A quarter-century ago, four Dublin lads with more ambition and passion than technical ability released a taut, punchy album called "Boy." Today, those same four lads -- now in their mid-40s -- release "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," their 11th full-length album. The passion and ambition remain in all their unfettered glory. But the boy has become a man.
"Bomb" is absolutely stunning. It is far and away the strongest, most vital and most life-affirming mainstream rock record to see release since the same band offered up "Acthung, Baby" more than a decade ago. Most significantly, it manages to pack all that U2 can't -- and shouldn't -- leave behind into a record that also offers new challenges and scales new peaks. It's exactly the record U2 needed to make; it's also the record the broader medium of rock needs to celebrate and rally around right now, as the music remains cut adrift but still floating in a sea of mediocrity.
There are plenty of semaphores leading to "classic U2-land" scattered throughout "Bomb" for the trainspotters among the listenership. References abound to early tunes like "Into the Heart," "Out of Control" and the like, but they are the steak sauce, not the steak; the meat here is in the way Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. have made the U2 manifesto -- as cliche as it might sound, faith, hope, love and the belief that rock can be their vehicle -- both applicable to and resonant within a modern context. This is populism at its finest and most transcendent.
Early reviews of the album pointed to a supposed rekindling of the Edge's unforgetable guitar fire as a sign of some sort of rebirth within U2, as if the band members were embracing their past. We'll deal with Edge's brilliance later, but for now, it must be said that the biggest surprise here is Bono's singing. What the singer has done is nothing short of reinvention; for some reason, he's hitting notes he hasn't nailed full-on in a decade, and that old hair-raising naked passion and unclothed yearning is in full evidence. Then there's the small matter of the lyrics. A sense of humor, something which U2 has never been credited with having - unfairly, I think - abounds in many short, sharp lines. "I like the sound of my own voice/I didn't give anyone else a choice"; "I'm not broke, but you can see the cracks"; "Some things you shouldn't get too good at/Like smiling, crying and celebrity"; "I'll give you everything you want/Except the thing that you want."
"Bomb" is, like all U2 records, a religious album, a piece of work concerned with faith, love, sex, death, injustice, compassion, anger, sin and salvation. That Bono, who penned 99 percent of the album's lyrics, can approach these topics in a manner at once conversational, humble and within a unique sort of rock vernacular should be inspiring to anyone who cares about this form of music. The record opens with "Vertigo," an only slightly tongue-in-cheek paean to the dimly-lit places in which we lose ourselves, as Bono sings of a setting in which he "can't stand the beats/I'm asking for the check/The girl with crimson nails has Jesus 'round her neck/Swinging to the music ..."
It ends with "Yaweh," unabashedly a prayer naked of any contrivance.
In between, themes run the gamut from the struggle to reconcile science and reason with faith and love ("Miracle Drug") to coming to terms with the death of a parent ("Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own"), finding beauty amidst squalor ("City of Blinding Lights"), acknowledging the difficulties of maintaining love relationships over time ("A Man and a Woman") and dealing with those who would employ faith to bolster their own selfishness ("Crumbs From Your Table").
Musically, there are elements of glam rock, punk, ambient music, techno, folk, arena rock, and new wave in evidence. None of it fits any one stylistic category, other than the one U2 has created for itself.
Throughout, the rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen is so subtly dynamic as to be all but unnoticeable upon initial listenings. But dig down, and you'll hear a nuanced virtuosity that is unparallelled in rock.
To the Edge, then; no, this is not the album where the guitarist "rediscovers himself," because he had no need to do so. The style he created out of necessity 25 years ago - a blend of rich arpeggios, melodic lines posing as solos, gorgeous chord voicings with open strings ringing, intuitively masterful use of digital delay effects for spatial and tonal coloring - has been present in various forms on every record U2 has made. If Bono is the poet of the band, Edge is the painter; he is in excellent form here, from the haunting augmented-chord figure that anchors "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," to the greasy riff-o-rama that is "Vertigo" and the arpeggios from somewhere just to the left of heaven that light up "Crumbs From Your Table." Perhaps surprisingly, there is nothing overtly political about "Bomb" aside from its title. There are poetic references that can be applied to a political deconstruction of the record, if that's your thing - "Crumbs From Your Table" could well be about America today. No, the core of this album is a Christian one, though as ever, it is a transcendent, non-denominational Christianity that cannot be claimed for any one particular faith, dogma or creed.
"God, I need your help tonight/Beneath the noise/Below the din/I hear a voice, it's whispering/In science and in medicine/'I was a stranger/You took me in'" sings Bono during "Miracle Drug. For listeners desperate to find evidence that a belief in the continued importance of rock music as a means of expressing and illuminating broader truths about ourselves is more than just wishful thinking, these words are particularly poignant. We feel like strangers; but U2 takes us in.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
* * * *(out of four)