Here are reviews for the major music releases for the week of November 23, 2004:
U2 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)
Halfway through the excellent new U2 album, Bono announces, “I like the sound of my own voice.” Well-said, lad; well-said. Ever since U2 started making noise in Dublin several hundred bloody Sundays ago, Bono has grooved to the sound of his own gargantuan rockness. Ego, shmego – this is one rock-star madman who should never scale down his epic ambitions. As the old Zen proverb goes, you will find no reasonable men on the tops of great mountains, and U2’s brilliance is their refusal to be reasonable. U2 were a drag in the 1990s, when they were trying to be cool, ironic hipsters. Feh! Nobody wants a skinny Santa, and for damn sure nobody wants a hipster Bono. We want him over the top, playing with unforgettable fire. We want him to sing in Latin or feed the world or play Jesus to the lepers in his head. We want him to be Bono. Nobody else is even remotely qualified.
U2 bring that old-school, wide-awake fervor to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The last time we heard from them, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 were auditioning for the job of the World’s Biggest Rock & Roll Band. They trimmed the Euro-techno pomp, sped up the tempos and let the Edge define the songs with his revitalized guitar. Well, they got the job. On Atomic Bomb, they’re not auditioning anymore. This is grandiose music from grandiose men, sweatlessly confident in the execution of their duties. Hardly any of the eleven songs break the five-minute mark or stray from the punchy formula of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. They’ve gotten over their midcareer anxiety about whether they’re cool enough. Now, they just hand it to the Edge and let it rip.
During the course of Atomic Bomb, you will be urged to ponder death (“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”), birth (“Original of the Species”), God (“Yahweh”), love (“A Man and a Woman”), war (“Love and Peace or Else”) and peace (“City of Blinding Lights”), which barely gives you time to ponder whether the bassist has been listening to Interpol. “Vertigo” sets the pace, a thirty-second ad jingle blown up to three great minutes, with a riff nicked from Sonic Youth’s “Dirty Boots.” “City of Blinding Lights” begins with a long Edge guitar intro, building into a bittersweet lament. “Yahweh” continues a U2 tradition, the album-closing chitchat with the Lord. It’s too long and too slow, but that’s part of the tradition.
Like all U2 albums, Atomic Bomb has false steps, experimental bathroom breaks and moments when the lofty ambitions crash into the nearest wall. As America staggers punch-drunk into another four-year moment we can’t get out of, it would be a real pleasure if the political tunes had any depth. (How long? How long must we sing this song?) But Bono scores a direct hit on “One Step Closer,” an intimate ballad about his father’s death from cancer in 2001; “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is the song U2 did at the funeral. When Bono sings, “You’re the reason why I have the operas in me,” his grief and his grandiosity seem to come from the same place in his heart. It’s a reminder that what makes U2 so big isn’t really their clever ideas, or even their intelligence – it’s the warmth that all too few rock stars have any idea how to turn into music. (ROB SHEFFIELD)
Gwen Stefani Love, Angel, Music, Baby (Interscope)
No Doubt singer flies solo and hits the dance floor for her first solo album, Gwen Stefani could have gone the solemn schlock route. But fortunately, she obeys her disco instincts on Love, Angel, Music, Baby. It’s an irresistible party: trashy, hedonistic and deeply weird. Stefani’s gum-snapping sass brings out the beast in her beatmasters, especially the Neptunes in “Hollaback Girl” and Andre 3000 in “Bubble Pop Electric.” Dr. Dre and Eve appear in the Fiddler on the Roof goof “Rich Girl.” She sings repeatedly about her obsession with “Harajaku Girls,” until she sounds like a Japanese pop princess in Valley Girl drag. And anyone who can get New Order on the same track as Wendy and Lisa (“Real Thing”) is some kind of visionary. (ROB SHEFFIELD)
Nirvana With the Lights Out (Geffen)
Excessive? Definitely. But so was everything else about Nirvana. They tried too hard, screamed too loud, made a mess out of all they touched. Kurt Cobain jammed his tunes with more emotional intensity than they could hold, blowing his cool at a time when the rock world was into playing it safe. His band rocked so exuberantly, it made other bands sound halfway committed. They pushed it too far. They checked out too fast. Excess, both the heroic and the stupid kinds, was Nirvana’s whole story. And they made it sound like sick fun.
With the Lights Out is total excess: three discs of outtakes, B sides, acoustic demos and boombox rehearsal tapes, plus a DVD of raw early footage. Loads of these songs haven’t even been rumored on the hardcore Nirvana-bootleg circuit. For starters, there’s Cobain’s 1989 home recordings, with a scary version of Leadbelly’s “They Hung Him on a Cross.” From Nirvana’s first show, in March 1987, there’s an awesomely inept blast at Led Zep’s “Heartbreaker.” There’s an early demo of “Sliver,” sad enough to slice up your heart, with the scared little kid in the song singing, “Grandma, take me home” through Cobain’s barely adult voice.?
But the prizes are the full-fledged Nirvana songs that got away: “Verse Chorus Verse,” “Old Age,” “Anorexorcist,” “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” the B side “Curmudgeon,” the hilarious stoner goof “Moist Vagina.” “Do Re Mi” is an acoustic lament Cobain taped in his bedroom just weeks before his death. The long-bootlegged “Blandest” is one of Nirvana’s toughest songs ever – Cobain yowls about a girl he likes (“You’re my favorite/Of my saviors”) over frantic electric fuzz. Every time he takes it to the bridge, he signals the band with that beaten-dog yelp – “Hey!”- that defines his voice the way “Good God!” defines James Brown. Everything Cobain was trying to articulate about toxic love is right there in that “hey!” Who besides Nirvana could have blown off a song this great?
The DVD footage is nuts – check the 1988 jam at Krist Novoselic’s mom’s house, with Cobain screaming “The Immigrant Song” at the wall as a friend tries to create a strobe effect by flicking a light switch on and off. But you can’t top the naked demo of “Heart Shaped Box,” which has doomier lyrics (“I wish I could catch your cancer/When I am bad”) and a bent noise-guitar solo. Like all boxes, heart-shaped and otherwise, With the Lights Out is for true-blue fans only. But if you think you want it, you do. More, please. (ROB SHEFFIELD)
By the way, these discs are also coming out today:
CREED Greatest Hits (Wind-Up/Sony)
IRON MAIDEN The Early Days (DVD) (EMI)
JESSICA SIMPSON ReJoyce The Christmas Album (Columbia)
The U2 and Gwen Stefani discs are superb, the Nirvana box set is…well, it is pure Nirvana!!