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It's in U2's great rhythm section that the band finds its sexuality and its dangerousness. -- Bruce Springsteen, at U2's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

Mysterious Ways

Making records has always been misery for U2. But on 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,' they rediscovered the secret: fusion
Time
U2's Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. realize that much of the world thinks they are criminally lucky. The Edge works out most of U2's melodies on his guitar and Bono writes the bulk of the lyrics, leaving bassist Clayton and drummer Mullen Jr. just a few empty bars to fill and plenty of leisure time. But U2's less famous members are hardly dead weight. In fact, their job is to be live weight -- or at least ballast. They are steady, difficult to impress and maddeningly unromantic. "If we're in the studio trying to build the rocket," says Bono, "Edge is under the hood with his slide rule, I'm trying to become fuel, Larry is pointing out the reasons it'll never fly, and Adam's asking, 'Do we really want to go there?' They're always reasonable and usually correct -- and I hate them for it."

The indispensable wisdom of the rhythm section was proved most recently during the making of U2's new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. For all its success, U2 has never enjoyed making records, largely because the force and diversity of the band members' personalities, combined with their politeness and respect for one another, turns the process into something slow, sloppy and complicated -- like democracy. There was hope, though, in October 2003, when the group gathered in Dublin to give a close listen to songs that Bono, 44, and the Edge, 43, believed were ready for release. "All we needed was the assent of the politburo and the record would have been out for Christmas," says Bono. Clayton, 44, and Mullen Jr., 43, focused on each track and then voted decisively that the songs were simply not good enough. "When it comes to signing off on a project," says Clayton, "you ask questions like, 'Have we got a first single to open the campaign?' Frankly, we were missing more than just a first single." Says Mullen Jr.: "It was awkward, but it had to be said."

With 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind -- an album that sold 4 million copies, spawned a $110 million -- grossing North American tour and earned the band a Super Bowl half-time-show slot -- U2 appeared to regain the coveted title of biggest and best band in rock 'n' roll. But neither Clayton nor Mullen Jr. could shake the feeling that the record had been overpraised by a public relieved to see aging rockers not thoroughly embarrassing themselves. "On the last album there was lots of good feeling," says Clayton, "but only 'Beautiful Day' was a hit. I felt that, if our goal is still to be the biggest band in the world, the new record had to have three or four songs that would bring in new people. Three or four hits."

When it became clear that Clayton and Mullen Jr. were not going to budge, producer Steve Lillywhite was brought in to break the deadlock. "They played me the record," says Lillywhite, "and it was, well, it had the weight of the world on its shoulders. It certainly wasn't any fun." After several lengthy meetings, Bono and the Edge caved. "The songs were good," says Bono, "but good won't bring you to tears or make you want to leave your house and tour for a year. The bastards were right."

Acceptance of that, however, ushered in a typical U2 mini-depression. The not-good-enough songs had taken a year to make, largely because the members of U2 long ago convinced themselves that they're unskilled musicians who, as the Edge says, must "wait for God to walk through the room" before they can write a good song. The humility is charming, but it also provides a convenient excuse for working slowly. "They operate in total chaos," says Lillywhite. "They work slowly, get frustrated and then hold these epic meetings to bemoan how slowly they're working and how frustrated they are. I love them, but sometimes they just need to put one foot in front of the other."

Knowing that a strong first single was U2's greatest concern, Lillywhite, 49, who has produced the band on and off since 1980, decided to re-record a promising track called "Native Son." He set the group up in a Dublin warehouse to get a martial drum sound reminiscent of its early days and persuaded the Edge to "stop worrying about the fine line between White Stripes and Whitesnake" -- or between art rock and arena rock -- and just let loose. When the music started to smolder, Bono grabbed a microphone. "He was awful," says Lillywhite. "The song was all about gun control -- an extension of his political beliefs. Bono doesn't try that kind of thing much anymore, but when he does, you can feel the ambivalence from the band, and so can he. They want the rock star." "Native Son" was rewritten, stripped of politics and retitled "Vertigo." Gradually, it emerged as the most rousing -- and ironically, seemingly effortless -- opener of U2's career.

Despite Lillywhite's success with "Vertigo," the process didn't get any easier. U2 continued to work in moments of epiphany followed by days of wallowing. The Edge obsessed over his guitar sound, Clayton and Mullen Jr. hung around to offer criticism, encouragement and rhythm, and Bono checked in via cell phone during breaks from his various attempts to save the world. "He really wasn't around a hell of a lot," says Lillywhite. Nevertheless, his lyrics were the only thing flowing with relative ease. "It's all done in the morning now," says Bono cheerfully. "I used to stay out late and try to walk the muse home. Now I get up fresh-faced at 7 a.m. and take advantage of her while she's passing out."

In another band, Bono's absences to lobby world leaders for African debt relief and AIDS assistance might have been corrosive, but while Mullen Jr. still refers to the singer as the "little fella" in moments of annoyance, those moments are increasingly rare. "Part of it is all of us being past 40," says Mullen Jr. "But the truth is, it's better for Bono not to be here. He gets frustrated and feels like he can be doing more important things, which I think he's proven is true." When he returns, the band is actually eager to talk politics. "I really didn't like the idea of him appearing in a photograph with George Bush," says the Edge. "Larry didn't like seeing him with [Vladimir] Putin. But Bono felt that in the end, even though he agreed on some level, the benefits [of such photo ops] far outweigh the negatives. We're always discussing it, but then we discuss everything."

After 10 months of endless talking and recording-studio drudgery, U2 held another meeting and finally reached something approaching unanimity on the new album. "I do believe we have the hits now," says Clayton -- and he's right. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is the catchiest album U2 has ever made, though it is neither political -- the titular bomb refers to Bono's tempestuous father, who died in 2001 -- nor, as "Vertigo" suggests, a garage rocker. Mostly it's perfectly rendered grandiose pop, enormous in sound and theme. Bono sings about salvation ("Yahweh"), love ("A Man and a Woman"), doubt ("One Step Closer") and, on "All Because of You," himself ("I like the sound of my own voice, I didn't give anyone else a choice") in vocals crisper and more confident than those on All That You Can't Leave Behind. The rhythm section supports him with typically selfless precision during the verses and controlled fury during the breaks.

But the real star of Bomb is the Edge. On the up-tempo tracks, his guitar swaggers with a grimy, lo-fi elegance. On the half a dozen ballads, he doesn't hesitate to sample the clean, echoing minimalism he created on U2's earlier records. The result is an album that references old sounds for the devoted, integrates fuzzy new ones for the kids and delivers a staggering number of indelible hooks. The only notable weakness is that the pursuit of those hooks keeps Bomb rooted in the thrill-delivering formula of verse-chorus-verse-pedal-steel solo, depriving it of the mood-altering qualities of Achtung Baby or The Joshua Tree. Listening to Bomb straight through a few times is a bit like staring into a closetful of sequins. But depth is not what this album is after. It's a statement of competitiveness and relevance, and the best example of intelligent pop hitmaking this year.

Having gone through the agony of making hits, U2 wants to make sure its songs will be heard. Radio has been unfriendly to the band for years (its last Top 10 hit was 1997's "Discotheque," which peaked at No. 10), so the group decided to cooperate with Apple on a customized black iPod and the now ubiquitous "Vertigo" silhouette ads, though they didn't do it solely for a payday. "A big car company once offered us $25 million for one of our songs," says Bono, "and we turned them down. No money changed hands in this deal. Downloading is the future, and we want to be King Canute. Let's get on the surfboard and ride the wave." As of last week, "Vertigo" had ruled the iTunes download chart for most of the past month. "We shall not go gently," says Bono.

U2 will start yet another world tour in March 2005, right after its members turn up for their presumed induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. None of them are particularly pleased to be reminded that they released their first record 25 years ago, as the hall requires for inductees, but Bono admits he can't wait to join his idols the Beatles and Bob Marley. Clayton and Mullen Jr., naturally, have a different take. "I suppose if people want to shower you with honors, the only reasonable thing to do is accept them," says Clayton. "But it does feel premature," says Mullen Jr. "We're trying to stay focused on the big prize." Someone has to.



© Time Inc., 2004.