U2, known primarily for grandiose convictions, an intense desire to be the biggest band in the world, and a huge, guitar-driven sound with soaring vocals, have become rather conservative in their evolution. Retreating from their 1980s work, U2 primarily focused on broadening their artistic pallette, bringing in electronica, techno, and other weird fusions. This created a problem with U2's fan base as the decade drew to a close, because the farther U2 strayed into the eclectic musical territory they were pursuing, the more difficult it was for the fans to follow their evolution. When U2 experimented successfully, they made some of the most successful music of their career (ACHTUNG BABY). Yet they grounded their experimentation with a sense of purpose, and they always kept their ambition within the elasticity of the fans' and critics' admiration. At least, they tempered their music with a good dose of rock in the early 90s. ACHTUNG BABY, one of their most experimental, evolutionary records, has been universally hailed by both fans and critics alike as some of their most significant music. ACHTUNG BABY set the course for much of the decade, with U2 going more and more into post-modernism.
Then the 1997 nadir POP happened. Not that POP was necessarily a BAD album. Instead of sounding a natural progression of the band's ambition, the experimentation never really gelled, much like R.E.M.'s UP. POP comes across as torn between two different directions - the anthem-driven, spiritually aware U2 lamenting a loss world, and a strange, dance-driven beat that is supposed to celebrate living with almost primitive desire, instead of commenting on the moral and social decline of earth. Both a critical and commercial flop, U2 seriously re-evaluated their status as artists after POP, and streamlined their sign, making a very conscious return to their earlier sound.
In 2000, U2 delivered the followup to POP, ALL THAT YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND. The title is more than aptly representative of that album. Abandoning wholly the more progressive elements of their music, LEAVE BEHIND sounds like U2 trying to write a classicist record, returning to the styles of their 1980s output. While it was fun to hear them return to that era, ALL THAT YOU, out of necessity, didn't have a lot of artistic evolution. That wasn't the point.
So it's little surprise that U2, has streamlined their music even more on HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB. While their early records were both revolutionary and a thrill to listen too, and the early 1990s work pure genius, HTDAATB is a much more calculated record, made to sound like classic U2 instead of just being U2. U2's experimentation had gotten them in trouble, and this is the result. U2, instead of playing the music they want to play, are now playing to win back the audience that much of their 1990s work alienated. In many ways, like Essau yielding to Jacob, U2 has traded their birthright for porridge, selling their artistic evolution out for trying to be the biggest band in the world.
Although POP did have some unmitigated disasters, at least it was the old U2, wedded to pushing the envelop with cutting edge music. That's the real irony of HTDAATB; the new U2 is returning back to the old styles to win back the fans, while the old U2 was much more interested in creating worthwhile music, combining their ambition with their musical sensibilities, growing artistically and commercially. This is a record that the old U2, after making the records they did in the 1990s, would never make. The old U2 would keep pressing on, pursing their musical evolution. But POP happened and U2 has been reeling ever since.
While this may seem to be a primarily negative review of U2's latest effort, there are some postive notes. While artistically a puzzling, entirely too conservative affair calculated to win back fans, there's some great music here. The lead off-single, "Vertigo," is jagged guitar rock. "Crumbs From Your Table" plays like we're back in the 1980s. "Love or Peace" is an interesting comment on war. "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," written in 2001 when Bono's father died, shows us Bono at his most vulnerable. "Yahweh" (or to be strictly orthodox, YHWH), gives us U2 at their most spiritually thirsty. It has great music and a great sound, but that doesn't make HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB the instant classic ACHTUNG BABY and THE JOSHUA TREE are.
U2's end result is rather a half-breed. HTDAATB is much too conservative and calculated to be truly revolutionary and an undeniable classic, but also just too good to write off completely (mostly because U2's trying to recreate an era of their career where they were writing and performing fantastic music. Hence my four star rating, though artistically it's three). For the causal fan, this may be a subtle point; it has a warm, big sound, and has excellent music. For those who loved U2 for being fearless pioneers will be rather disappointed.
In ways, I belong to both camps. There's some wonderful songs here. But I miss U2's sense of adventure.
[The deluxe edition includes an exclusive DVD that contains a "Making of"documentary, studio and acoustics videos of "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," a video to "Crumbs from your table," the `Temple Bar Mix' of "Vertigo," as well as the video to "Vertigo."]
[There are three songs left off the album that I am aware of. One, "Fast Cars," has surfaced on the UK and Japanese pressings as a bonus track. The band did covered Kraftwerk ("Neon Lights"). There's a non LP track on the second "Vertigo" single, "Are You Gonna Wait Forever?"]