After more than 20 years and 75 million records sold, U2 still has some surprises up their sleeves. Their newest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, is their sixth to open at the top of the charts, has been lauded by a majority of music critics, and will most likely go down in history as one of their top five best records. Some critics, however, are asking the question: what exactly is it about this album that makes it so praiseworthy? Might it be the case that the album is being judged more on the basis of U2’s stellar reputation, rather than by the music itself? Few rock stars this side of John Lennon have been as deified as U2’s Bono; some wonder if even the critics have been blinded by his legendary charisma. Past U2 albums have been characterized by an almost prophetic concern for social justice and global peace; Atomic Bomb, by contrast, hardly even touches on politics. Has Bono, tired of his endless crusading, decided to make a feel-good, “safe” album in this politically charged time? Some critics have accused U2 of doing so, becoming complacent in their old age, but this charge actually couldn’t be further from the truth. With Atomic Bomb, U2 has created an album with incredible spiritual depth; perhaps more depth than any of their albums to date. Most commentators have by and large missed what U2 is trying to say with their latest album because they have overlooked Bono’s Christianity. But How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, by design, is impossible to understand without it.
My first time listening through the album, I found myself almost agreeing with U2’s more negative critics. Although Atomic Bomb isn’t a bad album by any measure, at first glance, it seems to musically be not much more than an above-average pop rock album. Some of the music is great, but on the whole, the album simply doesn’t measure up to past masterpieces like Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. The Edge is still on top of his game, notably with his solo in “All Because of You.” He’s still writing his signature riffs, and especially with songs like “Miracle Drug,” reminds us of earlier classics like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You.” But sadly, more often, the music is more pedestrian than one might have hoped for from a band like U2. For example, while earlier songs (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “New Year’s Day”) utilized the piano in interesting ways, the keyboards in Atomic Bomb will sound strikingly familiar to the majority of listeners. “City of Blinding Lights” (written in honor of post-9/11 New York City) may be lyrically moving, but is nothing special musically; the song reminded me immediately of contemporary Christian worship songs (e.g., not very musically innovative). One song, “A Man and a Woman,” does have an interesting Spanish-acoustic feel; other than that, there is nothing about the music itself that is worthy of the critical praise that Atomic Bomb is currently receiving.
But those customers who purchased the album’s special edition also received a small book, which is a critical part of understanding the album. The book, which is quite eclectic and erratic—full of odd scrawls written by Bono, pasted-on photographs, and so on, in a sort of mix of collage and diary—begins with a verse from Hindu scripture, famously quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer at the detonation of the first atomic bomb: “I am death, the mighty destroyer of worlds.” On the opposite page, as one might expect, there is a picture of what seems to be a mushroom cloud. Throughout the rest of the book, Bono systematically reclaims the ominous phrase, using each word to symbolize a different characteristic of Christ. “I am,” for example, is reclaimed as the very name of God, “I AM,” as found in the Book of Exodus. He continues to take each part of the verse, piece by piece, transforming it from a statement of death and destruction into a reaffirmation of our need for God’s love. The book ends with another famous quotation, this time from Mahatma Gandhi: “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” This quote is also parceled out page by page, but in reverse, so that when seen together, the “world” from both quotes coincides. The answer to the question, then—how do you dismantle an atomic bomb?—is finally given. Asked this question by an interviewer, Bono gave a very simple answer: “Love. With love.” The atomic bomb, which epitomizes the darkness in mankind which is “the destroyer of worlds,” can only finally be dismantled by transforming the darkness within our souls into light. We must become the change we want to see in the world, but we cannot do it on our own—only God’s love, in the end, is able to transform us. “Only true love,” Bono sings, “can keep beauty innocent.”
Once one realizes this by looking through the book, it becomes clear that the album itself has the same message and also follows the same pattern—from darkness and confusion to divine love and transformation. The album’s first track, “Vertigo,” (its biggest single so far), is a loud cacophony of noise and confusion, intended to re-create the ambience of a crowded nightclub. But even there, Bono sings that he sees a girl with “Jesus ‘round the neck”; a reminder of peace and love even amidst the confusion of the club. His message becomes even clearer in the next track, “Miracle Drug”; a song filled with direct references to Christian scripture. “I was a stranger, you took me in,” he sings, and cries out “God, I need your help tonight.” On the track “Love and Peace or Else,” he surveys our war-torn world, and asks, “Where is the love?” Love, he says, is found in God: “because of You,” he sings, “I am.” The album ends with the daring 21 st-century rock hymn, “Yahweh,” completing the album’s journey from the confusion of “Vertigo” to the peaceful worship of God found in the last track. He asks God to “take these shoes, click-clacking down some dead-end street… take this soul, and make it sing.” Although he acknowledges that there is “always pain before a child is born”—that this world, as the Irish natives of U2 know so well, is racked by war and suffering—he still chooses to place his trust in the God who is Love, who promises to come again one glorious day and make all things new. “Still,” he sings, “I’m waiting for the dawn.” This, finally, is where Bono leaves us—like him, waiting for Christ to come.
Benjamin Woodruff ’08 is a Government and Philosophy concentrator in Grays.