Halfway through the excellent new U2 album, Bono announces, “I like the sound of my own voice.” Well-said, lad; well-said. Ever since U2 started making noise in Dublin several hundred bloody Sundays ago, Bono has grooved to the sound of his own gargantuan rockness. Ego, shmego — this is one rock-star madman who should never scale down his epic ambitions. As the old Zen proverb goes, you will find no reasonable men on the tops of great mountains, and U2’s brilliance is their refusal to be reasonable. U2 were a drag in the 1990s, when they were trying to be cool, ironic hipsters. Feh! Nobody wants a skinny Santa, and for damn sure nobody wants a hipster Bono. We want him over the top, playing with unforgettable fire. We want him to sing in Latin or feed the world or play Jesus to the lepers in his head. We want him to be Bono. Nobody else is even remotely qualified.
U2 bring that old-school, wide-awake fervor to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The last time we heard from them, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 were auditioning for the job of the World’s Biggest Rock & Roll Band. They trimmed the Euro-techno pomp, sped up the tempos and let the Edge define the songs with his revitalized guitar. Well, they got the job.
On Atomic Bomb, they’re not auditioning anymore. This is grandiose music from grandiose men, sweatlessly confident in the execution of their duties. Hardly any of the eleven songs break the five-minute mark or stray from the punchy formula of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. They’ve gotten over their midcareer anxiety about whether they’re cool enough. Now, they just hand it to the Edge and let it rip.
During the course of Atomic Bomb, you will be urged to ponder death (“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”), birth (“Original of the Species”), God (“Yahweh”), love (“A Man and a Woman”), war (“Love and Peace or Else”) and peace (“City of Blinding Lights”), which barely gives you time to ponder whether the bassist has been listening to Interpol. “Vertigo” sets the pace, a thirty-second ad jingle blown up to three great minutes, with a riff nicked from Sonic Youth’s “Dirty Boots.” “City of Blinding Lights” begins with a long Edge guitar intro, building into a bittersweet lament. “Yahweh” continues a U2 tradition, the album-closing chitchat with the Lord. It’s too long and too slow, but that’s part of the tradition.
Like all U2 albums, Atomic Bomb has false steps, experimental bathroom breaks and moments when the lofty ambitions crash into the nearest wall. As America staggers punch-drunk into another four-year moment we can’t get out of, it would be a real pleasure if the political tunes had any depth. (How long? How long must we sing this song?) But Bono scores a direct hit on “One Step Closer,” an intimate ballad about his father’s death from cancer in 2001; “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is the song U2 did at the funeral. When Bono sings, “You’re the reason why I have the operas in me,” his grief and his grandiosity seem to come from the same place in his heart. It’s a reminder that what makes U2 so big isn’t really their clever ideas, or even their intelligence — it’s the warmth that all too few rock stars have any idea how to turn into music.