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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? U2'S HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB.  
   
   
 

Everybody loves U2 -- or is it just the idea of them?

Four guys making music together for about 25 years, no breakups or deaths marring the fairy tale.

A few classic albums, plus several decent ones to back those up.

The respect of critics and musical peers.

U2 has reached such an elevated stature in our culture, they've become a calming fixture. Dependent on them to endure through the

 
 

ages while so many of their peers have fallen by the wayside, we crave the legend of them preserved. Sadly, the band's most recent work satisfies this desperate need to an alarming degree.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, like All That You Can't Leave Behind before it, is so classy and classic-sounding that it's utterly boring. Bono and his childhood pals still make competent, sturdy records, and they still sell in bundles. (Can R.E.M. say that?) But these albums

     
 

are also oddly neutered, so polished and vaguely rousing that they don't challenge you in the least. The idea of U2 as adventurous, searching, sometimes pretentious souls trying to take over the world? Well, they've done that already, I suppose. And now they want the peak to last as long as it can. Which means you won't ever ever hear another Pop again -- or even a Zooropa.

For many fans, this maintaining of the brand name is a great thing. HTDAAB and ATYCLB are professional product meant to reassure the faithful that U2 didn't really love electronica or industrial -- that was all a joke, OK? That big lemon the band popped out of on the PopMart tour? A mistake, but they've gotten it out of their system now, so everything's fine. See? There's nothing to be scared of anymore. Bono's wearing normal clothes again, and the Edge is playing his guitar like you remember. No loops, no weird sound effects, none of that mass-media satire anymore. Everything's just fine. Really.

Perhaps it's my own personal U2 bias. The Joshua Tree is a tremendously articulate and emotional album -- I'll grant you that. But it's just no Achtung Baby, an exciting venture into how far a rock band could go beyond its borders without sacrificing its integrity. Listen to it now, and you might forget just how risky a move it was at the time. Taking a cue from shapeshifters as diverse as David Bowie and Madonna, Achtung Baby looked to popular musical styles, adapting and mutating them to the band's purposes. The album introduced the world to the group's sexuality and sense of humor. And it guaranteed they'd never end up sounding or looking like Creed.

Emboldened by Achtung, U2 gambled twice more with Zooropa and Pop, triumphing one-and-a-half times. Yeah, I'm one of those guys who defends Pop. The band verged almost into camp on that record, but it was the work of a talented group trying to make sense of '90s rock. (The successful version of the experiment would occur the same year but would be the work of another band -- Radiohead with their OK Computer.) Even with its duds, Pop houses some of U2's greatest gambits, and even the lesser moments elicit our sympathy and support because of their ambitious intentions.

Maybe it was around then that they realized they're too good to be picked on by trend-seeking music critics. Maybe they grew up and recognized that it was undignified to chase after hipsters. Maybe they remembered that, hey, they're U2, goddammit. And so ATYCLB was forged, a perfectly fine set of real tunes without any tricks or irony. An extremely conscious step toward the "old" U2 sound, the album wowed everybody: even folks who never liked the band in the first place. Four years later, what's most striking still about the record is how inoffensive it is. You'll get a small dabbling in revved-up guitar on the generic "Elevation," but most of the tracks aim for the "inspirational" maneuver (like "Beautiful Day") or the "introspective"/"mature" ploy (like "In a Little While"). And though I complained long and loud about it at the time, I now see the record's merits. It's a "good" album; it just doesn't do a thing for me.

Before the release of HTDAAB, Bono hinted, promisingly, that this would be the "rock" album, the "guitar" album. No more of that Elder Statesman stuff; it was time to rip the roof of this sucka. And, hey, wasn't that lead single "Vertigo" awesome? Mostly, it's three minutes of the Edge proving yet again what an insane guitarist he is -- who cared what Bono was singing about? Add on top of that a great Saturday Night Live performance, and it seemed like the old scoundrels were back.

Except they're not. Beyond "Vertigo," precious little else on HTDAAB rocks or rolls or breaks much of a sweat. Instead, we again find ourselves elbow-deep in stately mid-tempo songs, blithely pretty but missing the indelible moment that great U2 ballads always possess. Think of "One," with its imagery of playing Jesus to the lepers in your head. Or "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)," with its solitary woman lost and alone, rejecting the singer's love. Or "Running to Stand Still," heroin being described as a poison stream allowing you to float right outta here. Of course, you might just remember those songs' unforgettable music and their striking hooks. By comparison, U2's last two records are probably their most sonically conservative, recycling the same solid riffs and melodies we've come to expect from them. Maintain the brand, maintain the brand.

Give the band credit for being dedicated enough to invest these familiar songs with enough warmth for them to seem classic rather than shopworn. "Crumbs from Your Table" hijacks an Edge guitar figure from as far back as "I Will Follow," that driving, sped-up riff that's almost punk. And the death of Bono's father offers some nice somber moments on "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" and "One Step Closer" that echo the quiet stuff from Achtung. (Mortality has replaced lost love and spiritual hunger as U2's reason for being. Likewise, ATYCLB's peaks usually involved the presence of the grim reaper.) And to prove that they're U2, they have songs about God and social justice. Between the anthems and the plaintive vocals, everything feels like U2. For the "old" fans, what's not to like?

Don't call the album awful or terrible or anything so harsh. Be objective and say that HTDAAB is a solid if unsurprising U2 record, another of their late-period attempts at consensus and craftsmanship. But if this is a throwback to "classic" U2, which '80s record of theirs does this sound like? War was more violent, The Joshua Tree more bracing, Rattle and Hum more weary, Boy more yearning. No, HTDAAB longs for a past U2 has long since outgrown. It's all right: Their fans have too, and if the band won't say anything, they won't either. At a time when Radiohead are too "weird" and the White Stripes too "loud," U2 are getting dangerously close to Sting territory -- comfort music at a high level of sophistication. And, hey, who doesn't love the idea of Sting?

Believe the Hype rating: 5 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.