Uncut DECEMBER 2004 - by Stephen Troussé


Bono and boys reunite with Steve Lillywhite for that difficult fourteenth album...

U2: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

One! Two! Three! Four! Bono began Boy, twenty-four years ago now, counting in the opening bars of I Will Follow just so. They sounded drilled and disciplined from the start, marshalling the righteous ire of The Clash with the rigour of Joy Division, like God's own post-punk marching band...

Unos! Dos! Tres! Catorce! So when Vertigo wails into life with mangled Spanish, it feels like a timely nod to their garage-band hinterland. "Catorce" rather than the expected "cuatro" because this is, after all, U2's fourteenth album (including Wide Awake In America and Passengers). It had, by all accounts, a difficult gestation: a year's work with Chris Thomas, including sessions with a fifty-piece orchestra, was shelved. There are actually seven people, including Eno, Flood and Nellee Hooper, credited with "additional production". Having spent a decade reinventing themselves as stadium ironists, the supreme irony may be that sincerity is the trickiest pose of all to maintain. If All That You Can't Leave Behind saw them reapplying for the job of Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band In The World, four years on, they might still be on probation.

In which case recalling Steve Lillywhite, the producer of their debut trilogy of albums, to work with them seems like a back-to-basics statement of intent. But no one steps into the same garage twice. While the songs on HTDAAB revisit the wide-eyed, clanging vistas of October or War, some of that marching certainty has been lost, the compasses are reeling and all the clocks seem awry. Really, the cover of this record could have been an experienced update on the blankly innocent portrait of Boy. The title might simply have been Man.

In retrospect, the key line of ATYCLB was from that affectionate quarrel with the ghost of Michael Hutchence, Stuck In A Moment: "I'm not afraid of anything in this world". It may have been a record riddled with mortality, but it sounded oddly energised by the encounter. By contrast, HTDAAB most definitely has The Fear. Bono has said that he thinks of himself as the atomic bomb of that unwieldy title, that his father's death lit a self-destructive spark that took two years to defuse. And Vertigo may be the sound of that immediate tailspin of grief, the brutal disorientation of "Everything I wish I didn't know".

Before his death, Bon's father apparently struggled with and finally lost his faith. If HTDAAB feels much more intimately urgent than any of U2 record of the past decade, it may be that, with their belief so jeopardised, their hopes so thoroughly jangled, there's so much more at stake. While in the past they may have hung with Johnny Cash, and even named a record after the experience of Hiroshima, HTDAAB feels like the first U2 record fully acquainted with Doom, touched by what the American novelist Steve Erickson once called "the nuclear imagination".

The strongest songs on the record wrestle explicitly with these disconsolate intimations of mortality. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own begins quietly with tough-guy bravado, the circling, half-articulated disputes and debts between father and son, and builds gradually to a keening, chiming, classical U2 crescendo that, crucially, feels dramatically earned. If the grief is operatic, well, as Bono acknowledges finally to the father who conducted along to the radio with knitting needles, "you're the reason why the opera's in me".

One Step Closer, meanwhile, is the centrepiece of the record. Inspired by a comment from, of all people, Noel Gallagher, it's the hushed aftermath to Sometimes.... Half-sighed in elaborate reluctance, accompanied by a shining mist of guitar, it offers no consolation in the face of death other than the bruised knowledge that "a heart that hurts is a heart that beats". But, in its stark, awe-struck honesty, it may be the bravest, most affecting song they've ever recorded.

This may all make HTDAAB sound like an entirely morbid, maudlin affair - in fact, it's their most unabashedly strident record since The Unforgettable Fire. At times you suspect that they took the much-trumpeted post-9/11 Death of Irony as a personal relief. On the rampant, rumbustious All Because Of You and City Of Blinding Lights you get the sense of a band flexing muscles they haven't used in years. And though he sings "I like the sound of my own voice / I didn't give anyone else a choice", the stadium rock statesman is most assuredly back.

Crumbs From The Table and Miracle Drug, along with the lavish fifty-page CD booklet, grow out of Bono's campaigning for Third World debt relief, fair trade and AIDS research, declaring baldly, "Where you live should not decide / Whether you live or whether you die". The stomping Jericho blues of Love And Peace... Or Else, meanwhile, is U2's own tactful intervention in the Middle East crisis.

But even at their most glibly bombastic, there's a melancholy undertow that they can't shake. Though the band rattle and strum with their old '80s vigour, the lines that stay with you speak of a creeping malaise: "I'm at a place I started out from and I want back inside"... "The more you see the less you know"... "What happened to the beauty I had inside of me?".

So it feels like an overcompensation when the record builds to the inevitable, unequivocal prayer of Yahweh - the glinting skyscraping guitars of Pride or Where The Streets Have No Name reactivated and ringing as Bono pleads, "Take this heart... and make it brave". It's yearning, rousing and, frankly, it's U2 on autopilot. It feels like a rather pat conclusion to such a troubled record, a piece of deus ex machina uplift tacked on to a film noir by a studio determined not to send the audience out on a downer.

And you suspect that someone in the band might feel this way, too, because, for the UK release alone, the record actually concludes with Fast Cars, an eerie, Arabic-flavoured sketch of a song recorded on their last day in the studio. Overloaded with "CCTV, pornography, CNBC", it feels like the dazed and hungover sequel to the reeling Vertigo. The singer's "in detox and checking stocks" while "out in the desert they're dismantling an atomic bomb". But the song seems rueful about its rehab: "Don't you worry about your mind", sings Bono in a fade clouded in muezzin wails, "you should worry about your pain / and the day it goes away...". It's an appropriately unsettling ending to a record that, at its best, is honest in its doubts.

Q&A: Steve Lillywhite On Helping Steer U2 Back On Course

UNCUT: What led to the band asking you to take over from Chris Thomas?

LILLYWHITE: I think they felt they'd got to a certain stage and couldn't quite finish it off. Everything they'd done was good, worthy, but it lacked something. I think a little bit of the spark had been beaten out of them.

There were rumours they'd been working with orchestras...

I don't think that was Chris' idea. I think the band thought 'it's not going very well, what can fix it?' But, of course, money - and putting a huge orchestra on it - wasn't the answer. We started from scratch; they needed a fresh start really. I went through each of the songs, with Edge mainly, and, to be honest, they needed to write a few more. Vertigo, in particular, was a track that changed a lot. It was originally a song called Native Son, which was pretty good, but I thought the recording was lacking something. So we went to recut it, and as soon as Bono started to sing, it was clear he didn't believe in it. And Bono's only really ready to make a record when he believes in what he's singing. He ties it into the tour - even when he's writing, he's thinking, 'OK, I want an opening song: a song to come on stage and knock them out with.' And Native Son was not that song. So we spent some time, and went through many different choruses until we ended up with Vertigo. In the end, it was pretty much recorded in one take, and I think you can hear that freshness. We recorded the whole thing in about four months - which is pretty fast by U2's standards!

Why do you think the band turned to you?

I was their first producer pretty much, I'm five years older than them and I think subconsciously they still see me as a bit of a grown-up. I like making a good atmosphere for creative people, and I think that was what was lacking - they were in a work-like atmosphere. And, really, you're not in U2 for a job, you're in U2 for the glory. But it's always a collaborative effort. A good producer is never a dictator. They build the ship, I just help to steer it.

Was it very different from recording Boy or October?

Of course it's different, these guys are multi-millionaires now! But that means nothing when it comes down to making a record. All the money in the world will not buy them a great record. What will get them a great record is really digging deep into their psyche, their spirituality.

Are you happy with the results?

There's always a couple of things you'd want to change. You might prefer a different final mix or running order, but I think this is one of their better records. On the last one, four of the songs were great, while the rest varied from the good to the not-so-good. But, with this one, I think all eleven are right up there.