In the period following U2's discovery of clatter and clang with Achtung Baby, a vocal minority of fans yearned for the clean, classic sound of the band's early days. As exciting as U2's years drawing from the information overload of irony-drenched end-of-the-century pop culture could be, the traditionalists seem to have won out in the end. The 1997 album Pop didn't pop, but 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, with its earnest lyrics and sweeping guitar heroics, connected with a fresh take on the group's old style. Sometimes innovation gets overrated, and it's not like the band is all that safe even when playing it safe. Few acts could work on the large scale that U2 favors and not look silly: Nudged a little, The Edge could sound self-indulgent, and it's almost scary how little it would take for larger-than-life, heart-on-his-sleeve frontman Bono to resemble that guy from Live.
Yet in spite of the odds, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb finds U2 sounding just as passionate as it did on 1980's Boy, and just as committed to converting that passion into sprawling pop songs about God, love, and the world's injustices. Given the times and Bono's ascension to the status of a pop diplomat more likely to be seen with the Pope than Paris Hilton, it would be fair to expect an album loaded with political statements. Instead, they get folded into even bigger themes. Rather than a prophet on a hill, Bono just sounds like some friendly, well-meaning fellow when on "Love And Peace Or Else" he mixes vague talk of Middle East peace into a hope that everyone listening leave the earth with a "wrinkled face and a brand-new heart." "Crumbs From Your Table" begins as a plea to a neglectful lover, then quietly brings the same drama into the geopolitical arena.
The emphasis, however, remains on the human experience, and U2 always has the sound to match. The first single, "Vertigo," summons the nervous feeling of being somewhere late at night where there's too much going onsome of it tempting, some of it frightening, some of it unhealthy, and most of it somewhere in between. An exercise in quietude reminiscent of the Joshua Tree days, "One Step Closer" recalls the death of Bono's father to the accompaniment of what sounds like the first great rock hymn of the 21st century. When "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" builds on a slow Adam Clayton bassline, a between-the-notes Larry Mullen drum tap, and a Bono vocal that builds in drama until it explodes with the line "You're the reason why the opera is in me," as The Edge unfurls a muscular, angelic guitar line that only he could play, U2 secures its status as the Biggest Band On Earth, assuming the planet is still big enough to hold it.