Yeah, I got real tired of the iPod commercial, too. We all did. But what should be more troubling for U2 fans is not the quartet’s commercialism (something that these guys have flirted with throughout their career) but the inflation of their faith — religious and otherwise — into pop music’s own insipid answer to the self-help industry.
In a sense, the members of U2 have always flirted dangerously with didacticism, but their beliefs tended either to manifest themselves in the context of particular world events (“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Pride”) or create platforms from which to ask larger, more troubling questions (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”). But with their eleventh full-length, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and its predecessor, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, these self-assured Irish troubadours are voicing their prophecy with world-encompassing tastelessness — and sounding more like Kofi Annan’s spiritual representatives than rock musicians.
U2’s empirical self-satisfaction, their steadfast belief in the power of love and reason in the face of the world’s horrors, has undercut the propellant power of their music. The Edge’s instantly recognizable chiming guitar transformed the The Joshua Tree‘s spiritual yearning into a sound that defined a decade, and his constantly shifting, brooding psychedelia formed a fitting backdrop to Bono’s ironic turns on the world-weary Achtung Baby. The strongest in U2’s catalogue, these records were about asking questions or — wondering whether it was even worth asking them in the first place — and their music solidified this abstract desire with soaring melody and restless rhythm.
Now, on “Miracle Drug,” a song with musical roots planted firmly in that familiar sound, a self-assured Bono proclaims, “Of science and the human heart/ There is no limit.” With Atomic Bomb‘s confidence, U2’s music, despite its anthemic pedigree, has lost precisely that claim to universality it continually makes lyrically. However infectious the Edge’s guitar work or propulsive Larry Mullen’s drumming, it’s simply much easier to identify with Bono when he’s struggling through a broken relationship or searching for welcoming spiritual shores than when he’s calling on all the “daughters of Zion” and “Abraham’s sons” to “lay down your guns” on the pompous “Love and Peace or Else.”
With longtime collaborators Brain Eno, Steve Lillywhite and Flood trading off duties behind the boards, however, as long as Bono quits proselytizing, U2 can still manage to recall the glories that made them one of the most important bands of the last quarter-century. “City of Blinding Lights” is just that song. The Edge pulls out a blissfully languid slide guitar line as Bono paints a festive picture of an evening lost to nostalgia and the temptations of a city where “the more you see the less you know.”
But the majority of Atomic Bomb isn’t about taking risks; it is, like its title, an instruction manual for the 21st century. Its blandness is all the more frustrating because so much of what made U2 so singular — their brash sincerity and endlessly churning instrumentation — has returned in full bloom. But rather than capitalize in the album’s ripe musical moments, Bono and the boys seem content to dish out platitudes rather than songs.
Audio and video from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Videos on www.u2.com.