Sunday Boring Sunday

They still haven't found what we're looking for: U2
Anton Corbijn
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Rock radio has reserved a parking space for U2 in my memory every New Year's Day, every anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and every time I hear the phrase, "What a beautiful day!" At this point, the band could probably write a song for Arbor Day, and my car speakers would rattle while I hum. U2 can have Christmas, too, so far as I'm concerned: Well before feeding Ethiopia or covering "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," these pale Irish guys sang for a Jesus who pissed off powerful people, not for a wall decoration, and they ladled enough jingle bells over their 1980 debut, Boy, to make even Santa say, "Enough!"

But Christmas is that magical time of year when I allow for the ridiculous to commingle with the beautiful and the true--and in the cold, hungover light of 2005, I can grasp pretty immediately why nonbelievers enjoy hating U2 in the same way they enjoy hating elves, virgin births, and all that other crap. Influential champions of Third World debt relief, corporate partners with Apple, U2 respect and fear the consumer god. They take seriously the amount of money fans have spent on them--in last year's essential concert DVD, U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle, Ireland (Interscope), Bono thanked his fans for the "500 pounds" each one of them likely spent on the band over the years, giving them a nod after acknowledging his own father, who had just died, and the parents of his bandmates, all of whom lent U2 money at the start. (The singer has had his foot in his mouth for so long that it has begun to look like a giant, articulate tongue.) In sonic terms, the group's ideology has translated into a long and awkward dance with their own hugeness and with the hugeness of their sound, which grew alternately ponderous (1987's The Joshua Tree, when the Edge began making a series of bad headwear choices) and square like your dad at the club (1991's Achtung Baby onward).

The temporary achievement of 2000's blissed-out and catchy All That You Can't Leave Behind was to make everyone forget Ben Stiller's Bono impression--or at least allow the band in on the joke. ("I've been insufferable before," Bono told Spin in 2001, "and I will be again.") But resurgent coolness shouldn't obscure two facts about U2: They have been, and always will be, a force for musical evil as well as good. The lounge singer who rendered "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on my recent Caribbean cruise trip only brought home proof of how far poop can float. Second: They are masters of the slow burn, so that I now hear at least one great song ("With or Without You," "Desire," "One," "Wake Up Dead Man," the Johnny Cash-sung "The Wanderer") on each one of the post-1984 albums I dismissed as evil at the time.

Today it only seems fair to search this holiday season's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope) for songs that won't suck in five years. At press time, my prime candidates are 1) "Vertigo" (the Apple commercial soundtrack), 2) "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" (Bono's supposed homage to his dad), and 3) really, there's only the two. Like "Beautiful Day" a few years ago, "Vertigo" contains deceptively conventional trappings--in this case, a lyrical ode to some club, a guitar signature that tattoos itself in your brain, and the compressed sound U2 has favored ever since making Top 40 come to the band 20 years ago with the far weirder and noisier "Pride (In the Name of Love)." But what really gets you here, as on every great U2 track, are the trademarks that make them unlike everything else that rocks: The Edge's chantlike backup vocals, the easy yet solid funk of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, the guitar coda that substitutes for a solo, the strangely atmospheric bridge, and Bono's helpless, almost drunken looseness with rhythm--a vocal approximation of the way he claims to be overwhelmed by songs, rather than imposing himself upon them.

"Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" similarly tingles familiar parts of the spine: The falsetto "And it's you when I look in the mirror/And it's you when I don't pick up the phone," sung against a two-note guitar chime, is Bono at his simplest and most stirring. Since I've already let them have Christmas, I guess I'll give them my days of remembrance for loved ones passed.

But what landmarks in time could the rest of Bomb possibly attach itself to? "Love and Peace or Else" might soundtrack a hockey victory: Despite its best fresh Bonoism--"As you enter this life/I pray you depart/With a wrinkled face/And a brand-new heart"--the song sounds like the Edge just discovered Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part II." "Crumbs from Your Table" is almost a chord-for-chord reprise of "Walk On," and makes me long for the original. With Steve Lillywhite, their producer from Boy, more fully in control here, away from the tweaking hands of Flood, Eno, et al., the band's roar is pleasingly bandlike--you hear each member adding his piece more distinctly. (Lillywhite even tosses in a few jingle bells for nostalgiacs.) But U2 have gotten so used to their unflagging ability to blow out their simplicity into something grand that they pump big wind into tiny sails such as "Yahweh," the band's most naked prayer yet. It's not evil. But it's just not good enough.

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