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U2's spirit is still on an upward drive

Pop Music | ALBUM REVIEW

U2 "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (Interscope) ****

November 21, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

"A feeling is so much stronger than a thought," Bono declares in "Vertigo," the deliciously dizzy opening track on U2's triumphant new album, and the song is, indeed, pure feeling -- an adrenalin rush that, like a classic Bruce Springsteen road anthem, makes you want to roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.

As Bono suggests, there's nothing in the lyrics that explains why you should feel so uplifted -- the song's strength comes solely through the glorious self-affirmation in the Edge's glittering guitar lines, the rhythm section's driving beat and Bono's impassioned vocal.

But the reason U2 is a rock band for the ages is that Bono usually backs the musical feeling with purpose and thought, and in the rest of the album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," he explores epic themes, from faith to family, with such indelible grace that the CD stands with "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby" as one of the Irish quartet's essential works.

Seventeen years ago, U2 spoke about spiritual thirst in one of its signature songs, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It offered the comforting belief that time will provide all the answers. Now, the older, more philosophical Bono realizes that there are mysteries in life and faith that may never be solved, and the heart of the album deals with adjusting to that.

"Original of the Species," a father's message to his children, may be the album's defining song. In the key lines, Bono, a father of four, sings of a day when he can't solve all their problems or guarantee their destiny:

Baby slow down

The end is not as fun as the start

Please stay a child somewhere in your heart ...

I'll give you everything you want

Except the thing that you want.

"Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" is equally personal -- an absorbing ballad with ties to "One," the 1991 hit that was in part a look at a father's inability to reach out to a son dying of AIDS.

"Sometimes" grew out of Bono's own attempt to mend bruised feelings with his own dying father; after shows on a 2001 concert tour, he flew out to be by his father's hospital bedside in the final days. The Edge's normally active guitar flickers gently as candlelight in a windy cathedral as Bono sings about those nights of restless farewell:

And it's you when I look in the mirror

And it's you that makes it hard to let go.

"One Step Closer" is also about Bono's father, focusing on the struggle to retain one's faith after such a painful loss, with Adam Clayton's caressing bass lines and Larry Mullen's delicate drumming framing the disheartening lyrics:

I'm 'round the corner from anything that's real

I'm across the road from hope

I'm under a bridge in a rip tide

That's taken everything I call my own.

Perhaps prompted by the death, Bono's other observations on family have an urgent edge as well. The silky ballad "A Man and a Woman" is a sweet tale of marital devotion that cuts deeper than normal pop music. Expressing a lasting need, he sings, "I could never take a chance / Of losing love to find romance."

Through it all, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" is a celebration of life -- with another ballad, "All Because of You," serving as a prayer of gratitude.

The only clumsy thing about the album is its title, which sounds like something better suited for a peacekeeping website. It's enough to make even U2 loyalists fear that Bono's increasing activism, in campaigns ranging from AIDS funding to erasing Third World debt, has finally led him to use his music as a bully pulpit. The album's weakest moment is "Crumbs From Your Table," an uncharacteristically obligatory-sounding reminder about man's duty to help his neighbor.

Elsewhere, there are echoes of Bono's social concerns, such as "Miracle Drug," which sees hope in the intersection of religion and science, where some see only ethical conflict. In moments such as these, his views are expressed with such humanity and conviction they don't sacrifice U2's artistry.

In the end, the lyrics make this a remarkably personal album from such an unusually public man.

It's a long way from 1987's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" to "Original of the Species," a journey from adolescence to maturity, and few bands have made it with their creative vision so fully intact. The inspiring thing about "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" is that the four musicians don't even seem winded.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent). The albums are released unless noted.

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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