Musical alchemy

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By Michael Norman  

Perhaps no one other than Bruce Springsteen understands the rebel-with-a-cause mythology of rock 'n' roll better than the four Irishmen who call themselves U2. Even in the 1990s, when Bono & Company mocked their global stardom in ironic, anti-rock albums such as Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop, they were still the greatest show on earth, actors on an epic odyssey to discover the gods and monsters that rule the world. It's a good thing for rock 'n' roll and those who love it that U2 never seems to find what it is looking for. It is the searching, poetic quality of the music that elevates the band above the rest of the rock 'n' roll pack. Rebellion is an empty pose if self-indulgence is your only goal. With U2, the music is always something more - a vehicle to explore not only what it means to be human, but what it means to be part of humanity.

On How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the band builds on the back-to-rock vibe of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's an old-school U2 album in many ways - a writ-large collection of rock hymns and anthems delivered with prophetic pomp by lead vocalist Bono with a big assist from The Edge in his role as the Zen riff master of rock 'n' roll. The band that turned its back on straight-up guitar in 1990s, is gone, replaced, it seems, by older men looking back to the future to reinvent themselves, this time as wiser, more skillful versions of the young rockers who took the world by storm in the 1970s and '80s.

Bono has described the album as a collection of songs "by a punk band that wants to play Bach." That tension between primitive impulse and complex thought permeates How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It can be heard best in songs that seem at first to be basic guitar rockers - "Vertigo," "City of Blinding Lights," "All Because of You" - but that soon explode, revealing layers of thought and musical dimension. Even the ballads - songs like "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," "One Step Closer," "Original of the Species" - seem to bristle with intricate soundscapes without sounding forced or over-produced.

The music does an exquisite job of illuminating the stories and messages in the lyrics. This is a very personal album in some ways. Bono wrote "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," for his father and sang it at his funeral. It is a plea to be let in, a song about the power of family and community and the soul-destroying dangers of cynicism and isolation. Elsewhere, the songs explore themes ranging from the nature of love ("A Man and a Woman," "Miracle Drug") and the healing power of music ("Vertigo") to the existence of God ("Yahweh") and the often the painful mysteries of faith ("Crumbs From Your Table").

In the end, like any great piece of art, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb will leave you feeling deliriously spent. How do four guys do that sort of thing with just their voices, drums and guitars? That's the essential mystery of great rock 'n' roll. It's what keeps people coming back despite all the bad bands and one-hit wonders clogging up the radio airwaves and pop charts. Every once in awhile, a group like U2 comes along to make it all sound miraculous again.

Michael Norman is Entertainment Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.