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Old 11-19-2004, 12:28 AM   #1
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Review: An Eloquent and Ravishing Explosion

My review of the new U2 album is co-published at “ faith at the edge” and at “ a truck stop for the soul”

And below...

Ken Tanner


An Eloquent and Ravishing Explosion:
U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

by Kenneth Tanner

U2 continues to defy the conventions of rock on its latest, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, whittling away at the romantic and transient roots of the form on songs like “Miracle Drug” and “A Man and a Woman,” and—on their 11th studio album in 28 years—defeating an egocentric tradition that has left many of the best performers and acts in ruins.

At first it seems Atomic Bomb might be an admirable twin of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a stellar record by any standard, but not quite reaching the achievement of The Joshua Tree, or the band’s magnum opus, Achtung Baby!

Then the stoic, folksy authenticity of “One Step Closer,” the shimmering, convicting irony of “Crumbs from Your Table,” and the glittering, expectant wisdom of “Original of the Species” transcend expectations and confirm hopes — and what else does this band trade in but hope?

Another day with the record will banish any doubt that Atomic Bomb is, song for song, a work of art: complex, gutsy, intimate, demanding, eloquent and ravishing.

Atomic Bomb belongs in the top tier of U2’s very best records. Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby! and Atomic Bomb are sonic masterpieces by different measures, separated by more time between their release than any of the best Beatles albums (to take one instance), marked by ascents in the band’s songwriting and virtuosity (how many successful acts study music and work with master teachers of their art between records?), and leavened by the band’s insatiable collecting of influences.

Lyrically, Atomic Bomb seems the most conspicuously Christian record U2 has released since October (and I’m the sort of believer who considers “Wake Up Dead Man” as faithful a Christian prayer as, say, “Gloria”).

The protagonist of Achtung Baby!, a prodigal entranced by a moonlit night and the kiss of seduction, fumbles his way back home only to find that darkness lingers. Now the wanderer is chastened: romantic notions no longer hold sway, the eyes of the heart rule the intellect, true love is at home. Yet, restless for Love, he wrestles with the Almighty: kneeling (always kneeling), pleading for intervention (how long must the world abide before the new dawn?), over and over again offering his heart (“take this heart and make it break” are the album’s closing words), seeking now a kiss from God.

“Yahweh” is a postmodern Christmas hymn. It looks in hope to the birth of Christ (“always pain before a child is born”) as it presses home a question the Father’s long-awaited gift evokes in honest souls: “Why the dark before the dawn?” “Miracle Drug,” “Crumbs from Your Table,” “Vertigo,” “Love and Peace or Else,” and “Yahweh” not only allude to but even depend on the Gospel to disclose their meaning.

I’m bound for some Paul McGuinness-inspired purgatory for using the words “Christian record” in the same sentence with “U2,” but I think the band is big enough (and mature enough) now not to worry overmuch about people getting the wrong impression (who would mistake these guys for Bible thumpers?). The band was right to resist the label—no doubt it would have limited their audience and their art at earlier stages—but it seems time to simply live with the contradictions and let the chips fall where they may.

On All That You Can’t Leave Behind and during the subsequent tour, U2 expressed Christian faith with excerpts from the Psalms, hallelujahs to the Almighty, and urgent activism on behalf of “the least of these.” During the tour Bono had told one reporter, “It feels like there’s a blessing on the band right now. People say they’re feeling shivers—well, the band is as well. And I don’t know what it is, but it feels like God walking through the room, and it feels like a blessing, and in the end, music is a kind of sacrament; it’s not just about airplay or chart position.” It was a temperate yet unapologetic witness, not showy or preachy but unashamed, and that spirit continues on Atomic Bomb.

The abandonment of romance for a truer love (of the “tougher,” more resilient, yea eternal, variety) is a common theme on Atomic Bomb, and though it might strike contemporary ears as paradoxical and uncool (is this rock & roll?), it seems Bono’s experiences in Africa have taught him to distrust reigning American and European definitions of the beloved. “A Man and A Woman” is a realist’s tribute to monogomy and a celebration of Bono’s marriage to Ali (the lyric echoes Bono’s attempts in interviews to describe the mystery of his bride and the miracle of their relationship).

If Achtung Baby! was the divorce album, Atomic Bomb is the marriage album, and reflected in Bono’s marriage to Ali is the singer’s marriage to God. When, at the end, he prays “take this mouth and give it a kiss,” the Bridegroom of Song of Solomon is the teacher he seems to have in mind, the master who teaches him how to kneel at the album’s start and to whom he turns at the end—what to do with his hands, feet, heart, and soul between this broken time and the marriage supper of the lamb?

“One Step Closer” is reminiscent of Dylan, though it judiciously employs techno-ambient tricks. It’s a beautiful sleeper that, along with its sonic opposite, “Love and Peace or Else” (a grimy, infectious groover with the fattest Clayton bass line ever), reveals U2’s perennial ability to craft strange and deeply appealing songs from motley raw materials.

The music is breathtaking in parts (the Edge, Clayton, and Mullen are at the full flight of their considerable powers here), especially on “Crumbs,” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” and “Original of the Species,” which seem the best of the pack—the finest marriage of melody and lyric. Any of these songs is a cinch for Record of the Year in 2006 (“Vertigo,” a wonderful wall of noise, is eligible this year). And, as ever, the band reaches out for new sounds while bringing back hints of its quintessential moments past (the best artists always do).

Frederick Buechner once said, “It’s really very easy to be a writer—all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” Bono opens several on this record, and for a band that throughout the 90s prided itself on distance, these last two U2 albums explore interiors and reveal intimacies rarely expressed in rock. We’ve now been given permission to eavesdrop, and the conversation is direct and unafraid.

“Sometimes,” written for Bono’s father, Bob Hewson, as he lay dying in hospital, is the showstopper, as honest a confession as any rock band has ever laid down. It deftly puts the lie to the notion that rock & roll can’t handle (much less recapitulate) the deeper experiences of life. U2 has made a career out of debunking that myth, and the genre will have made a significant stride if the band’s contributions win the day.

In recent interviews Bono has said the “Atomic Bomb” of the title is his father (“he is the atomic bomb in question and it is his era, the Cold War era, and we had a bit of a cold war, myself and him”), and in others places he’s said it refers to his emotional volatility in the wake of his father’s death (“looking back, now I’ve finally managed to say goodbye, I think that I did do some mad stuff”). Bill Flanaghan’s and Neil McCormick’s accounts of the band’s rise show the metaphor is an apt one for the father and the son. Earlier this year, Bono reportedly asked the songwriter Michael W. Smith if he knew how to dismantle an atomic bomb. When Smith said he didn’t, Bono responded “Love. With Love.”

Bob Hewson was an amateur opera singer who loved to listen to operas in his sitting room at night, directing the songs, as Bono recalls, with knitting needles. On “Sometimes,” when Bono scream-sings “you’re the reason I sing/You’re the reason why the opera is in me,” it occurs that Love is able to dismantle the bomb in the father and the bomb in the son; that Love has the ability to disarm any weapon of destruction, material or spiritual, no matter how large, no matter how small. That comes as good news about right now.

The American theologian Robert Jenson says that, unlike political ideologies, the Spirit makes us free not from each other but for each other. Of all the rock clichés the U2 brothers overturn, it is perhaps their love for each other—held together despite strong wills and tested by time—that enables not only their longevity but an enduring ability to produce albums of rock music that belong among the genre’s best.

Neil McCormick reports that after working five-day weeks for about a year the band had nearly the same set of songs ready for release last October, but it sensed an “indefinable magic” was missing. U2 spent another year working to find it. Bono told one reporter, “Whether it’s Catholic guilt or whatever it is, it’s not on to have this life that we’ve been given—this amazing life—and be crap.”

Their fans can be grateful for a veteran band that refuses to settle for second best, and at a career point when acts think they’ve earned the right to be mediocre. That might appear to be the band’s self-interest speaking (who wants to buy a “crap album”?), but it still takes humility to serve anyone (even rock fans), and the hard work that produced the double-barreled art of U2’s last two albums needs not only a touch of grace but the cooperation of courage. It’s faith active in love.

(How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb goes on sale Nov. 23rd in the US, and November 22nd elsewhere.)

Ken Tanner’s ( sole claim to fame is that he was once a college buddy of Steve Beard. He works for Touchstone Magazine in Chicago, is ordained in the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and hangs out with his own wonderfully mysterious woman and seven children west of the Windy City.

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Old 11-19-2004, 12:50 AM   #2
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Old 11-19-2004, 05:08 PM   #3
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Originally posted by starsgoblue
Thank you, starsgoblue. If you liked my review, I think you'll also like Beth Maynard's thoughts on the 48-page book which accompanies the new album (but only in the limited edition boxed set). You can find her amazing insights on the book at:

u2sermons [dot] blogspot [dot] com

(look for her entry on November 17)

I'm not allowed to post URLS yet (too much of a newbie).
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Old 11-19-2004, 05:38 PM   #4
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Thanks for the link!
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Old 11-19-2004, 09:11 PM   #5
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A Few Thoughts on Vertigo

I could have written more about a number of the new songs, but didn't want to turn off readers by making the review an exercise in exegesis. Here are a few of those unpublished thoughts on the album's opener, "Vertigo."

I've noticed a connection between the lyric's description of "Vertigo" ("it's everything I wish I didn't know") and the serpent's words to Eve in the Garden ("You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil").

"Everything I wish I didn't know" is a potent, succinct description of the biblical Fall and of our perpetual state in a fallen world, where succumbing to temptation leads to knowledge we wish we didn't have (on so many fronts -- not to mention splitting the atom -- it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle). Then there's the straight pop-cultural definition via Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, especially in the Jimmy Stewart character of that film: a sensation/fear of falling.

It seems to me that both the temptation in the Garden and the temptation of Christ in the desert are built into the lyric of Vertigo:

All of this, all of this can be yours
All of this, all of this can be yours

All of this, all of this can be yours
Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt….

Here, in paraphrase, is the voice of Satan in the desert temptations of our Lord (and how often over the past several decades we've heard the last line in the mouths of terrorists, no matter the "cause" or the geography).

The song ends with the singer, despite his condition (Vertigo), submitting to a Love that's "teaching [him] how to kneel.
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Old 11-20-2004, 05:29 AM   #6
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Excellent insights into the messages inside U2's music.

From their beginning, U2 has been about finding truth in life and in motivating those who listen to their music to search for truth in their own lives.

Along the way, they have trodded down many paths to find that truth - from charismatic involvement (Shalom) to social change movements (AI, Greenpeace, DATA, etc) - and have come FULL CIRCLE to the understanding that ALL CHANGE MUST FIRST COME FROM WITHIN - and with that inner change the change that they(we) can make in our world is that much greater.

It has always been my belief that U2 doesn't just want to make music to make money - they have more concerned in making lasting and positive changes in people's lives, including their own.

Thus, it is the highest honor and respect for U2 when we have taken their life examples - their trials, tribulations and ultimate triumphs - and make them come alive in our own lives.

When we can understand the deeper meanings in their songs/psalms and when we are willing to LIVE OUT THE TRUTH FOUND IN U2'S MUSIC - it is then that we truly show our Love and Respect for this amazing group of musicians.

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Old 11-20-2004, 06:37 AM   #7
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Excellent review Kenneth! Thank you for sharing it, Beth's link, and your additional reflections. Keep them coming! I read this the other day on another U2 group. Maybe you see a detailed spiritual story being told on Atomic Bomb?

We've been down this road before, a few years back, but for the
record, here's my argument against the notion that ATYCLB is not
cohesive. To me the album takes the listener on a very archetypical
journey, and one not unfamiliar in U2's work - the journey from the
joy that faith can bring to the despair that losing faith can cause.
At it's core the basic theme of the album is the eternal conflict
between faith and doubt, between the joy and bliss that faith
promises and the realities of the world that seem to counter that
promise. A quick walk through the album and how I see these themes
being played out:

BD – The pure joy of discovering a faith and the rapture of that
devotion to a higher power – but already hints of doubt are present,
like poppy seeds in a bagel.

Touch me
Take me to that other place
Teach me
I know I'm not a hopeless case

SIAM – Doubt starts to color faith more; protestations abound that a
feeling of despair is just temporary, a lull to get out of, but the
seed has been planted

And if our way should falter
Along the stony pass
It's just a moment, this time will pass

Elevation – Doubt is temporarily brushed off, and we revel in the
heights faith can bring you to.

You make me feel like I can fly so high

Walk On – More ecstasy, but colored ecstasy, there's a feeling of
resignation and indignation here; the notion is that faith can heal,
but why does it have to, why is injustice allowed to flower in the
first place

And I know it aches and your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on

Kite – An uneasy truce is begun, between the ecstasy and the reality
of the real world, and questions are being asked

I don't know which way the wind will blow
Who's to know when the time has come around
Don't wanna see you cry
I know this is not goodbye

In a Little While – The yearning to leave this world behind for the
better one is expressed, but in a very bittersweet way, that
essential conflict is cemented now

In a little while surely you'll be mine
In a little while I'll be there
In a little while this hurt will hurt no more
I'll be home, love

Wild Honey – More on the separation between those who've moved on
and those still on earth

I'm still standing, I'm still standing where you left me
Are you still growing wild with everthing tame around you

Peace on Earth – The beginning of anger, a little flailing out at
the lost promises of faith

Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain
I'm sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be peace on Earth

When I Look at the World – The doubt has colored to despair, despair
that we earthly bound people will never be able to understand the
true mysteries of faith

So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world

New York – An attempt to brush off the conflict, to find answers
where they can't be found

Living happily not like me and you
That's where I lost you
New York

Grace – Some peace has been found in the notion that we will never
know how to reconcile that eternal conflict, but that in Grace we
will find rest.

Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty in everything
Grace finds goodness in everything
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Old 11-20-2004, 01:19 PM   #8
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Originally posted by U2Soar
Excellent review Kenneth! Thank you for sharing it, Beth's link, and your additional reflections. Keep them coming! I read this the other day on another U2 group. Maybe you see a detailed spiritual story being told on Atomic Bomb?
Beth Maynard discerns a definite thread in the accompanying book. I don't see how she could be wrong in her analysis. It seems dead on, irrefutable even. Do read her remarks, if you get a chance.

I talked about some of the larger themes I see emerging on HTDAAB in my review -- true love and marriage win out over romance and temptations to infidelity, learning how to kneel amidst despair and joy, etc. Of course, Bono has told all comers of the strong influence of his father and of their relationship on the songs.

The album does seem, at this early stage, like one of those classic U2 records in which the songs not only stand up well on their own but hold together as a collection.

Right now, I don't have any additional thoughts on the album or its songs, but I'll write again if I do.
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Old 11-22-2004, 10:50 AM   #9
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More on the HTDAAB Book

For U2 fans, there's a limited-edition boxed set version of the new album including a bonus DVD (with five acoustic performances of the new songs) and a 48-page book of paintings, illustrations, handwritten lyrics and notes, photographs, and quotes on which all four band members collaborated.

The first half of the book deconstructs an ancient Hindu quote that enshrines fear, emptiness, destruction, and death as the world's reigning realities, and then replaces that nihilistic perspective with one based on affirmations of life made possible by incarnate Love. The book is rich with Judeo-Christian icons and allusions (with some nods to that other ancient Near eastern monotheistic religion, too). Crosses show up everywhere, and one page each is devoted to moving images of Christ and—a first for U2—Mary.

The book seems to confirm the orientation of the new album reported in my review. The songs are here <i>given a context</i> by the band and that context is decidedly Christian.

For instance, on the record, the lyric for "All Because of You" seems to have God as its intercessory goal, but the accompanying book makes this plain: the I AM of the song is the Judeo-Christian God revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush on Sinai. Robert Hilburn, music critic for the <i>Los Angeles Times</i>, says the song serves "as a prayer of gratitude" on an album that "celebrates life."

It's now clear that one new song "Mercy," which Bono describes as "the best B-side you'll ever hear," was tossed from the album at a very late date, certainly after the book was completed. The lyrics for "Mercy," including the opening line of the song, "I was drinking some wine...and it turned to blood," are scripted around an image of Christ's battered face, painted blood red in an almost child-like style. One blue eye forms a Eucharistic host over a chalice that doubles as a bruise. The good news is that "Mercy," a sustained meditation of well over six minutes reminiscent of The Who in their <i>Who's Next</i> period, will be released to the public, eventually.

For a fascinating and persuasive interpretation of the book's structure, read Beth Maynard's commentary on her blog site, U2 Sermons:

www [dot] u2sermons [dot] blogspot [dot] com

(See the entry for November 17.)

Ken Tanner
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Old 12-09-2004, 02:29 AM   #10
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Great review!

Funny thing is, it was Adam who said, "All Because of You" could be about God. He said it could also be about your parents, the audience even, but he mentioned God first.

I thought when Adam said it could be about God, I thought maybe it's like with other U2 songs, the you, could be God, but then I actually heard it, absolutely. The "I am" part.

I do think Adam might be the only one who has a clear recognition of Crumbs. (sober)

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