Through the windows of Hanover Quay, the rehearsal and recording studio that U2 has called HQ for the last two decades, streetlights made rippling patterns on the Liffey, the river that runs through Dublin, matching the shimmering overtones coming from the Edge's guitars as the band ran through songs from its new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope).
Gearing up for a year of promotion and touring to follow the release of the album on Nov. 23, U2 was methodically at work, translating multilayered studio creations into songs that would allow four musicians to rock arenas again. U2 is to play a handful of small-scale shows this month, including an appearance Nov. 20 on Saturday Night Live, and will start a world tour of arenas and stadiums on March 1 in Miami.
The Edge had two dozen guitars at his feet, and an assistant noted which guitar, which effect and which setting would be used for each section of each song. Larry Mullen on drums and Adam Clayton on bass were scrutinizing rhythm tracks, trying to strip away clutter without losing swing.
As the band plunged into Vertigo and All Because of You, the sound of early U2 -- the Who's power chords blasted into U2's own domain of spaciousness and yearning -- was merged with an added 25 years of experience, experiments and world-beating success. Standing with one leg forward and one behind him, Bono rocked back and forth and belted, "I'm at a place called Vertigo/It's everything I wish I didn't know/Except you give me something I can feel."
Tensions between intellect and passion, and between pragmatism and faith, drive the songs on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; so do burly guitar riffs, galvanizing crescendos and fearlessly emotional vocals. The album easily stands alongside the best work of U2"s career -- Boy, War, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby -- and, song for song, it's more consistent than any of them.
U2 is almost alone now among rock bands in its determination to merge lofty ambition and pop impact. With songs that determinedly blur divine and earthly love, seeking grace as often as romance, the band doesn't pander to vulgar impulses. Yet U2 has no interest in being a hipsters' cult band; it has always aimed for audiences that can fill arenas, where its music is most at home. "At our very best, at anyone's very best, the great rock bands could always make a pop 45," Bono insisted.
Since the release of Boy in 1980, U2 has gone through musical phases that coincided with the decades. The group arrived with a wide-open, pealing sound that immediately separated itself from punk rock and metal, and has been imitated ever since. Next came an infatuation with American blues and country. Then, in the 1990s, U2 swerved from rootsy to futuristic, deliberately setting aside its old sound to toy with distortion, funk and electronics. Each metamorphosis produced at least one superb album.
"It's really more my fault than Edge's, the putting on of blinkers and going in a different direction," Bono said. "I felt that the spirit of the group was so strong that you could destroy it, that you could burn the flesh of it and still know who it was, and that's what we did through the 1990s."
In 2000, with All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 decided to stop fleeing its past and let its music ring more clearly. The four songs that start the album became anthems of hope and determination, particularly after Sept. 11, but the rest was anticlimactic.