Frankly, it's been a while since U2 made a great album. The band rolled out a series of iconic records in the '80s, including "The Joshua Tree," which was the final word on spiritual, conscience-driven music at the time. But in the '90s, the group tried to outpace its own fame with a baffling array of self-absorbed discs, pursuing a postmodern, dance-club hipster path that was trendy but smacked of dilettante interlopers sacrificing their soul to stay ahead of an impossibly commercial curve.
Those days seem to be over. The new U2 album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," out today, is the band's most personal record since "The Joshua Tree." It's not only a joy to see the group rekindle its shimmering '80s guitar-pop sound (with original producer Steve Lillywhite back for many tracks), it's encouraging to know that the music comes so strongly from the gut once again, without the latest techno-experi mental production techniques.
The album comes off like the mature next step from "The Joshua Tree," minus all those nervy, self-indulgent detours of such '90s discs as "Zooropa" and "Pop." Signs of U2's revival were evident on its last studio album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (2000), which included the hit single "Beautiful Day." But "Atomic Bomb" is an even better disc. Guitarist the Edge plays a more dominant role he appears more comfortable reviving his bright guitar swirls and there's a renewed soulfulness from singer Bono, whose best songs involve his reactions to the death of his father, Bob Hewson, in 2001.
The most profound track on this ennobling album is "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," which the band performed at the funeral. The tune, in which Bono hits a glorious falsetto, is sweetly reminiscent of U2's ballad "One" and represents his catharsis: "You're the reason I sing, you're the reason why the opera is in me."
And he adds these son-to-father words: "Listen to me now, I need to let you know, you don't have to go it alone."
"One Step Closer" also addresses that relationship. Enhanced by guitar and pedal-steel atmospherics, Bono sings about what lies in store at the end with the kind of openheartedness that we once took for granted from him. The idea for the lyrics came from Noel Gallagher of Oasis, who is given a special thanks on the sleeve.
On "All Because of You," which could be about a parent or lover or some kind of higher power, Larry Mullen Jr. sets an invigorating drum pattern, and Bono does the rest: "I'm alive, I'm being born," he belts as only he can, edging close to pretension but never going over the line.
There's also a superb love song in "A Man and a Woman," an R&B-flavored track with the Edge playing some pretty Spanish-style acoustic guitar and Bono vulnerably addressing a lover. It sounds like the Triple A radio hit on the record and again testifies to the acceptance of adulthood that makes this such a compelling album.
U2 has stopped trying to target the youth market with a Dorian Gray-type willfulness except, of course, in the leadoff track, "Vertigo," which was licensed for an iPod commercial in a blatant attempt to stay au courant. Still, it's a great song, regardless of the mild stench of selling out.
Predictably Bono, who, some feared, wouldn't apply himself to this album because he's so busy with global concerns such as third-world debt and AIDS in Africa, does indulge in some sloganeering on "Love and Peace or Else." The song builds tension through the Edge's industrial-sounding guitar, while Bono urges, "lay down your guns."
But Bono also displays a sense of humor on the punningly titled but stately "Original of the Species," which seems to borrow a chapter from John Lennon with its irreverent verse: "Some things you shouldn't get too good at like smiling, crying, and celebrity/Some people got way too much confidence, baby."
Deep down, Bono is still a spiritual pilgrim, and other numbers attest to that. "City of Blinding Lights" has a similar feel to the band's classic "I Will Follow." And the concluding "Yahweh" (a Hebrew name for God) has the prayerful words: "Take this soul and make it sing." It's the perfect line for this nakedly honest, uplifting album.