How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Bonus Track Version)
In the years following the ginormous success of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind—the album on which U2 stopped futzing with electro and returned to rock—drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton began having some doubts: Had those millions of fans really loved that record? Or had they simply been happy to have their favorite band back? That uncertainty would help explain the four-year delay between All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the records that represent the band’s 21st-century apex. Pretty much every U2 album was tough to pull off; these are four guys who don’t make decisions easily. But on Atomic Bomb, the group was under more pressure than usual—much of it self-imposed. As Clayton told a reporter before the album’s 2004 release, Atomic Bomb couldn’t just be a great collection of songs. It had to help U2 maintain its status as “the biggest band in the world.” Reaching that none-too-modest goal had required some tough decisions—and some even tougher conversations. When Bono and the Edge presented an initial batch of tunes to their bandmates in late 2003, Clayton and Mullen balked: The songs were good, but not good enough. Worse, there was no obvious breakout single. A few decades earlier, that likely wouldn’t have been a problem for U2, a group that had long defined itself through big-statement albums, not smash-and-grab radio hits. But this was the internet-addicted 2000s, and listeners’ attention spans were short. U2 needed a song loud enough to break through the noise. At a creative impasse, the band members reached out to producer Steve Lillywhite, who’d helped shape U2’s early sound. He took a work-in-progress called “Native Son” and encouraged the band to go back to work. Thanks to a rip-roaring riff from the Edge, a rollercoaster chorus from Bono, and a thumping rhythm attack from Clayton and Mullen, “Native Son” was transformed into the giddily over-the-top “Vertigo.” Hello, hello: Suddenly, Atomic Bomb had not only its opening track, but also a walloping lead-off single. “Vertigo” is one of several big-hook, no-BS anthems that populate Atomic Bomb. “All Because of You” pairs Bono’s 30,000-foot vocals with some of the Edge’s sturdiest (and Edge-iest) guitar lines. And on “City of Blinding Lights,” Bono espouses some hard-won middle-age wisdom over a series of churning, chiming melodies; the result is so aggressively uplifting, Barack Obama asked the band to perform it for his 2009 inaugural celebration. And while this is a sonically tougher-sounding record than All You Can’t Leave Behind, there’s an underlying solemness to Atomic Bomb. Bono’s father had died in 2001, and you can hear the singer trying to make peace with that loss on the gently thundering “One Step Closer,” as well as on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” which features some of Bono’s most warm-hearted lyrics, as well as one of his most maxed-out, full-throated performances. Atomic Bomb’s mix of soul-baring and swagger would turn the album into a bestseller, and allow U2 to fulfill its destiny as the biggest band in the world—albeit temporarily. In the years ahead, the blinding lights would diminish a bit, as the group’s studio efforts failed to recapture the rapture of U2’s first few decades. But if Atomic Bomb is to serve as the finale for the band’s commercial and cultural zenith, at least it’s an explosive one.