Elevating the pleasant holding pattern
U2's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind was a return to artistic grace that served the opposite purpose of the landmark Achtung Baby nearly a decade earlier. Achtung Baby brought playfulness and sonic experimentation into the mix after U2's youthful idealism had congealed into political pomposity and rootsy musical conservatism with 1988's Rattle and Hum.
Conversely, All That You Can't Leave established a new sincerity and absence of affectation after the band's loosening up had lapsed into the campy pseudo-decadence of Zooropa and Pop (and their corresponding tours). All That You Can't Leave found the right balance between sincerity and irony, with the band settling into middle age, but still energized by the idea of playing together. It felt so transparent and effortless, you could imagine U2 making albums like this indefinitely.
With How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, they clearly try to. "Vertigo," the buoyant first single, sounds like a perfectly-realized combination of the last album's standouts, "Beautiful Day" and "Elevation." The moody ballad "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," with its
The group's attempts at social commentary are dicier. The bluesy "Love and Peace or Else" finds Bono waving the white flag with well-intentioned but clumsy results. "Crumbs Off Your Table" is more effective, at least partly because its metaphor about privileged nations ignoring Third World suffering is less hamfisted: "Where you live should not decide/whether you live or whether you die."
One of the great pleasures of the album is Bono's singing, which has never been better. The way he alters his phrasing the second time he sings "I'd give it up" on "Miracle Drug" or stretches the word "feel" to three syllables on "Vertigo" is the sound of a singer relaxing into a new kind of mature prowess, a rock equivalent to Sinatra in his Capitol years. Such moments elevate an album that is largely a pleasant holding pattern. •