Review: U2's 'Bomb' fails to explode
Band's new album hits some heights but often falls flat
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- U2 tends to remind me of middle-period Who: two bands whose pretensions are usually undercut -- beneficially -- by punkish roots and crack musicianship.
The Who managed to avoid the ponderous pitfalls of Pete Townshend's big concepts by simply playing the hell out of "Tommy," "Who's Next" and "Quadrophenia."
Similarly, U2 has never shied from trying to sound like the world's most important band, but thanks to the group's chops, humor and self-knowledge, even a song such as "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- or a lyric as determinedly poetic as "Have you come to play Jesus/To the lepers in your head" -- avoid artistic affectation.
On the band's new album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," U2 is again aiming high. "Love and Peace or Else" evokes the Middle East to talk about relationships, big and small; "Yahweh" uses a name for God in a song about pain, love and the cleansing of the soul.
What's missing, too often, is melody -- and without melody, the lyrics call too much attention to themselves. After all, in the best U2 songs, such as "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "One," the music is as lyrical as the words. Not even all Bono's emoting -- sometimes growling, sometimes belting -- can overcome having nothing to sing.
So "Miracle Drug," a song about love, drags. "City of Blinding Lights" meanders. They're not bad songs, but they're not memorable either.
That's not to say the album doesn't have its moments. "All Because of You" and "A Man and a Woman" have the understated power the band generates like no other. They're sneaky songs, gaining depth with each listen.
And "Vertigo," the lead track, somehow combines nightclub darkness with brutal introspection ("the jungle is your head," "it's everything I wish I didn't know"), yet works as a great single, thanks to Edge's blazing guitar and the propulsive Larry Mullen-Adam Clayton rhythm section. It's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" with spikes.
"How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" isn't a dud. There's too much tight playing, too many solid songs for that. But the album tends to hold back when it needs to let go. Because of that, this "Bomb" doesn't quite have the explosiveness of the band's best work.