USA Today praises the new album, as Edna Gunderson interviews all four band members on the eve of release.
'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2's 11th studio album and first since 2000, arrives Tuesday amid more anticipation than any release this year. The blissful and aggressive "Vertigo," No. 1 at modern rock stations, is the band's hottest U.S. single to date and just knocked Eminem off the top of the U.K. chart.
Despite Internet piracy, retailers expect a monster opening week and huge holiday sales, and promoters predict instant sellouts for a world tour starting March 1 in Miami.
The Irish quartet isn't just the biggest rock band on the planet, but arguably the best, retaining a relevance years after many contemporaries faded or decamped to the oldies pasture. While such '80s-hatched giants as Madonna, R.E.M. and the Beastie Boys head into retrograde, U2 is entering its 25th year with critical and commercial propulsion. The band still craves rock credibility and chart domination, in that order.
"Right now, we're excited about being a full-on rock 'n' roll band and playing big venues and being a contender for album-of-the-year and having a song on top 40 radio," says Edge, 43, whose guitar is Bomb's uranium core. "But we don't see that as the only way to be successful. What we want to preserve above everything else is the creative life of the band. Our approach to being commercial is be really good and original and don't worry about it."
He and bassist Adam Clayton, 44, are on break downstairs in U2's unobtrusive Hanover Quay studio on the Liffey River that divides the city's north and south sides. HQ has been a frenzied ground zero for Atomic Bomb, under construction for two years.
If Bomb were to bomb, U2 won't vanish in the smouldering crater. Clayton says, "There's something pure and fundamental about always being able to continue performing your body of work. I can see why Bob Dylan chose that. You start that way and end that way. To carry on playing smaller concerts would be absolutely appropriate. You keep the songs alive."
That's what Bono was doing the day before while lunching with friends at U2 manager Paul McGuinness' country manse in Annamoe, an hour south of Dublin. Playing Atomic Bomb at high volume, McGuinness apologizes for his failings as a DJ each time his stereo shuts off when the bass rumbles forth. "City of Blinding Lights," a soaring post-9/11 anthem that applies to any loss of innocence, cuts out, but Bono is undeterred, belting a cappella, "What happened to the beauty inside of me?...Time won't take the boy out of this man."
Atomic Bomb has the wisdom, depth and complexity expected from the durable foursome, but there's also some of 1980's Boy power and no shortage of buoyant optimism, still evident today.
The final hours of recording were "manic, incredible, exciting," says Bono, 44. "People were drinking coffee and walking into walls."
Atomic energy unleashed
Recorded in Dublin and France, Bomb underwent multiple mutations as the band challenged itself to outdo déjà U2.
"The last tour represented a ramping up," Clayton says. "We were cooking and thinking we could do anything. The plan for a rock record had been festering for a long time, and Edge had a lot of starting points."
Reinvigorated by the globally embraced All That You Can't Leave Behind and subsequent Elevation Tour, Edge holed up to pile up Bomb's guitar-driven rough drafts.
"From Achtung Baby, I'd been thinking in terms of keyboards, and guitar was something I had to do," Edge says. "Then I got excited about electric guitar again, and I've been working in primary colors."
After the band enlisted producer Chris Thomas, sessions initially sizzled and then stalled.
"It started out to be a rock 'n' roll album, pure and simple," Bono says. "We were very excited that Edge wasn't sitting at the piano or twiddling a piece of technology, because he is one of the great guitarists. Halfway through, we got bored, because it turns out you can only go so far with rifferama. We wanted more dimension. Now you've got punk rock starting points that go through Phil Spectorland, turn right at Tim Buckley, end up in alleyways and open onto other vistas and cityscapes and rooftops and skies. It's songwriting by accident, by a punk band that wants to play Bach."
By mutual agreement, Thomas left. Steve Lillywhite hopped aboard, as did Nellee Hooper, Flood and Jacknife Lee, dubbed a "sonic terrorist" by Bono.
Atomic Bomb "started off one color, and it had to change," drummer Larry Mullen Jr., 43, explains. "Chris was great at things we were quite good at. There wasn't a row, but we'd come to an impasse."
Within a week, U2 re-recorded five songs, though Bomb-making was never a blasé task.
"Edge is a terrier," Mullen says. "There was a particular drum part, a little inflection I did by accident on a demo we made three years ago in France. It came up in a different idea with a similar guitar. Edge said, 'It's not the same drum.' I said, 'Yes, it is.' He said, 'No, listen to this.' And he pulled the demo out."
Dismantling Bomb's origins, Bono recalls an early version of "Vertigo" that was massaged, hammered, tweaked and lubed before it sailed through two mixes and got U2's unanimous stamp of "very good," which meant not good enough.
"Very good," Bono says, "is the enemy of great. You think great is right next door. It's not. It's in another country."
"Vertigo" was outfitted in a new arrangement, melody and rhythms.
The band discovered untapped reserves of ideas and fortitude. Bono's voice rebounded from "toast," as Mullen put it, to butter.
"There's a strength to my voice I haven't had for 10 years," Bono says, adding with a laugh, "I hope I don't use it to bludgeon people, which I've done in the past, hectoring instead of singing."
At the heart of Bomb
Bono's activism kept him busy while Mullen, Clayton and Edge fine-tuned the sonics, but in his role as lyricist, he left his lecture notes at the podium.
"We've always been political in an organic way," Edge says. "I thought actually this would be a more political album. I think Bono did, too. I'm amazed at how personal it is. It's not a manifesto. It's about what matters. It's an honest snapshot of where we're at."
The album title, lifted from a song ("Fast Cars") only on an import version, hints at an anti-war agenda, yet much of Bomb's ache and intimacy stems from the death of Bono's father in 2001. The words fell swiftly into place.
"Nothing like bereavement to keep the heart porous," Bono says. "It's hardness of the heart that can close down a writer."
Though not immediately conveying themes of faith and foreboding, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a fitting title.
"This is a gigantic and preposterous analogy," he warns. "In the days after Hiroshima, people were never so close to their families and never so hedonistic. The world was a much more fragile place when they saw what the splitting of the atom could do. Suddenly, the world had a sell-by date, perhaps. This album was no time for philosophizing. This is about who do you love, how do you love, why do you love."
Mullen can't recall a U2 record that exudes more confidence, the byproduct of repeated cliff dives.
"We make mistakes all the time," he says. "We're very slow learners, but we do learn. The only way we got to this record was by going down that road. Some mistakes have been our saving grace."
Read the rest of this interview in USA Today