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"Where are our roots? We don't have funky black roots. We don't have white rock roots. Our music almost doesn't seem to have roots. It's like totally our own." — Bono

Something I Can Feel: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb At 15

@U2

AtomicBomb15

Image by Brad Rose

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was released 15 years ago, on November 22, 2004. It gave us a number of hit singles, including “Vertigo,” “City Of Blinding Lights” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” The band worked at getting back to some of their roots, and the accompanying Vertigo Tour contrasted their earliest post-punk hits with their modern, world-dominating rock. The tour itself was as dazzling a display of lights, technology and design as the band had ever produced. They got their own designer iPod from Apple and the iTunes release of their (almost) complete music library, The Complete U2, signaling the band’s full embrace of the digital age of music.

The @U2 Staff wanted to look back on the era and dismantle the Atomic Bomb.


 

“Vertigo”

Hello hello!

A rogue Australian radio station started playing previews of “Vertigo” a few days before it was scheduled to be officially released. Coming off “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and the Elevation Tour and all the talk about U2 going garage band, the energy at the time was nuts. The song came out and I was hooked. I couldn't even quite believe it was U2 until a promo video came out a couple days later and I could see them perform it.

Then they released the official music video. It was absolutely dazzling! The band were smoke monsters! A giant target stage in the desert was telescoping and gyroscoping all over the place! I have NEVER been so excited for some new U2 as I was for the start of the How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb era (with the caveat that I was too young to understand the Achtung Baby era when it was happening.)

“Vertigo” was complicated by “Native Son.” “Native Son” is a better song than “Vertigo,” and it’s a more honest song, but “Vertigo” is the better single and is a lot more fun.

“Vertigo” is a perfect studio track that was also a perfect live track. The hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, swirling visuals are an immaculate partner to the music. “Vertigo” is as important to U2 as “Mysterious Ways” or “With Or Without You” or “Pride.” This song gave the band more energy and swagger than they’d had in a long time.

- Ian Ryan

 

“Miracle Drug”

Do you feel anything at all?

I’ve logged incalculable hours listening to U2, so long that songs cease to be songs anymore and are closer to emotions. Through this repetition, sometimes I forget why I initially liked a song until I force myself to examine my thoughts.

One song that stands out to me is “Miracle Drug.” This fantastic rock gives you everything you can ask for. A spotlight on the guitar as the song opens and feels like it’s evolving with the vocals as the song starts. A strong entrance on bass and drums as the music crescendoes, then just keeps going. Lyrics that are thought-provoking and make you want to hear the rest of the story. Rolling back and forth between loud and soft. It really keeps your attention the entire time; you can’t stop yourself from closing your eyes and trying to hit those high notes.

The production of this song can hardly be improved upon. However fantastic How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is, you certainly can’t say that about some of the other tracks. This song deserves a lot more than a casual rotation or a rare concert performance, where it hasn’t been played since two shows in 2015.

- Jessica Hurwitz

The Edge has a lot of brilliant, spark-inducing guitar moments throughout U2’s catalog. It’s hard to pick just one because many of them are just spectacular. For me, “Miracle Drug” is that solo. It’s a mix of chords I constantly give myself doses of because they make me feel so good.The emotion in the lyrics are the first thing to open your heart. “I want to trip inside your head, spend the day there / To hear the things you haven’t said, and see what you might see.” As the song travels through your system, you feel joy and wonder if this drug could take you just a bit higher. Bono sings, “God I need your help tonight...” Then it happens. In a matter of seconds, a sweeping rhapsody of guitar comes through and you feel utter euphoria. It’s short and sweet, but packs such a musical punch. The Edge is honestly a scientist. He came up with a chemistry of notes on the guitar to envelope you in love. That is a true miracle drug.

- Jill Marino

 

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”

One of my favorite cinematic devices is the single-take long shot. The (apparent) lack of cutaways and editing usually makes it a difficult shot to pull off; a myriad of elements needs to fall into place for the shot to work. It’s why I like the "Single Take Version" of this song's music video so much. To my eyes and ears, it’s an honest, unfiltered interpretation of a song that deals with a tough subject: messy, difficult familial relationships.As a child of immigrants—and a first-generation only child at that—there has been no shortage of conflict in my relationship with my parents. Doubtless much of the tension is due to generational differences, but just as much (if not more) can be attributed to the dissonance between “old-school” Filipino ways and contemporary American culture. As a result, I’ve spent much of my adult life emotionally and physically distant from my parents. And although it’s been this way for a while, the eternal optimist in me is still holding out hope that our relationship can be better. In the video, Bono crosses an intersection and starts walking on the other side of the street as he sings the lines “I know that we don’t talk / I’m sick of it all / Can you hear me when I sing?” I’d love to cross the proverbial street with my parents and start anew. I’d love to start talking regularly again. I’d love for them to hear me sing.

- Chris Endrinal

 

“Love And Peace Or Else”

How do you call for surrender with the same aggressive passion of a battle call? You do it with “Love and Peace Or Else.” In line with the greatest U2 protest songs, this one comes down hard on the side of being soft. The title, a threat made in order to end the use of threats, is at the heart of what How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is all about. The first lyric is “Lay down.” It then proceeds to demand you lay down your love, your treasure, your guns and your heart. Giving up in order to fight is a theme running throughout U2’s career, from the entire War album to “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” on Songs Of Innocence, when Bono declares surrender as “The only weapon we know.” While the lyrics on their own could be a folk song from the peace and love era of the 1960s, the music and tone paint a much different picture. Starting with a low machine hum and some scrambled radio signals, the introduction sounds like a distant line of tanks approaching. Then a pounding beat from Larry and Adam in the rhythm section combine with a low, gritty blues riff from The Edge. On top of it all, Bono’s tone comes from a place of anger, frustration and defeat. The overall effect sometimes evokes a hovering chopper, while at others, the calm that comes before a battle. The impending army on the horizon is Bono and the other peacekeepers coming to compel you into voluntary disarmament. It’s like “Love” and “Peace,” as a pair, are tired we’ve been keeping them out of the fight and are about to step in and bust some heads until they get their “release.”

- Eric Gifford

 

“City Of Blinding Lights”

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb has produced two of the most exciting live songs in U2’s entire catalog. One of them is “Vertigo.” The other, of course, is “City Of Blinding Lights.” It’s undeniably U2, with a soaring, chiming guitar intro that builds to a sonic boom and then into one of the catchiest choruses they’ve ever recorded. It’s great on the album, but becomes legendary on the stage. When else can you see Adam Clayton play a keyboard?! Its live presence is so strong that it was able to essentially replace “Where The Streets Have No Name” in 2018 without leaving the audience feeling like something was missing. It’s also one of the few U2 songs that I would describe as “happy.” U2 music is often weighty, even in the early days, so when they write a song that captures a more joyful tone it’s refreshing. It’s truly one of U2’s modern classics.

- Brian Betteridge

 

“All Because Of You”

I am…

As a parent of teenagers finding their way in the world, life brings many challenges – ones which I’m never sure I am qualified or indeed even ready for. "All Because Of You" isn’t a song I particularly care for. I’ve never quite worked out if it’s the opening high-pitched feedback blast that put me off. Even hearing it live for the first time last year in Manchester didn’t change my mind.

"So, what is your point, caller?" I can hear you say. Well, I connect with this song more lyrically and in my ongoing wrestle with parenthood and trying to pave the way for my kids, the conversation in this song resonates. My kids will make their own decisions—I want them to be who they are for them—but in my job as a dad, I do secretly hope that a tiny part of them thinks that... "All Because Of You…I am."

- Kenny Irwin

 

“A Man And A Woman”

Ah, the last song to be picked for the kickball team. I’ve asked other fans why they don’t like it. So far only one person has managed to explain, and that explanation is too personal to share. That’s the thing: sometimes a U2 song will just hit you where you live, for better or for worse. “A Man And A Woman” is very pretty, in a light, melancholic way. I recognize that it’s lyrically disjointed. Bono has approached this topic—the difficulty of holding on to love in a world full of shiny objects—more eloquently elsewhere. When I taught creative writing, I would try to find one true line in an otherwise unimpressive story, and ask the student to “write up to” that line. Luckily I found more than one in “A Man And A Woman”. "You’re gone and so is God […] When the soul wants, the soul waits." This echoes Psalm 62: "for God alone my soul in silence waits." I’m not a believer the way Bono is, but this description of being cut off from love hit home with me in 2004, and still does. "Brown-eyed girl across the street / on Rue Saint Divine": I love the slight surrealism of this line, and the way it’s delivered. It suggests that this love is ordained from on high, so if there’s a street between the lovers, they can always just walk across. The closing line, borrowed from Neil Diamond(!) is a bit of a contradiction: "How can I hurt when I’m holding you?" How indeed. Love is hard; love is tough.

- P.J. DeGenaro

 

“Crumbs From Your Table”

"You speak of signs and wonder, but I need something other. I would believe, if I was able, but I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table."


In just a few words, Bono is able to articulate the reality of multitudes of marginalized people, hitting a nerve for anyone who feels invisible in the world.


We all want to believe in hope, but hope tastes bitter when there’s no food or clean water for the children. Hope is useless as a cure for disease. You can try to love hope, but hope can be a cruel companion when things don’t work out. Hope may be the only thing you can afford, and it’s better than nothing.


Somehow, though, the hope shines through. “Dignity passes by” is a call to action. While dignity for the dying is compassionate, it feels wasted; it should be given to the living while they can still enjoy it, appreciate it, and pass it on to the next person who could use it. It’s a reminder that hope lives in action rather than apathy.


The unassuming sibling hiding behind the big, burly rockers that precede it, this song merits repeat listening. From the first church bell chimes of Edge’s guitar, there’s a gentle benevolence that coaxes us toward kindness, and that is a message always worth hearing.

- Marylinn Maione

 

“One Step Closer”

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was my least favorite U2 album for a long time. Most of the record didn’t resonate with me, and the songs seemed to lack depth. Even the artwork (still my least favorite) seems to depict a band that is bored and tired. It wasn’t until I started investigating the lyrics and meanings of the songs that I began to really hear them. “Miracle Drug” got me first, then “Crumbs from Your Table,” and then “One Step Closer.”


The title “One Step Closer” was born from a conversation between Bono and Noel Gallagher. Noel asked Bono if his terminally ill father believed in God. Bono confessed, “I don’t think he knows” (if he does), to which Noel replied, “Well, he’s one step closer to knowing.” That story unlocked the door me. The lyrics that I listened to but couldn’t hear suddenly revealed themselves as ruminations of the dying between living and death. It’s all happened or is happening without your control. “I'm under a bridge in a rip tide that's taken everything I own,” “I just watch the tail lights glowing,” and “Can you hear the drummer slowing?” It’s a peaceful surrender and acceptance.


I live in a house with some of my dad’s things. He passed away last February. One moment he was there, calling me every night at nine—“You don’t have to call me back, son. I’m just calling to see what you’re up to.”—and then he was gone. All the things that were his, now left behind. All the memories he created are still in our minds and in our hearts, but where is he? Where did he go after that last time we spoke? What does he know now that he didn’t before? Did he know it was coming?


“One Step Closer” and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb meant very little to me for the longest time; now they are embedded in my heart. It’s funny how that happens. How learning about something or experiencing something can change an opinion about something else. The artwork is still crap, in my opinion, but the music is some of the band’s best, in my adjusted opinion.


Happy Birthday and thanks for waiting for me to come around, HTDAAB!

- John Cropp

 

“Original Of The Species”

“Original of the Species” is about uniqueness and its challenges, and its placement on the album is poignant. It emerges from the silence following “One Step Closer” with a circular keyboard phrase that recalls a baby’s first tentative steps. Faux-strings kick in on the song’s album version, but the single lets you hear them for real. Breaks in Bono’s voice underline the love and awe described in his lyrics. This one builds and builds, and he continues to take the song upstairs in a bridge so triumphant that in the soaring final chorus, he reminds me of a figure skater, laughing and ecstatic over a successful triple axel. Upon its release, Bono called “Original of the Species” the best song on the album, and Edge said the last time he cried was while listening to it.


Bono set out to write the song for Edge’s daughter Hollie. It evolved into something more universal, and a case could be made that the Original is Jesus. Or you. Or me. Or Edge (Bono called him an “original of the species” guitarist in 1997). Or Bono (Edge has theorized that Bono is singing to himself at age 20). I like to imagine the two of them going back and forth: “You’re the original of the species.” “No, you are.”


I haven’t had children, so while I did not win the evolutionary game, I’ve retained a childlike perspective. In 2004 I was a heartbroken woman taking refuge in art, and Bono’s “blissfully married to my childhood sweetheart” point of view was often impossible to relate to. “Original” made me feel seen.

- Kelly Edington

 

“Yahweh”

I chose this song for two reasons. The first reason was out of necessity, as I was late to the pickings on this retrospective in our Slack channel. All of the “big” songs were taken, so I looked at what was left and came upon my second reason for picking "Yahweh," which is that I hadn’t listened to this song very much. As it turns out, I was unfamiliar with its story as well. Much like my favorite U2 song, "Moment of Surrender," this song fell out of the sky and onto the band’s lap. Pretty much the whole song is taken from the band’s very first take of the song, and Bono is said to have improvised the chorus. "Yahweh" is a name meant to be unspoken, and in typical Bono fashion, a name he sings as much as his lungs will allow him to. Another similarity this has with "Moment" is that it’s a song about rebirth and opening yourself up to a higher power. It’s also a song about opening yourself up to life, and not just the good parts. An idea summed up in the final line: "Take this heart/And make it break."

- Mason Merrit

 

“Fast Cars”

It’s the bonus track, yeah, but it’s also the perfect bookend to “Vertigo.” “Vertigo” comes from a position of power and demands the right to leave the situation, but “Fast Cars” is too out of it to be able to leave. “Vertigo” is the drunken excess that comes after the funeral, and “Fast Cars” is the week-long hangover where you try to figure out what to do next. Unlike “Vertigo,” “Fast Cars” is much better than its twin, but the fact that both "Vertigo" has its twin "Native Son" and "Fast Cars" has its twin "Xanax And Wine" is telling. Going from Indigenous Peoples' rights to mournful drug dependence fast! “Fast Cars” is a bit of a throwaway if you look at the album as a collection of songs, but it’s an important end if you look at the album as a narrative, as greater than the sum of its parts. And with the “Vertigo” video happening in Portugal and “Fast Cars” ending musically in North Africa (maybe in Morocco?), it gave a bit of advance notice as to what was coming with No Line On The Horizon

- Ian Ryan

 

 © @U2, 2019