U2, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)
A Music Review by Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
6/4/05 Version [Reposted with some minor stylistic changes on 3/19/15]
If ever one needed instructions on how to dismantle an atomic bomb, the globally famous Irish rock band U2 – known both for their music’s Christian themes and for their serious social activism – has provided a user-friendly “kit” on its eleventh and most recent studio album. The “atomic bomb” in the title of the album does not, of course, refer to a real atomic bomb. Rather, it seems to me, it stands for any obstacle, say sin – original, personal, or social – or difficult relationship that thwarts the authentic flourishing or happiness of human persons, as when lyricist and lead singer Bono sings “You speak of signs and wonders/I need something other/I would believe if I was able/But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table.” Bono wants to see a sermon, not hear one, as all of us surely do, but with that “hermeneutic of suspicion” that accompanies all human efforts to make straight the path of the Lord. So, sounding much like Bob Dylan on his “My Back Pages” (“…I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”), Bono tells us on “City Of Blinding Lights,” “The more you see the less you know/The less you find out as you go/I knew much more then than I do now.” Only faith, hope, and love can fill the gaps, but it is still only a foretaste and not the taste itself, as writer P.D. Wodehouse might say. In this life, we do indeed, as St. Paul says, walk by faith, not by sight (cf. 2 Cor 5:7): “I’m round the corner from anything that’s real/I’m across the road from hope/I’m under a bridge in a rip tide/That’s taken everything I call my own.” Although these lines seem to be a good description of the crisis of the loss of faith and hope, nevertheless, Bono sings, with what appears to be a reference to Christ, that he has a “Finger still red with the prick of an old rose” (Recall that the rose is a symbol with a long history as well as one rich in Christian meaning. Gabriele Tergit’s, Flowers Through the Ages, contains much interesting history of the rose. For example, we read: “The scholastics derived the origin of the rose from the drops of Christ’s blood falling upon a thornbush” [p. 43]. But the rose symbolizes many other realities as well – love and mystery and the sacred, among them.). Hence Bono can persevere and affirm with a faith tested by suffering, “One step closer to knowing…Knowing, knowing” (on the cavernous dirge-like hymn, “One Step Closer To Knowing”).
In addition to good music, there is, as on past albums, plenty more of both sin and grace and social activism on this CD. One hears very often, on multiple songs, words like “soul” and “heart” and “kneel” and “grace.” For me, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is really about those basic themes associated with the drama of the Fall and Redemption: about gaining the world and losing one’s soul in the process (“From the brightest star/Comes the blackest hole/You had so much to offer/Why did you offer your soul?,” “Crumbs From Your Table”); about love teaching one how to kneel (“Vertigo”); about how to be made perfect (“All Because Of You”; cf. Matthew 5:48); about the “scent” of freedom (“Miracle Drug”); about the death of a loved one (“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” a song about Bono’s father who died in 2001); and about the mysterious relationship between chance, free choice, and dignity on “Crumbs From Your Table” (When Bono sings the lines, “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die/Three to a bed/Sister Ann, she said/Dignity passes us by,” one cannot but feel chills up one’s spine [as I did!], as the song brings to mind the poor man Lazarus in Matthew’s gospel, “who would have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table” [Matthew 17:20-21]).
The album is also about the loss of innocence (along with the connection between it and beauty, whether spiritual or physical) – for example, the “What happened to the beauty I had inside [Note: not outside] of me?” on “City Of Blinding Lights”; the “You were pretty as a picture” on “Crumbs From Your Table”; and the “True love never can be rent/But only true love can keep beauty innocent” on “A Man and A Woman” – as well as the recovery of this innocence, that is, about being made “clean” (“Yahweh”; cf. Psalm 51).
There is even a fascinating connection made between (original?) innocence/goodness and childhood on three songs, as when we hear the lyric, “I was born a child of grace/Nothing else about the place/Everything was ugly but your beautiful face/And it left me no illusion” (“All Because Of You”), and then again on “Original Of The Species,” when Bono pleads, “Baby slow down/The end is not as fun as the start/Please stay a child somewhere in your heart” (For me, this song shares a resemblance to pop singer Seal’s most recent work, which also flirts with Christian themes). And finally, the connection is present in the hope that the birth of the (Christ?) child brings despite the “…pain before [he] is born” and the waiting out the “dark before the dawn” (“Yahweh”).
We also get the reconciliation of apparent “contraries” like love and science (as well as their potential for good), for instance, when Bono sings on “Miracle Drug,” “Of science and the human heart/There is no limit.” As if to drive the point home further, Bono sings – in lyrics that put one in mind of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” (from Sgt. Pepper’s, 1967), but without the Eastern loss-of-identity mysticism – “I am you and you are mine/Love makes nonsense of space/And time…will disappear/Love and logic keep us clear/Reason is on our side, love…” Science, when used properly, can even further the aims of love: “Beneath the noise/Below the din/I hear a voice/It’s whispering/In science and in medicine ‘I was a stranger/You took me in’” (cf. Matthew 25:35, where reference to the stranger takes place in the Last Judgment scene of the separation of the goats from the sheep).
So too on the Biblical book of Genesis-flavored “A Man And A Woman,” are the “contraries” men and women reconciled, not for the worse, as in pop singer Peter Gabriel’s song “The Blood of Eden,” from his 1992 album Us (“In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man…And all the while the distance grows between you and me.”). Rather, Bono’s a lover who “…could never take a chance/Of losing love to find romance/In the mysterious distance/Between a man and a woman.” The woman is his “soul mate,” his complementary other. Without her, he is “trying to feel complete again/But you’re gone and so is God.” She is “the one for me/But she was already mine.” And so he sings, “And you’re the one, there’s no-one else/You make me want to lose myself/In the mysterious distance/Between a man and a woman.” There is still “distance,” to be sure (how could it be otherwise!), but the tension is resolved (unlike with Gabriel) in “mystery.” This joining of opposites is, therefore, celebrated, not made a cause for separation or war (as in the “war of the sexes”). Thus, Bono sings, “For love and sex and faith and fear/And all the things that keep us here…” in that mysterious otherness that is the marital relationship. Compared to true, mature, and faithful love tested in fire, Bono seems to say romantic love is like fool’s gold (“I’ve had enough of romantic love,” as he sings on “Miracle Drug”). This song, as well as a few others (e.g., “Yahweh,” with its line, “Take this mouth/So quick to criticize/Take this mouth/Give it a kiss”), has a biblical “Song of Songs” quality to it, whether when speaking of God or the human beloved.
And one must not forget the track, “Love and Peace.” On its face, this song can be interpreted as a straightforward (and naïve?), “anti-war” anthem. I think, however, that would be wrong. True, the CD liner notes include support for such liberal groups as Amnesty International and Greenpeace (Bono, e.g., is very active in African AIDS/HIV work and in crusading for Third World debt cancellation). But apart from the band’s controversial politics and, at times, unconventional Christianity (which as a Catholic Christian conservative I pass over here lest I plunge into controversy!), the song’s deeper message, I believe, points to the need for personal conversion (metanoia) as the way to true and lasting peace, for the line between good and evil, as the great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed, runs straight down the center of every human heart, and “wars” are fought on both personal and social levels. Thus, contra the globetrotting Hollywood activist who is out “saving” the world while neglecting his family and the state of his soul, one must change one’s own life before one can change the world. Peace must reign in one’s own heart before the reign of heaven on earth can take place. “As you enter this life/I pray you depart/With a wrinkled face/And a brand new heart.” No grand talk of nations and their mighty armies! Here, however, as we will see with their song “Yahweh,” the prophet, with all his sins, is reluctant to do spiritual battle (“I’m not easy on my knees,” he sings), but in the end he yields (“Here’s my heart you can break it.”). “Lay down/Lay down your guns/All your daughters of Zion/All your Abraham sons… We need love and peace,” he pleads.
“Yahweh,” which is my personal favorite, for its beautiful and moving melody (The Edge’s guitar work is also amazingly good, as it is on all of the songs), is the final and most explicitly religious cut on the CD of eleven songs. It puts one in mind of the Biblical prophets of old (Of course, you title a song “Yahweh,” and all chance of concealing one’s faith commitments is history!). Yet, the prophet does not want to be sent; in fact he strongly resists, but in the end the Lord wins out. The prophet goes forth with the message of the Lord. Just listen as Bono sings, “Take these shoes…And make them fit”…“Take these hands/teach them to carry.” It is as if to say, as Roman Catholics do before receiving Holy Communion, “I am not worthy Lord, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” With your favor, Lord, I can make it through the darkness of night and see, “The sun is coming up on the ocean/This love is like a drop in the ocean.” However, the prophet knows that salvation is more than the personal reality that Bono sings of earlier in the song: “Take this soul/Stranded in some skin and bones/Take this soul/And make it sing.” Rather, calling to mind the book of Revelation, salvation is a corporate and cosmic event: “Take this city/A city should be shining on a hill/Take this city/If it be your will/What no man can own, no man can take.” The quality of our cities will be only as good as the quality of our souls. Men and women shape both and they shape each other.
In the meantime, as a song from U2’s 1987 “Joshua Tree” had it, “Give yourself away” (“With Or Without You”). For, while we still might not have “found what [we’re] looking for” in this life – to quote another song from “Joshua Tree” – we are a whole lot closer just in praying, as Bono does on “Miracle Drug,” “God I need your help tonight.” St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of God’s grace as “help.” Now, U2, a famous veteran pop group, some twenty-five years old, is telling us we need the same thing! Without it, we have chaos, as on “Vertigo” (the title of the first track). Or end up in “a place called Vertigo.” With this CD, therefore, we have what you might call an effort to engage in – whether at times implicitly or explicitly – on a popular level through music, the “New Evangelization” called for by the late Pope John Paul II (a personal hero of Bono’s, as he has made clear on the current “Vertigo” tour), especially in its linking the importance of social justice with coming to belief in God, that is, evangelization (At least that is my interpretation of the band’s purpose on their new album.). If it helps in some small way lead its listeners to the love of God and neighbor, and not just to the music stores, then it will have succeeded in this effort. I really do think that is what in some way the band had in mind in creating this music. Listen, enjoy, and see if you agree with me (See also the review of Kenneth Tanner, “Courageous Crooners: U2 Dismantle[s] an Atomic Bomb,” November 23, 2004, available at: http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/tanner200411230823.asp.).