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Bono had been speaking with Prince—”the Artist,” he clarified, brogue clenching the “ar” with near-piratical insistence. The pop giants had discussed the importance of musicians owning their master tapes, and though few in the Garden’s stands that June 2001 night had much stake in the matter, our rapt congregational fervor was unslaked.
“I’m here to tell you tonight,” Bono paused before bringing it all home, “that U2 own their masters.”
How dizzying was our cheer. Not because we’d reached a consensus on intellectual-property rights or because we loved U2 but because, well, justice had been done. Apartheid never directly affected you either, right? For all their sociopolitical stances, U2 had always spun an indistinct web of righteous empathy for fans to tangle themselves in, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind was less a comeback than a broader net with which to trawl for souls. In “Beautiful Day” they’d composed the ultimate hymn to open-endedness, an emotional Mad Lib that invited you to complete the sentence: “I’m overjoyed that [insert personal stimulus to ecstasy here].” The innocent have been freed! I got a B+ in chem! I’m not pregnant!
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb swells with far less assurance. A seven-nation army couldn’t get the bluesoid riff of “Love and Peace or Else” across; more to the point, the title threat’s too coy to specifically finger the love-and-peace deficient. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” purportedly an elegy for Bono’s recently deceased dad, begs for the empathy U2 once effortlessly summoned. The lyric sheet is a battleground where flowers of occasional eloquence (“I would never take a chance/Of losing love to find romance”) are trampled by legions of rampant clichés (“You were pretty as a picture”). And some nifty harmonic guitar clanging on “Vertigo” hardly counters my suspicion that the chorus’s original lyrics went, “We need a single.”
“Beautiful Day” didn’t happen by accident—the Eno/Lanois braintrust patterned electronics with intricate laboriousness to sonically overwhelm your petty rationality. This time, Steve Lillywhite and the other producers assembled simply construct a U2 album in miniature, mixing in the Edge’s processed-guitar trademark whenever you fear they’re straying into unforgivable un-U2ness. That’s just not enough. After all, for U2’s anthems to celebrate their own intensity of feeling, the band’s sound has to keep ballooning in proportion to their sense of importance.
Despite a sad crisis of purpose in the ’90s—akin to the sight of a brontosaurus trying to sneak through the Ice Age by slipping on a pair of Groucho Marx glasses—few rockers who have confronted the Death of Rock with epic grandeur (rather than the more commonsensical tactics of nihilistic glee, contingent humor, or rhythm and sex) have done so with such absolute self-assurance. Springsteen justifies his ponderousness with the weight of American tradition. Radiohead abdicated before the crown had even been offered. And the closest competitors, Pearl Jam, are too caught up in Eddie’s personal sturm und drang. Alone among these bands, U2 convinced millions they could fill the bottomless chasm of meaning to the very brim with nothing but their own collective hugeness.
And so Atomic Bomb closes with “Yahweh,” the name of the unnameable intoned by the band that am what am. Though their sound has been humbled and doubt creeps in lyrically (“Some people got way too much confidence, baby,” Bono warns in “Original of the Species”), U2 still offer no answer other than the scope and sweep of passion. Bono speaks the truth in “Vertigo”: “A feeling is so much stronger than a thought.” Uh huh, and that’s why we need to gather all the thoughts we can right now in our defense. These days, before you get me to cheer, I don’t need to be convinced that you believe. I gotta be told what you believe.