Achtung! U2’s Back, Baby: Buy the Disk-and the Book, Too

You’ve seen the ad: Shadowy figures wearing white earpieces gyrate against brightly colored backdrops as U2 pumps out an abbreviated version of its new single, “Vertigo”-all in the service of Apple’s iPod. Perhaps you were disheartened by the sight of one of rock’s most famously idealistic bands shilling for a computer company. If so, it may be comforting, in a mean sort of way, to know that folks around the world have been filling up their iPods with illegally downloaded songs from U2’s latest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope). More than two weeks before the CD’s scheduled release date, every one of its 11 tracks was available on file-sharing networks, and yet another attempt by a major record company to protect its precious copyrights had gone down in flames.

Just in case it sounds as if I’m gloating, I should mention here that Internet piracy gave me a lucky break, because without it I probably still wouldn’t have heard the new U2 album. A tight security clampdown by the group and its label-following the much-publicized theft of an incomplete version of the record during a band photo session earlier this year-made it impossible for most members of the press to listen to the disc before its release. I could rant about how such precautions never work and how it doesn’t make sense for journalists to be treated like criminals, but that’s a tired refrain and can’t erase the fact that copyright robbery helps no one in the long run. So instead I’ll say this: Potential U2 thieves, don’t do it! How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb deserves your money.

Put simply, U2’s 11th full-length studio effort is the album that its predecessor, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000), was supposed to be but wasn’t. You may recall that the previous platter was hailed as a return to classic form after the questionable experimentation of Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997)-both of which I love, by the way. Sure enough, the programmed-electronics quotient was down, and U2’s principal strengths-Bono’s passionate singing, the Edge’s chiming guitars and the supple Adam Clayton–Larry Mullen Jr. rhythm section-were back up front. But though the sounds were right, the spirit was wrong; too much of the album seemed empty and disconnected, as if the band members were all playing in different rooms.

How to Dismantle, by contrast, is the work of a unified front, as the focused fury of the opening track, “Vertigo,” makes clear. Yes, it’s a silly song, but it rocks with an abandon that makes All That You Can’t cuts like “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” sound tame. Nothing else here is quite as heavy as “Vertigo,” but the slow-building “Miracle Drug” and the anthemic closer “Yahweh” (who else would give a tune a name like that?) also tap into traditional U2 pleasure centers, creating a sense of uplift that may just have you believing salvation for all is right around the corner. And despite a few clunky lyrics and one borderline-dubious selection (“Love and Peace or Else”), there are no outright embarrassments.

It’s pretty clear by now, 28 years into U2’s career, that this band is never going to sound the way it did on 80’s landmarks like War (1983) and The Joshua Tree (1987). Then again, it’s also clear that U2 will always sound like U2, proclaiming its spiritual yearning in bold strokes on a vast sonic canvas. It helps that they know how to recycle. If the bridge on How to Dismantle’s “Crumbs from Your Table” sounds oddly similar to the coda of “Walk On” from the previous album, that’s because their chord progressions are exactly the same. Still, that harmonic information is put to much better use here, as the Edge coaxes shimmering overtones from his amplifier and Bono wails, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” The copy beats the original-one more sign that this is U2’s real return to form.

Of course, lots of people can’t stand U2. Criticism has dogged the band for decades: too serious, too silly, too God-obsessed, too shallow, too pretentious, etc., etc. If you count yourself among the loathers, you may be attracted by the title of Neil McCormick’s new book, Killing Bono (VH1/Pocket), but please bear in mind that Mr. McCormick is actually a fan of Bono and crew. Even so, I’d recommend this book to anyone-Bonophile or Bonophobe-who appreciates sharp writing. And if you’ve had any dealings with the music business, you’ll love it all the more-though you may occasionally find yourself wincing in sympathetic pain.

Since 1995, Mr. McCormick has been the pop-music columnist for London’s Daily Telegraph. Back in the 70’s, he attended Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin along with the four members of U2. He remains friends with them to this day, but it’s been tough: Mr. McCormick wanted to be a rock star, too, and luck was not on his side. As his former classmates scaled the heights of fame and fortune, Mr. McCormick slogged through a series of ill-fated bands-the Modulators, Yeah! Yeah!, Shook Up!-that repeatedly found themselves within inches of the brass ring before falling prey to some frustrating mishap. Management meltdowns, record-company cold feet, distributor bankruptcies and just plain stupid decisions all feature prominently in the narrative.

Killing Bono traces two very different paths through the music world with equal measures of clear-eyed acceptance and lacerating wit. Mr. McCormick pulls no punches. For example, on the subject of artists-and-repertoire executives, the so-called “talent scouts” of the music industry, he writes, “This is what I have learned about A&R over the years: it is essentially a glorified system for keeping musicians out of record companies.”

The many musicians, managers, publishers and record execs who enter and exit the story are, without exception, skillfully and memorably drawn. Bono himself comes off as refreshingly three-dimensional; Mr. McCormick admires him but knows him well enough to cut through his bullshit. Best of all are the vignettes about Mr. McCormick’s first job, as assistant art director for the vaunted Irish music magazine Hot Press, a position he entered at age 17 with precisely zero experience. (Years later, he asked editor Niall Stokes why on earth he’d been hired. Said Mr. Stokes, “You were so obnoxious I thought you had to have something going on.”)

Toward the end of the book, Mr. McCormick recalls a 1996 dinner with Bono, during which the two discussed their strange, almost Dorian Gray–like relationship. U2’s frontman jovially suggested that there was only one way for Mr. McCormick to achieve the worldwide fame he’d craved for so long: “You’ve got to kill me!” (Hence the book’s title.) “I don’t begrudge you a thing,” Mr. McCormick replied. “I think you got everything you deserved. What I worry about is: does that mean I got what I deserved too?”

Somewhere deep in the most bitter and poisonous recesses of his being, Mr. McCormick may always feel that he got a raw deal in life. But looking at the matter objectively, he hasn’t done badly for himself: He may not have killed Bono, either literally or figuratively, but he sure has written a marvelous book.

Achtung! U2’s Back, Baby: Buy the Disk-and the Book, Too