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"We're not a Wave. We're not part of anything, we're part of ourselves." — Bono

Atomic Dog

Chicago Sun-Times
U2 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb Rating: 1 and a 1/2 stars



Twenty-eight years after forming in Dublin, U2 has become the Rolling Stones. Both superstar acts have larger-than-life frontmen whose posing and preening is both their strength and their weakness. Both boast perpetually cool guitarists who serve as the groups' musical engines, and both have secret weapons in the form of deceptively simple but amazingly powerful drummers.

Unfortunately, both have also long since morphed from vital, creative rock groups into monolithic money machines, giant corporations that turn out new product -- er, albums -- primarily to fuel lucrative tours of the world's enormodomes.

Like 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2's heavily hyped 11th studio effort, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which arrives in stores Tuesday, is less of an artistic statement or a significant step forward than a simulation of what some unadventurous fans think a U2 album ought to sound like, and at times it veers obnoxiously close to self-parody.

Witness the album opener and first single, "Vertigo," which reeks of formula: Start with a grandiose Edge guitar line that recurs in the bombastic choruses; break it down to some tinkling atmospherics in the quiet verses and oh-so-arty mid-song break, and let Bono wail with great emotion about Jesus, "those bullets [that] rip the sky" and how deeply he feels.

Feels what? That question is never answered in this particular ditty, but you can tell by the way Bono is screaming that he feels something, man. "Whoo-hoo!" and "Turn it up!" he yelps.

Rather than vertigo, the dizzying sensation of the world spinning around you, the song evokes the feeling of deja vu, the sense that you've been here and done this before. My favorite part comes when Bono counts the band in: "Uno, dos, tres, catorce!" In case your Spanish is as bad as his, that translates as, "One, two, three, 14!" And that's as close to a quirky curveball as this long-running group gets in any of these 11 songs.

Looking back at the Rolling Stones' extensive catalog, the most die-hard fan will grant that the group's last great album was 1978's Some Girls, an effort whose raw energy, brave experimentation and self-deprecating humor was inspired by the punk explosion of the time. For U2, it's been downhill since the one-two punch of 1991's Achtung Baby and 1993's Zooropa, whose raw energy, brave experimentation and self-deprecating humor were inspired by the alternative explosion of the time.

Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. were prodded to stretch out and challenge themselves on those albums by the arty but populist production team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, and they were rewarded with the strongest efforts of their career. Lanois and Eno are back in some capacity here, but they're overshadowed by the just plain populist production team of Chris Thomas and old mainstay Steve Lillywhite, and a lazy reliance on the old-school approach dominates over any attempts to break out of the U2 mold.

This isn't to say that songs such as "Miracle Drug" and "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" -- both resonant of the brilliant "One" -- or "City of Blinding Lights" and "Crumbs From Your Table" -- heavy on The Joshua Tree influences -- are devoid of charms. They're just uninspired recreations and inferior simulations of the genuine achievements that preceded them.

As Bono has made abundantly clear in reams of pre-album publicity, the title of the new disc and many of the songs were inspired by his turbulent relationship with his father, who died from cancer in 2001. This experience led him to once again ponder heavy issues such as birth, death, war, peace and the existence of the Almighty, via the album's closer and its pretentious nadir, "Yahweh."

But the singer's musings never rise above the level of fortune-cookie proverbs, and the most honest line in any of his lyrics comes in "All Because of You" when he confesses, "I like the sound of my own voice."

U2's defenders will say it's unfair to allow extramusical factors to taint this album, but we can't avoid the fact that the band has hit a new low with a marketing campaign that outdoes Jessica Simpson's pact with 7-Eleven. The group's ubiquitous TV commercials for Apple and the special-issue iPod containing its entire catalog are cheap, tawdry gimmicks beneath a band of this stature, and while the stars have made a point of saying they didn't take any money for the sponsorship, they certainly haven't said they'll donate their royalties or profits from the tour that begins in March to Third World debt.

Ask yourself: If U2's new music was any good, would the group need to prostitute itself in ads and on the soundtrack to that teen soap opera The O.C.? Would we have ever taken it seriously if it had done this sort of thing circa Boy or October?

"Ah, but these are different times!" the faithful protest. Funny, though, how it sounds like we're hearing the same old song.



THE JOKE'S ON BONO

More than any other rock band, U2 has inspired a bounty of jokes, most focusing on Bono. Even the most loyal fans love to laugh at the messianic singer, as evidenced by the Web site www.enjoyu2.com, which features a collection of quips about the star. Here are a few of my favorites:

*At the party after the show, Bono talks all night about U2, his intentions, his lyrics and his interests. He finally feels a little guilty and says to the other guests, "Sorry, enough talk about me and the band. Your turn to talk about yourselves. How do you like our new song?"

*Edge and Bono crash in an airplane and go to heaven, where they see God sitting on the great white throne. God addresses Edge: "What do you believe in?" Edge replies, "I believe in the Gibson Explorer and that if we had made more U2 records, the world would have become a better place." God thinks for a second and says, "I can live with that. Come and sit at my right." God then addresses Bono: "What do you believe in?" Says Bono: "I believe you're in my chair!"

*Q. How many members of U2 does it take to change a light bulb? A. One; Bono holds the bulb and the earth revolves around him.

*Q. What's the difference between Bono and God? A. God knows that He is not Bono.

*Q. What's the difference between Bono and Moses? A. Bono doesn't divide the sea; he walks on it.



© Chicago Sun-Times, 2004.