So here it is. After years of Premiership TV highlight title songs, Martin Scorsese film soundtracks and speeches to the Labour Party Conference, Ireland’s favourite sons have eventually released their first new album in over four years. After the return to the traditional U2 sound on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band have gone one step further this time by hiring Steve Lillywhite, producer of some of their earliest records.
If you come to this expecting a pale retread of past glories though, you’d be very much mistaken. Although this isn’t quite the return to full on rock that the single Vertigo may have suggested, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is the sound of Bono and company on top form.
The aforementioned Vertigo, in fact, is one of the best things they’ve ever done. Very much in the vein of The Fly or Elevation, the song features The Edge demonstrating exactly why he’s one of the best guitarists in the world. He may slip into the traditional ‘Edge sound’ a lot but no other musician around today can get such a thrilling sound from an instrument.
Elsewhere though, things are taken a bit easier. Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own is an immediate highlight, a classic U2 ballad that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of One. A tribute to Bono’s late father, the lyrics are touchingly personal (“it’s you when I look in the mirror…you’re the reason the opera is in me”) yet the song never feels cloying.
City Of Blinding Lights is another tribute, this time to New York City – and like that city, the song itself is absolutely thrilling. Following a superb slow burning introduction featuring Edge on both piano and guitar, this builds slowly up to a majestic chorus of “oh you look so beautiful…in the city of blinding light”. You can only imagine how good this song this song will sound when the band tour next year.
Elsewhere are less traditional U2 songs – One Step Closer features some miminal instrumentation of slide guitar to wonderful effect with Bono appearing to sing about his faith, a topic that crops up again in Yahweh. The latter is a hugely uplifting number with a truly mighty chorus. The title refers to the name by which God introduced Himself to Moses, and it’s a tribute to Bono that he can explore such issues like his faith and religion without appearing pious or trite.
Even some of the songs that may appear somewhat lightweight on first listen gain extra depth after repeated plays. A Man And A Woman blandly floats by at first but its pure pop soon charms. Original Of The Species too sounds a bit flat in the company of the likes of Vertigo or City Of Blinding Lights but worms its way into your brain to become one of the standout tracks – if only for the revealing line “some things you shouldn’t get too good at, like smiling, crying and celebrity”.
This may not be the best U2 record yet – Achtung Baby still holds that title and probably always will – but it’s certainly one of their most consistently satisfying. It’s the sort of album that you notice new things about each time you listen to: the superlative guitar solo at the end of Crumbs On Your Table, the self-deprecating lyrics of All Because Of You (“I like the sound of my own voice, I didn’t give anyone else a choice”) or the glam rock shuffle of Love And Peace Or Else. There are only a few weeks left of 2004 but U2 may just have submitted the album of the year.