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How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

Atomic Bomb is positively Spector-esque in its ambition, although curiously enough, it’s not a showy record, the playing being mostly subservient to the songs.

Rating: 8 ½ / 10

Peter Murphy, 04 Nov 2004

I happen to like the title. Very Dr Strangelove. Very poultice on the weeping wound of the latest age of anxiety. Post 9/11, Bono was apt to point out that U2 had been writing songs about bombs in briefcases as far back as ‘Seconds’ from War, and indeed most of us born before the ’70s grew up under the influence of Amis’s and Einstein’s monster, Threads and The Fate Of The Earth, nervous systems warped by fear of the three-headed Revelations beast that was Three Mile Island/Sellafield/Chernobyl and a long threatened nuclear winter. But if U2’s answer to the titular question is, “With love” then Stanley Kubrick might’ve added, “… and laughter”, black comedy being the only sane response to totalitarian madness. Which is why this writer thought the Zoo TV carny U2’s most fascinating period and why consequently I was uneasy about the retrospective airbrushing of the ’90s ‘irony’ era that saw ‘The Fly’ get swatted off the last Best Of.

However, these are largely matters of style and not substance, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a record of at least a half-dozen skyscraping tunes that left U2 better equipped to deal with the fall(out) tour of 01 than just about any other touring act. And now, three years later, we find the foursome seemingly rewriting one of Morrissey’s best lines and asserting that if it’s not the bomb, then it’s love that will bring us together.

And with pop’s prevailing left-field winds being mostly retro garage and art rock, U2 are in the rather jammy position of being old enough to claim first generation kinship with the spiritual forebears of this year’s models such as Interpol (Joy Division) or Franz Ferdinand (Television), while also playing the cool uncles to Coldplay or Snow Patrol. In short, they’ve managed to survive that gruesome ‘legendary’ status while avoiding the slings and arrows of self-parody that plagued the Stones and is starting to cause REM problems.

But when early reports telegraphed this as Edge’s record, they were obviously referring to his choirboy melodic instincts as much as an addiction to noise. Atomic Bomb is positively Spector-esque in its ambition, although curiously enough, it’s not a showy record, the playing being mostly subservient to the songs. The most sonically dense track, a scuzzy strolling blues by the name of ‘Love And Peace Or Else’, is also the least potent tune – elsewhere they were wise to give melody its head.

In fact, the opener ‘Vertigo’ – a full bore rocker with higher bpm count than is the Adam ‘n’ Larry norm – sounds almost self-consciously like the U2 of Boy (a record that, for all its gauche and gangly ungainliness, still deserves a place in their best five albums). Here, we’re at a place called déjà vu, halfway between ‘Out Of Control’ and ‘I Will Follow’, with a thick-midriffed Steve Jones guitar sound courtesy of Chris Thomas. It’s as if they’ve reversed that Achtung diktat of four-legs-U2-bad, taken a look at their collective selves in the mirror and figured, well, if you get the face you deserve at 40-something, you better learn to live with it.

Hence the resurrection of sounds we haven’t heard in a long time: tinkling celeste, twinkling harmonics, vocal melodies that bear out Bono’s onstage body language. Like the last album, this is one big outreach programme, only moreso. ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’, with its ‘Fool To Cry’ falsetto, is this year’s ‘Stuck in A Moment’, one of those tunes that on first listen sounds like you’ve met in it a former life. Further in, ‘A Man And A Woman’ constructs a bright, late-night atmosphere deftly underpinned by the rhythm section’s less-is-more, while the clear-air turbulence of ‘Crumbs From Your Table’ is torn between the graceful air and the bitter word (“With a mouthful of teeth/You ate all your friends/And you broke every heart thinking every heart mends”).

But ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ is for my money the album’s masterpiece, with both Edge and Bono having seemingly purloined melodies from the seraphim. The opening one-minute-twenty sequence is little short of celestial, its slide guitar and glassy piano recalling the panavisions of Unforgettable Fire. If you’re looking for a five minute testimony as to why U2 still matter almost 30 years on, here’s the evidence.

In its entirety, Atomic Bomb seems to assert that real life is what happens when you get distracted trying to save the world. It’s a very adult record – and by that I mean x-rated emotions rather than either porno gymnastics or pipe ‘n’ slippers: here is bereavement, family (“Freedom has a scent/Like the top of a newborn baby’s head”), celebrity (“I’m not broke but you can see the cracks”), the champagne and cocaine of romance versus the sustenance of love – all the messy stuff.

To slap a bookend on this review, Alex Cox once said of Kubrick that by A Clockwork Orange he’d stopped stealing from other artists and was now referencing himself – which you can take either as a vindication of singular vision or an indictment of insularity. Musically, Atomic Bomb might be U2 anthologising themselves (the roll call of producers – Lillywhite, Flood, Eno, Lanois, plus new boy Jacknife Lee – reads like a career-long flashback), but this time out the ends justify the strategy.

Like the man said: I think we’re gonna need a bigger lens.
Rating: 8 ½ / 10

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