There’s a joke in Dublin that’s pretty rough on one of its more famous native sons, “Q: What’s the difference between God and Bono? A: God doesn’t walk through the street thinking he’s Bono.”
It’s caustic, even for Dubliners, but there’s a nugget of truth in there: Sometimes Bono acts more like a pseudo-messiah than U2’s lead singer. He’s raised millions of dollars for famine and disease-ravaged Africa and it’s fair to say he’s got more international clout than notable members of our own nation’s Cabinet.
Not surprisingly, the best and most effective moments on U2’s newest release, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, come when Bono drops the savior act and sings as one man trying to save himself, not the world. The death of Bono’s father in 2001 sparked “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” the emotional centerpiece of the album. The song works because Bono is wounded and altogether human.
The rest of U2 is the same as they ever were. The Edge rips power chords eight days a week, uses enough echo to fill the Super Bowl twice over and acts a bit like the sober yin to Bono’s raging yang. Larry Mullen hits the same snares as he did on Boy. The ever youthful Adam Clayton is content in the background, smacking away at his bass.
Atomic Bomb is a nice middle ground for U2: It’s nowhere near as glitchy and muddled in digital flourishes as Pop, and even the pomp is scaled down when compared to All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This median doesn’t relieve the traditional flaws of a U2 album, however. Just like all the albums that came before it, Atomic Bomb is incredibly top-heavy. Any of the first five songs could be successful singles. The inane chorus on “Vertigo,” the album opener and first single, is nicely offset by a whipping guitar and a surprisingly modern bass line. “City of Blinding Lights” is just another in a long line of transcendent anthems, and while it’s not in the same league as “Where the Streets Have No Name,” it’s got flashes of beauty.
And just like Joshua Tree and Boy, Atomic Bomb’s second half is nothing short of a mess. The spiritual communions are aborted and Clayton shows his age, dropping fatigued notes and weak downstrokes.
Their trademark sonic arena rock still carries weight, but it’s U2’s humanity that have kept them around and endeared them to so many. It’s ironic then that the highest moments on the album are when Bono climbs down from the mountain top and shows himself as a man, not as a redeemer.
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars