U2 Dismantles the Bomb with Love

There's been a lot of talk, maybe too much talk, over the last few years about Bono. He's in the world's most famous rock band. He's exchanging shades with the Pope, having Salman Rushdie over for dinner and writing movies with Wim Wenders that star Mel Gibson. He even shows up at meetings with President Bush to discuss third-world debt, trade and disease problems. So of course it’s not surprising when the old stories about Bono start to bubble to the surface again. Some of them seem like mild hagiographies, things you'd only expect to see come out of Foxe's book of martyrs. Before he's born his mother visits a seer who tells her that she'll have a son whose first name will start with a “P” (Bono's real name is Paul) and that he will go on to do great things. Then there is the story Bono's father liked to tell about young Paul talking to bees in the garden and picking them up on his fingers without getting stung—a regular St. Francis. You may or may not put much stock in these stories personally, but no matter what you think about him, you have to admit, there's something special about this guy and his band.

In November of 2004, U2 released their highly anticipated 12th studio album, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The hackneyed title apparently wouldn't leave the boys alone in the studio and it just stuck. The band offers no explanation for “the bomb” other than an oft-repeated anecdote about Bono asking Michael W. Smith the question at an AIDS fundraiser, "How do you dismantle an atomic bomb?" To which a baffled Smith just shrugged and Bono answered, "With love." One can only imagine the pseudo-knowing yet perplexed look on Smith's face. "Uh yeah, that's great man. Right on. What are you talking about?"

As it turns out the album is not as enigmatic as the explanation of its title. At first listen one might be inclined to pass Bomb off as another, less cohesive version of 2000’s Grammy-award-winning All That You Can’t Leave Behind. (A handful of the tracks came from the sessions for that album). But the truth is that the songs here have been painstakingly crafted in a way that shows an extra level of care. They come off as relatively simplistic at first listen, but continually reveal greater depth. This is the sign of good art, and Bomb will undoubtedly continue to move the U2 legacy forward. While it may not be their best work to date, it's certainly well-crafted enough to put most of the current pop offerings on the market to shame. Couple this with all the marketing hype from Apple and it's destined to sell millions.

But I don't imagine most people care so much for marketability or soundscan numbers at the end of the day. What’s eminently meaningful about this new album are the lyrics. Bono has come full circle with his writing. He has grown up.There is a spiritual maturity infused here that surpasses any of U2's other work (even if some of the rhymes are poor). The themes are at once inspiring and cleared-eyed. They offer a sober yet hopeful vision of reality, and they have the feel and texture of a man who’s learned from failure, someone who’s willing to make mistakes and who trusts God to be patient with him.

There is no failure here sweetheart
Just when you quit…
"Miracle Drug"

Bono noted recently that U2's first album was called Boy and that this one could have aptly been titled Man. The songs on Bomb resonate deeply with a human spirituality that's hard fought, consoling and mature. These are songs written by a man who is coming to grips with losing a father, a father who he's only just now beginning to understand ("Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own"). These are songs written by a man who is tempted by the lure of romantic relationships with countless beautiful women but has chosen instead commitment to his wife ("A Man and a Woman"). Most importantly, these are songs steeped in a deep and abiding faith in God; songs written by someone who's not afraid to question, to doubt, to fail and to act.

As you enter this life
I pray you depart
With a wrinkled face
And a brand new heart

I don’t know if I can take it
I’m not easy on my knees
Here’s my heart you can break it…
"Love and Peace Or Else"

In other words, these are songs written by a real human being. When you listen to songs like "Miracle Drug," "YAHWEH" and "A Man and a Woman" you understand that you're dealing with someone like you who's grown and progressed because God's love is "teaching [him] how to kneel.” ("Vertigo") And that's a pretty great thing for a rock star to come to grips with, and pretty inspiring for those of us listening too.

In an age where we seek instant gratification, the quick buck and sex over romance, it's nice to have someone out front reminding us of our ideals and the difficulties involved in reaching them. For U2 the days of being “insufferable little Jesuses” (Bono’s term for the Joshua Tree period of U2) are over, but the days of being simple men in search of God are just beginning, and it’s refreshing to hear. Most days saints look an awful lot like flawed human beings; they don't always have to catch bees on their fingers, but sometimes they do, and every once in a while they may just dismantle an Atomic Bomb with love.

Copyright ©2005 Christopher Stratton