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The Prodigal Journey of U2, or Returning Home to Find a ‘Bomb’
By G. Russell McCarty
U2 Bureau Deputy Chief
In U2’s history, there are
mile-markers for stylistic and thematic transformations since with U2 these
two ideas always go hand in hand. They use style to express their themes.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is no exception. It is U2’s second
successful “refinement” album and its most complete album to date. The
themes are expressed more clearly and its music is more evocative than
ever. The new album released two days before Thanksgiving (gloria)
is as complete an expression of thought as the Dubliners have ever
1991 is in the opinion of many (and this writer’s on certain days) the year when U2 released its best album. Certainly, Achtung Baby came out of left field and caught many fans by surprise. It was U2’s second successful reinvention, and most disarmingly successful. It showed that the band’s career had some legs and that it could keep up with the times. It was a musical roller coaster with dizzying new sounds and a full, club vibe. The subsequent Zoo TV tour was a similar reflection of the modern world. Bono, in his The Fly alter ego not only was able to become the megalomaniacal rock star he had always dreamed of, but the band as a whole painted effectively with the new palate of modern technology available on both album and tour. This style-first approach to music became the norm for U2 for nearly a decade until 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
U2's work has always had much more going on than simply the surface themes and topics. Looking closely, we can see larger bildungsroman evident in U2’s entire canon, beginning with the debut album, Boy, and winding its way through each and every album. Great literature expresses its ideas on multiple levels simultaneously and the work of U2, when examined as a whole, does also. The songs are able to express, say, a political idea, but also make it work on spiritual and romantic levels as well. It’s one of the reasons why U2’s music has resonated with so many from so many walks of life and socio-economic brackets.
U2 has through its music expressed an overarching journeythat of a searching pilgrim making his way through life, full of doubt, and entertaining the pitfalls of modern existence. This quest was begun in the first soaring strains of “I Will Follow,” the opener on 1980’s Boy. War crystallized both stylistically and thematically what the pilgrim’s early state of mind was.
On Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, the pilgrim was operating as a spiritual neophyte, consumed by his devotion on songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The pilgrim is in love with his God, and has a singular focus on making an impact on the larger political scene. This idea is expressed in songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He also, however, becomes worldly-wise, and through the Rattle and Hum period, whereby U2 achieved global domination as the band of the late 1980’s, the pilgrim’s faith becomes questioned through his experiences of pain and suffering in the modern world and through new temptations afforded to those whose every whim can now be met.
When the '90’s dawned, the pilgrim was dancing through the streets of Vanity Fair, and loving every minute of it. He soared to new heights (or sunk to new lows, depending on your perspective) of hedonism in Achtung Baby. The entire album reads like a journey into the heart of darkness as the pilgrim explores and then eventually yields to the temptation of his new lover. (Refer to Paul Flanagan’s landmark work U2 at the End of the World for more on this period). Having given himself over to sensory desires, Zooropa is the pilgrim’s house of mirrors, both stylistically and thematically a carnival, as U2 explores keyboard effects to shape and bend Edge’s signature guitar sounds until they are unrecognizable. “Numb” would be the signature song of this album, expressing the bewilderment the pilgrim feels as he examines his new life.
Pop, made in the Clinton-era of the mid-1990’s, is the pilgrim’s new life. He spends his days in glittering clubs like the thumping “Discotheque” in the song of the same title. He surrounds himself by those who stroke his ego, and in “Staring at the Sun,” he relaxes in post-coital bliss under a tree with his lover while expressing the desire to “go blind,” with the excesses. All is not comfortable, however. The pilgrim finds his soul unfulfilled by these new vices, and, although very small, voices inside of him offer doubt at his life’s choices. The final song of this album, “Wake up Dead Man,” provides a clue as to the new direction which the pilgrim, and U2 as a band, would take in the coming millennium. The pilgrim finds himself abandoned by his lover and wonders if there is grace for him again. (“If God Would Send His Angels” is another clue in this direction, but is more of a question in media res than a heartfelt plea for forgiveness.)
The first most of us heard
from U2 since the tones of Pop faded out of the speakers was the
single “Beautiful Day.” At the time, late fall, 2000, it seemed as if that
single, and the entire All That You Can't Leave Behind album, was
a sign that U2 of old was back. Edge’s guitars chimed louder than ever,
and themes of love, hope, and peace were all over the place. But, come
on, with U2, and Bono in the lyrical cockpit, was it really going to be
that simplistic? I believe that to properly decipher ATYCLB, we need to
examine it in the context of the latest, How to Dismantle an Atomic
Bomb, since they are obviously cut from the same cloth, much like Joshua
Tree and Unforgettable Fire were. Unlike those albums, however,
HTDAAB takes on many of the same themes as its predecessor, but gets more
complex, and ultimately, I believe more fulfilling. We will take up ATYCLB’s
place in the U2 canon later, but for now, let’s examine the path HTDAAB
takes, song-by-song:Keep in mind that the themes we’re exploring here are
for the most part sub-text. The songs exist on multiple levels, but the
theme of the pilgrim or prodigal is one of them.
A perfect lead-off to the album, both stylistically and thematically. The pilgrim finds himself in yet another club, this time one called “Vertigo,” hence the album’s opening line - but as the song progresses he is clearly disillusioned with material excesses. I find the line “I can’t stand the beats” particularly humorous, as “big beats” were what the Achtung-Zooropa-Pop era of music-making were all about. By the time the song ends, the pilgrim has expressed a desire to leave the place, and interestingly, it’s a cross around the neck of a dancing girl that leads him out. On a musical note, this song contains probably the gnarliest riff Edge has ever cooked up, on the same level with “I Will Follow,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and “At the End of the World.” Another interesting sub-text is at work, as Bono evokes the imagery of Jesus being tempted by Satan on the top of a tall mountain (Matthew 4). This song also contains the idea that worldly temptations are like vertigo, making one dizzy and threatening a fall.2) “Miracle Drug”
This song brings to the fore a theme that has been relatively heretofore unexplored in U2’s music, and in my opinion is what makes this album one of, if not the best, they’ve produced. The theme is human connection (not the connection between lovers or the desire to spread social change, but the simple life-to-life touching of two human beings), and is expressed in the song’s opening, and of course in the magical Bono-ism “Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” The back-story of the song, written for the Irish paraplegic poet Christopher Nolan, also establishes this theme. This will be one we’ll explore later. The signature line of this song, and one to watch for later, is “I’ve had enough of romantic love, I’d give it up, for a Miracle Drug.” This love-versus-romance theme is in my opinion the theme of HTDAAB. It’s what marks the return of the pilgrim from “the dark side.” Edge’s guitar riff on top of Larry and Adam’s rhythm vibe is vintage stuff, but somehow crisper and clearer, thanks to Steve Lillywhite’s production.3) “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own”
Written for Bono’s father, Paul Hewson, who died during the Elevation tour in 2001, this is the “One” of the album, a great song that becomes spectacular about 3:30 in. There is so much going on here that we miss on first listen. Simply the fact that it is clearly written about Bono’s father makes it different. Bono just doesn’t blatantly talk about his extended family, he usually uses code, but in the lines “It’s you when I look in the mirror, And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone” aren’t really code. By the time the song reaches its crescendo, with Bono belting out a Pavarotti-eque “Can you hear me when I sing?” this song is captivating. Adam is working some great harmonies with his bass, and Edge’s guitars are chiming with great arpeggios. The line “You are the reason why I sing, and the reason why the opera is in me,” are as personal a line as he has ever written. It’s funny that a great loss has brought the pilgrim full circle. This loss has made him realize the importance of drawing those around him closer than ever, whether that is extended family or the family of humankind in general (Which we’ll also explore later.)4) “Love and Peace or Else”
Along with “All Because Of You,” this is a song that musically U2 has never written before. It has a funky blues shuffle to it, and another great Edge lick. This is the make-up song. Now that the pilgrim has come back home for good, things aren’t easy. There are probably toasters or china plates flying at his head, and lots of yelling. He’s pleading with his true love to try to work things out, to “break the monster’s back,” (the monster being the infidelity and the pain caused by it) but it’s not easy. Of course, we all know it’s easy for the one who screwed up to ask for love and peace, but it’s the one who’s gotten hurt that needs time. The clue line in this song is “We don’t have time for a jealous lover.” The bridge passage speaks to the attempts to make it work. Will it happen? We will see. Oh, and by the way, the fuzz bass is out of this world!5) “City of Blinding Lights”
Another “vintage U2, but slightly better than ever” song. It all comes together in the first minute the way that only U2 can, where the actual notes they’re playing aren’t anything special, but the way it all comes together gives you chills down your spine. A song of retrospection, this song finds the pilgrim looking back on his life and experiences, and remembering all that he has seen. I find the line “Neon heart, dayglo eyes, city lit by fireflies” a humorous, and probably unintentional reference to the PopMart experience. Anyone who was there, or at least saw video of the event, knows that the stadium with its wall of video screens and oversized props was indeed a city unto itself. Only someone who has ridden to the stage in a giant sparkling lemon could write this line. This song could be about the pilgrim getting ready to leave home on a trip and missing his true love, hence “I’m getting ready to leave the ground.” Regardless of the actual circumstances, what really matters is the pilgrim begging his lover to “See the beauty inside of me,” and wondering “What happened to the beauty inside of me?” The line of catharsis here is the last one “Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel … luckily,” where the pilgrim realizes he has been blessed all along, through all his experiences, including the giant olive on the toothpick.6) “All Because of You”
Another obvious single with a killer groove, it showcases all three of the musical players really getting it on. Both lead and rhythm guitars are spot on, and we all know how Larry and Adam can pick up on a groove so well. A very spiritual song, dare I say, a worship song? It’s a psalm as only U2 can write it. If only CCM music writers would have the courage to pen lines like “An intellectual tortoise racing with your bullet train” maybe that industry would have a chance. This line is up there with “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” as wickedly awesome lines go. When Bono screams out “I’ve alive, I’m being born, I just arrived, I’m at the door, Of the place I started out from, And I want back inside,” not only does he sound like Mick Jagger never could, we know exactly where he stands. We know the pilgrim wants to come back.7) “A Man and a Woman”
-I have actually read people say this song should never have made the album. Are they on some illegal substance? Leave it to Bono to put the clues to the real theme of the album in one of the least accessible songs musically. It’s a nice change of pace, and has some subtle flamenco-Spanish guitar that is really nifty. The chorus of this album is the climax of the pilgrim’s expression to his lover “I could never take a chance, Of losing love to find romance.” Bono has been known to use code phrases to express other, more complex ideas. It’s one of his trademarks. On this album, “love and romance” is his way of expressing the difference between immediate gratification and deep, soulful, lifetime intimacy. Put another way, “romance” is "Achtung, Baby,” and “love” is, well, “Original of the Species.” But we’ll get there. For now, notice the line “You can run from love, And if it’s really love, it will find you, Catch you by the heel.” In addition to being similar to the “hound of heaven” idea expressed by Christian thinkers throughout the 20th century, this line refers to the pilgrim’s belief that his one true love is still there for him. The cryptic “rue Saint Divine” reference is, in my opinion, a symbolic reference to the pilgrim’s temptations, but a new realization that what he saw in pieces in all those others he sees in full in his true love.8) “Crumbs from Your Table”
And now, he waits. Time has passed, and the pilgrim waits for his true love to embrace him, despite all his screw-ups. This song doesn’t have as much to do with the pilgrim as it does with modern life. If this album is read as a letter to America from the rest of the world, it is really pretty powerful. It is the most overtly political song on the album and speaks to Bono’s work with DATA and his lobbying for money for AIDS research and relief in Africa. The indictment in the second verse, “You were pretty as a picture, It was all there to see, Then your face caught up with your psychology. With a mouth full of teeth, You ate all your friends” is pretty scathing. America, says Bono, has its beliefs so out of whack that it chewed up allies and ignored the social needs of the world. It’s hard to argue with that, even if you disagree, if that makes sense. That idea is expanded upon in the bridge, which talks specifically about “Dignity passing by” a suffering (possibly from AIDS) patient . This song just says, “Show me, don’t just talk about it.” The guitar riff in this song is very similar to that of “Walk On,” but once again, it’s just better.9) “One Step Closer”
A quiet song, with some magical harmonies in it. Why is it on the album? It resembles “Love is Blindness” from Achtung, or “Exit” from Joshua Tree, except it’s not the closer to the album. There is a very simple thought expressed in this song, as the pilgrim just wants to “cross the road,” but he’s not quite sure he can get there. Why is he crossing the road? Well, he’s not a chicken, but the answer could be either intimacy with God, a love, or the truth, knowledge, that he wants. It’s something along those lines. This is the song that only a 40-year old could write, as opposed to a 20 or 30 year old (More on that later).10) “Original of the Species”
The album’s thematic climax, from the standpoint of our little friend, the pilgrim. The harmonies on the chorus are out of this world, really mind-blowing stuff. The pilgrim and his love finally seal the deal. Close the bedroom door and put the “Do Not Disturb” sign up, boys and girls, no room service accepted. It’s a pretty obvious love letter to Bono’s wife, which is another sign that he’s opening the drapes on his own life a little more. The second verse, with only piano, acoustic guitar, bass, and light drums, really chugs. This song has great phrasing, moves from point “A” to point “B” really well, since there’s a lot going on, in terms of different musical ideas. Credit Lillywhite’s production again on this one. On this song, the pilgrim and his love are reunited, again one flesh, and the pilgrim expresses his devotion quite vividly.11) “Yahweh”
The perfect closer to the album. It’s not gentle like many of the others have been, like “MLK,” but it’s more of an epilogue, tying together all of the various themes in the way that Bono likes to, with a reference to the Almighty. The line “Always pain before a child is born” is a dynamite phrase, once again one that, despite over 20 years of the “CCM” industry, no one had the brains to write. The bridge “This love is like a drop in the ocean” shows Bono’s answer to the question “How do you dismantle an atomic bomb?” With love, of course. It also has a brilliant out-of-nowhere Edge lick. The final line to the album, “Take this heart and make it break” shows where the band is going toward, not away from, humankind. It’s interesting that they used a song about God to express the idea that they need to be more aware of their fellow man. Hmm… That’s an interesting homily right there.I believe that this album is the real expression of many of the themes in ATYCLB, both musically and lyrically, only better. So what do we do with that album? File it as a mistake? Of course not. I believe that in terms of the trajectory of U2’s career, it was kind of like a waking dream, the New Jerusalem descending from the sky to John on Patmos, a vision of what the world should and will ultimately be. It is an album full of utopian thoughts, ideals, from the single “Beautiful Day” to “Grace.” That waking dream, however, occurs smack-dab in the middle of the modern techno-savvy world, which for guys born in 1970’s Dublin to working class families might seem pretty confusing. Songs like “New York” and the references to cell phones, new media, and hip-hop show a sense of displacement in the modern era. There is a lot of confusion on this album, as the pilgrim wrestles with the way he wants to believe and feel, and attempts to come to terms with the new era. Remember, this album was released pre-9/11, so although it works so well in a post-9/11 era, the imagery really is about the modern world and all its technology, rather than war and suffering, which are images on HTDAAB. Also mixed up in that album are signposts that the pilgrim is moving toward the place at which he arrives in HTDAAB. ATYCLB is a step on the path toward HTDAAB, but things have yet to become clear.
So here we are, 2004, and eleven albums proper. If HTDAAB is any indication of how the 40-year-old U2 will make albums, then we are in for a great decade. The '20’s were thoughtful, spiritual, and fiery, the 30’s were celebratory, artistic, and sensual. Now, the '40’s are shaping up to be about the things that really matter. That’s where the album’s title comes in it’s about cracking the code to decipher the things in life that are really tricky. U2 has approached them first with innocence, and then with denial, now they are really getting somewhere.