”). It’s an irony that with this album, while Bono is grappling with some of the most personal subject matter, the connection fails. It’s about chemistry, and they’re missing some magical factor to lift the songs from good to great. It may change live, as was the case with many of the songs from Pop.
This album will provide the band with a string of hit singles, of that there’s no doubt. One can only hope that at some way along the line it will also provoke the artistic tension that U2 thrive on, and that next time the Braver voices win out.