All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a litmus test for U2 fans. Viewed from one perspective, it’s the moment where the group began to lose their adventurous spirit, abandoning the more experimental aspects of their music in favor of the stadium-first rock anthems that brought them to the Super Bowl in 2002. But from the other side, it’s where U2 got back on track after going all-in on the overblown statement of POP, a foray into club music and electronica that, bizarrely, saw the band accused of selling out despite the fact that they already sold millions of copies. That ship sailed long ago. If you preferred U2 as a pure rock band, All That You Can’t… was, to use their own phrase, a sort of homecoming. If, however, you admired their ability to reinvent themselves and emerge every few years with a completely new conception of what U2 could be (after all, Bowie did it dozens of times), then it might have been a little disappointing to hear a relatively straightforward set of rock songs.
Yet the purity of that album’s hook-forward rock sound and the mass-media posturing of POP collided briefly on “Vertigo,” the lead single from the band’s eleventh album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Introduced to most listeners via a flashy commercial for Apple’s iPod, “Vertigo” scored an animated series of hair-flipping, hip-swinging silhouettes tethered to their earbuds, introduced by Bono’s still-confusing Spanish count-off of “uno…dos…tres…catorce.” Which, in English, means one, two, three, fourteen.
“Vertigo” is loud and brash, bombastic yet oddly undercooked. What it attempts to project in an image of looseness and swagger is lost in translation. It’s both too much and not enough, a third- or fourth-generation replica of a song like “Even Better Than the Real Thing” or “Elevation” with the contrast dialed up. Look, I was just as excited about the iPod when it was introduced as anyone—my 160GB iPod classic finally dying was a very disappointing day. But “Vertigo” wasn’t the reason why. Stripped of the more thoughtful critiques of U2’s best political songs, removed of the rich arrangements of their best songs period, it doesn’t feel like U2, really, but more like U2 taking a stab at the then-in-vogue garage rock of a band like The Hives or fellow iPod endorsees The Caesars. It’s not very good.
It’s also, mercifully, the only song of its kind on How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It’s not the only rock song, and in fact Bono even said of the record that it’s their “first rock album,” which isn’t a statement that makes any sense because, well, they’re all rock albums. (This kind of odd hyperbole is just one of the reasons why people get so easily irritated with Bono.) But the other “rock” songs on the album allow some air between the power chords, some breathing room between the ham-fisted crunch. “Vertigo” comes on a little too strong, but the rest of the album gets comfortable quickly, for better or for worse.
Strange as it might sound, the album was in large part a reaction to what U2 saw as All That You Can’t Leave Behind‘s inability to produce enough hits. In hindsight, that might seem absurd; roughly half the album earned airplay on rock radio for about two straight years, and likely still does. But none of them cracked the top 20 in the U.S., “Beautiful Day” being the only one to come close at 21, as well as the only one to go gold. It feels like a minor problem, if it’s even a problem at all, given that the album itself sold 12 million copies. But the throne was theirs to lose.
“I felt that, if our goal is still to be the biggest band in the world, the new record had to have three or four songs that would bring in new people,” bassist Adam Clayton said in a Time feature. That’s ultimately where the problem lies with How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It’s an album that exists to prove a point, so to speak, that point being that U2 are the biggest band in the world. We didn’t need an album to tell us that. We also didn’t need “Vertigo.” But when the aim is to create something with the broadest appeal possible, it potentially loses something in depth and creativity.
Their starting point wasn’t all that promising. After nine months of work with producer Chris Thomas, Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. still weren’t satisfied with the results, even though Bono and The Edge were ready to release what they’d recorded. Mullen even went so far as to say the songs “had no magic,” which led to a new round of work with another producer, Steve Lillywhite, who worked with U2 as far back as their debut, 1980’s Boy. So the work continued, and even more producers were brought on for various songs, and some of the biggest names in the industry at that: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Flood, Jacknife Lee and Nellee Hooper. After the longest gap between albums in their career up to that point—four years—the pressure to create something that lived up to their expectations, and certainly that of those who stuck with the band for so long, had grown immensely. Which makes it all the more deflating that the end result—after a year of work with six different producers—is merely OK.
In 2018, when I wrote a feature on the best U2 songs, I only chose one from How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb: “Love and Peace or Else.” It’s not the only good song on the album, and in fact most of the songs are fine—none of them as cloying as the weakest moments on All That You Can’t Leave Behind or as cobbled together as the tracklist to Rattle & Hum (which still doesn’t feel like their worst album, somehow). “Love and Peace or Else” stands out in large part because it’s different than what surrounds it. It’s looser, dirtier, with the swagger and attitude of a band like The Rolling Stones and the gospel influence to match. It’s neither “Gimme Shelter” nor “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—let’s not go nuts, here—but it’s still pretty good. And while I might be wrong about this, my general impression is that U2 fans in general don’t love this song. Go figure.
There are other bright spots here, certainly. “City of Blinding Lights” is U2 at their most pop pristine, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is a rare moment of atmosphere and beauty winning out over bluster and bombast, and “Original of the Species” is the best real rock anthem here, touched up with strings and soaring as ever. They’re good songs, and to hold them up against prior glories is a losing game—when you’re the band that released The Joshua Tree, you’re doomed to always be in competition with yourself.
But here’s the problem: While one song here is unusually bad and another four are definite keepers, the remaining six are just sort of there. No highs, no lows, just a steady stream of three-chord verses and four-chord choruses, not so much effortless as suffering from a lack of effort. There’s nothing technically wrong with them, and in fact, The Edge’s guitar still carries the inimitable glimmer of his greatest moments of the ’80s and ’90s, but more than ever it feels as if the band isn’t making music as if their life depended on it. That’s a lot to ask of any band, certainly, but that’s also what makes U2 the band that they are. Even All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an album that contains some of their most muted and crowd-pleasing material, still sounds like the work of a band that means every last note—whether you care about what he’s singing or not, on “Beautiful Day,” Bono is selling the hell out of it.
That’s not what’s happening here. It’s looser, simpler, more low-key, almost like a band hashing out songs on the fly in the studio and polishing them up in post-production. Which sounds like it could be fun—for a band like U2, that would be a risk. But outside of a song like “Love and Peace or Else,” I don’t really pick up on that freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. U2 are just kind of playing some rock songs, and while that might be enough to remain the biggest band in the world in terms of ticket sales and units moved, as a statement it hardly lives up to that kind of pressure. At the time, Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield called the album “grandiose music from grandiose men,” but 17 years after the fact, the album—while big in sound—doesn’t feel that grandiose in its ideas.
How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb‘s closest analog from the band’s early career is October, an album that’s pretty good but feels uncertain of itself, fine enough in its execution but drawing from a fairly incomplete well. The difference is one of experience. Where October is a young band trying to find their footing, Atomic Bomb is a team of veterans with well-seasoned instincts that began to question them.
The irony is that it worked. U2 remained the biggest band in the world, and first week sales of the album in the U.S. doubled their previous record, selling 800,000 copies—vastly more than anyone sells in a single week anymore, particularly when you exclude streams. Stateside, the album went triple platinum, and worldwide crossed the nine million mark. How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, by any measure, was huge. And yet, it feels strangely diminutive. For what seems like the first time in their career, U2 released an album that was, ostensibly, just a U2 album, as surreal as that sounds. With rare exception, every prior moment in the band’s catalog was a milestone—an event. And to U2, it still was. But it’s hard not to wonder just how much more exciting an album this could have been, and what kind of blind alleys and obstacle courses the group would have been willing to take on, had their end goal been something other than commercial.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.