How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

For rock fans, loss of faith is inevitable. Heroes simply can’t remain heroic 24-7, much less for a decade at a time. My U2 loss-of-faith occurred sometime around Rattle & Hum: As editor for one of the early U2 fanzines in America, I’d become disenchanted with both the band (for summarily jettisoning the mystery and romance from its music) and the fans (for a steadily elevating, tabloid-esque interest in the nonmusical doings of U2; the final straw came when I was played purloined answering machine tapes purporting to contain adoring messages left by Bono for a New Orleans paramour named Miranda — yes, the same elusive celebrity groupie “Miranda” who years later would be the subject of an extensive Vanity Fair investigative report).

After quitting the magazine, I sat out most of the ’90s. But faith, as a wise man once said, can be restored. The healing process began in 2000 with All That You Can’t Leave Behind and continues on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It isn’t perfect; like you need me to tell you that too many shiny happy arpeggiated guitar riffs can blunt the, er, Edge of any record, or that deliberately histrionic vocal passages can come across as, well, histrionic, not passionate. Still, the album’s best songs — iPod-on-steroids anthem “Vertigo,” the Gary Glitter-meets-Norman Greenbaum glampunk of “Love and Peace or Else,” the acoustic, Latin soul-flavored “A Man and a Woman” — rank among U2’s greatest.

Granted, U2’s annoying reveal-everything penchant in interviews nowadays means that there won’t be any mystery surrounding their albums. But at least the romance has returned. Bomb’s standout track is “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” a luminous, falsetto-driven tune nominally concerning — as every recent U2 feature has pointed out — the 2001 death of Bono’s father. Yet, with its subtly ambiguous lyrical tack lending a similar emotional heft as “One” or “With Or Without You,” its lingering resonance, long after the song has finished, attains a striking universal quality. The dialogue (“You don’t have to put up a fight/You don’t have to always be right/Let me take some of the punches/For you tonight”) is uttered as child to parent, sure. But removed from original context, as all timeless songs ultimately find themselves removed, it could also be lover to lover, friend to friend, even self to self. Ultimately it’s a meditation on losing faith and all the baggage accompanying the loss. “Sometimes you can’t make it,” sings Bono at the end of the song, then practically sighing from resignation, “the best you can do is to fake it.” With that candid admission, the rebuilding process begins. Perhaps faith can also be rewarded.

Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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