For more than two decades, Irish rockers U2 have made a ritual of mapping out different musical trails for themselves with each new album, sometimes with mixed success, but always sounding fresh and reinvigorated by the journey.
That’s no small task for a band formed in the late 1970s, its members now in their mid-40s, most with families in tow, and with years of commercial and critical success having already assured them a perch in rock ’n roll history.
And so, with that, on their latest, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” (Interscope), U2 appears to be happy retracing familiar territory, delivering a reliable trove of bright, soaring anthems riding on echoey, wall-of-sound guitars and plaintive musings on war, love, death, and God — but few surprises.
“How To...” is not the collection of raw, driving punk rock the first single, “Vertigo,” sampled in those ubiquitous ads for Apple Computer Inc.’s digital music player, might suggest. The follow-up to 2001’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which also saw the band scale back somewhat its 1990s-era albums’ flirtation with dance beats and flashier soundscapes, “How To...” instead mostly highlights U2’s big and earnest 1980’s guitar-and-bass driven sound.
That’ll be good news for many fans, not so for others who might have been looking for another wholesale musical makeover on U2’s part.
Sound reminiscent of ‘Joshua Tree’The band — singer Bono, guitarist The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton — might have set out to do just that. They brought in a cadre of producers, including Chris Thomas, who worked with the likes of the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music, but eventually asked Steve Lillywhite, who helped steer their first three albums, to take them across the finish line.
Tracks like “Miracle Drug,” “City Of Blinding Lights” and “Crumbs From Your Table,” synthesize U2’s trademark shimmering guitars, keyboard-heavy backdrops and epic choruses, not unlike 1987’s “The Joshua Tree.”
Some tracks, however, show U2 dabbling in a more 1960s classic rock sound, with mixed results.
“Love And Peace Or Else” is an appeal for “All you daughters of Zion/All you Abraham’s sons” to settle the crisis in the Middle East, but repetitive guitar and drumming expose the quartet’s lack of traditional musical chops.
Similarly, “All Because Of You,” a pounding, but lackluster jangle of guitar rock that would have been at home on 1989’s “Rattle And Hum,” Bono yearns to be “perfect again,” but the song is far from it.
For an album billed as being all about The Edge, the innovative guitarist never seems to really break out or make much of a statement beyond guitar solos, which he’s done in the past.
Still, U2 surprise on “A Man And A Woman,” a sexy love song driven by a grooving bass line, catchy rhythm guitar and featuring some of Bono’s best melodies since “One.”
Doesn't shy away from politicsThe title of the album is also a bit of a decoy. The songs are not whimsical, nor full of the anger and pitched political statements found in the group’s early work.
This time out, Bono, who recorded the album in between his much-publicized globe-trotting to lobby for poverty and AIDS relief in Africa, brought those issues with him into the studio and tackles them more directly than ever before.
In “Miracle Drug,” Bono belts, “The songs are in your eyes/I see them when you smile/I’ve had enough/I’m not giving up/On a miracle drug.” In “Crumbs From Your Table,” easily the album’s standout track, the West takes the blame for not doing enough to stamp out starvation across the African continent.
“Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die,” Bono sings.
“How To...” also chronicles Bono’s own desperation following the loss of his father to cancer in 2001. The album is dedicated to him.
The subject matter touches several songs, making for a heartfelt effort from Bono, who lost his mother when he was a teenager.
“Where are we now?/I’ve got to let you know/A house still doesn’t make a home/Don’t leave me here alone,” he sings in the ballad “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” which he performed at his father’s funeral.
In “One Step Closer,” Bono seems to contemplate the moment when one realizes death is nearly at the door, singing, “I’m ’round the corner from anything that’s real/I’m across the road from hope/I’m under a bridge in a rip tide/That’s taken everything I call my own.”
The soaring melodies on “Bomb” sometimes reveal Bono’s vocal range is not what it used to be when he belted the high notes in his 20s. But overall the renewed emphasis on anthems suits the material and makes for the most vivid and passionate U2 album since 1990’s masterful “Achtung Baby.”