November 23, 2004,
U2 continues to defy the conventions of rock on its latest, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, whittling away at the romantic and transient roots of the form on songs like "Miracle Drug" and "A Man and a Woman," and on their 11th studio album in 28 years defeating an egocentric tradition that has left many of the best performers and acts in ruins.
At first it seems Atomic Bomb might be an admirable twin of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, a stellar record by any standard, but not quite reaching the achievement of The Joshua Tree, or the band's magnum opus, Achtung Baby!
Then the stoic, folksy authenticity of "One Step Closer," the shimmering, convicting irony of "Crumbs from Your Table," and the glittering, expectant wisdom of "Original of the Species" transcend expectations and confirm hopes and what else does this band trade in but hope?
Another day with the record will banish any doubt that Atomic Bomb is, song for song, a work of art: complex, gutsy, intimate, demanding, eloquent, and ravishing.
Atomic Bomb belongs in the top tier of U2's best records. Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby!, and Atomic Bomb are sonic masterpieces by different measures, separated by more time between their release than any of the best Beatles albums (to take one instance), marked by ascents in the band's songwriting and virtuosity (how many successful acts study music and work with master teachers of their art between records?), and leavened by the band's insatiable collecting of influences.
Lyrically, Atomic Bomb seems the most conspicuously Christian record U2 has released since October (and I'm the sort of believer who considers "Wake Up Dead Man," from 1997's Pop, as faithful a Christian prayer as, say, "Gloria").
The protagonist of Achtung Baby!, a prodigal entranced by a moonlit night and the kiss of seduction, fumbles his way back home only to find that darkness lingers. Now the wanderer is chastened: Romantic notions no longer hold sway, the eyes of the heart rule the intellect, true love is at home. Yet, restless for Love, he wrestles with the Almighty: kneeling (always kneeling), pleading for intervention (how long must the world abide before the new dawn?), over and over again offering his heart ("take this heart and make it break" are the album's closing words), seeking now a kiss from God.
"Yahweh" is a postmodern Christmas hymn. It looks in hope to the birth of Christ ("always pain before a child is born") as it presses home a question the Father's long-awaited gift evokes in honest souls: "Why the dark before the dawn?" "Miracle Drug," "Crumbs from Your Table," "Vertigo," "Love and Peace or Else," "All Because of You," and "Yahweh" not only allude to but even depend on the Gospel to disclose their meaning.
I'm bound for some Paul McGuinness-inspired purgatory for using the words "Christian record" in the same sentence with "U2," but I think the band is big enough (and mature enough) now not to worry overmuch about people getting the wrong impression (who would mistake these guys for Bible thumpers?). The band was right to resist the label no doubt it would have limited their audience and their art at earlier stages but it seems time to simply live with the contradictions and let the chips fall where they may.
On All That You Can't Leave Behind and during the subsequent tour, U2 expressed Christian faith with excerpts from the Psalms, hallelujahs to the Almighty, and urgent activism on behalf of "the least of these." During the tour Bono had told one reporter, "It feels like there's a blessing on the band right now. People say they're feeling shivers well, the band is as well. And I don't know what it is, but it feels like God walking through the room, and it feels like a blessing, and in the end, music is a kind of sacrament; it's not just about airplay or chart position." It was a temperate yet unapologetic witness, not showy or preachy but unashamed, and that spirit continues on Atomic Bomb.
The abandonment of romance for a truer love (of the "tougher," more resilient, eternal, variety) is a common theme on Atomic Bomb, and though it might strike contemporary ears as paradoxical and uncool (is this rock & roll?), it seems Bono's experiences in Africa have taught him to distrust reigning American and European definitions of the beloved. "A Man and A Woman" is a realist's tribute to monogamy and a celebration of Bono's own marriage (the lyric echoes Bono's attempts in interviews to describe the mystery of his bride and the miracle of their relationship).
If Achtung Baby! was the divorce album, Atomic Bomb is the marriage album, and reflected in Bono's marriage to Ali is the singer's marriage to God. When, at the end, he prays "take this mouth and give it a kiss," the Bridegroom of Song of Solomon is the teacher he seems to have in mind, the master who teaches him how to kneel at the album's start and to whom he turns at the end what to do with his hands, feet, heart, and soul between this broken time and the marriage supper of the lamb?
"One Step Closer" is reminiscent of Dylan, though it judiciously employs techno-ambient tricks. It's a beautiful sleeper that, along with its sonic opposite, "Love and Peace or Else" (a grimy, infectious groover with the fattest Clayton bass line ever), reveals U2's perennial ability to craft strange and deeply appealing songs from motley raw materials.
The music is breathtaking in parts (the Edge, Clayton, and Mullen are at the full flight of their considerable powers here), especially on "Crumbs," "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," "Miracle Drug," and "Original of the Species," which seem the best of the pack the finest marriage of melody and lyric. Any of these songs is a cinch for Record of the Year in 2006 ("Vertigo," a wonderful wall of noise, is eligible this year). And, as ever, the band reaches out for new sounds while bringing back hints of its quintessential moments past (the best artists always do).
Frederick Buechner once said, "It's really very easy to be a writer all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." Bono opens several on this record, and for a band that throughout the 90s prided itself on distance, these last two U2 albums explore interiors and reveal intimacies rarely expressed in rock. We've now been given permission to eavesdrop, and the conversation is direct and unafraid.
"Sometimes," written for Bono's father, Bob Hewson, as he lay dying in hospital, is the showstopper, as honest a confession as any rock band has ever laid down. It deftly puts the lie to the notion that rock & roll can't handle (much less recapitulate) the deeper experiences of life. U2 has made a career out of debunking that myth, and the genre will have made a significant stride if the band's contributions win the day.
In recent interviews Bono has said the "Atomic Bomb" of the title is his father ("he is the atomic bomb in question and it is his era, the Cold War era, and we had a bit of a cold war, myself and him"), and in others places he's said it refers to his emotional volatility in the wake of his father's death ("looking back, now I've finally managed to say goodbye, I think that I did do some mad stuff"). Bill Flanaghan's and Neil McCormick's accounts of the band's rise show the metaphor is an apt one for the father and the son. Earlier this year, Bono reportedly asked the songwriter Michael W. Smith if he knew how to dismantle an atomic bomb. When Smith said he didn't, Bono responded "Love. With Love."
Bob Hewson was an amateur opera singer who loved to listen to operas in his sitting room at night, directing the songs, as Bono recalls, with knitting needles. On "Sometimes," when Bono scream-sings "you're the reason I sing/You're the reason why the opera is in me," it occurs that Love is able to dismantle the bomb in the father and the bomb in the son; that Love has the ability to disarm any weapon of destruction, material or spiritual, no matter how large, no matter how small. That comes as good news about right now.
The American theologian Robert Jenson says that, unlike political ideologies, the Spirit makes us free not from each other but for each other. Of all the rock clichés the U2 brothers overturn, it is perhaps their love for each other held together despite strong wills and tested by time that enables not only their longevity but an enduring ability to produce albums of rock music that belong among the genre's best.
Neil McCormick reports that after working five-day weeks for about a year the band had nearly the same set of songs ready for release last October, but it sensed an "indefinable magic" was missing. U2 spent another year working to find it. Bono told one reporter, "Whether it's Catholic guilt or whatever it is, it's not on to have this life that we've been given this amazing life and be crap."
Their fans can be grateful for a veteran band that refuses to settle for second best, and at a career point when acts think they've earned the right to be mediocre. That might appear to be the band's self-interest speaking (who wants to buy a "crap album"?), but it still takes humility to serve anyone (even rock fans), and the hard work that produced the double-barreled art of U2's last two albums needs not only a touch of grace, but the cooperation of courage. It's faith active in love.
Ken Tanner works for Touchstone Magazine in Chicago. He is ordained in the Charismatic Episcopal Church.