From the moment that Edge's guitar ignites "Vertigo," the first track on U2's new record, it's clear that the band's unforgettable fire is burning with furnace intensity.
The album is titled "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and though it has an aftertaste of the band's affair with electronica and looped rhythms in the '90s, the guitar-heavy sound harks back to 1987's "The Joshua Tree."
Whether or not the vintage feel of "Bomb" is a gambit to evoke the landmark album that made them global superstars almost two decades ago, U2 is unabashed about its ambition to remain the "world's biggest band."
Four years after their last record, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," that position is hardly assured. For one, U2's members - now in their early 40s - are no longer youth idols. Their music wouldn't get in the door of MTV's Total Request Live. Airplay is no longer guaranteed on radio stations geared toward younger listeners such as the Top 40 or Modern Rock formats. In short, it's a pivotal moment for a band that, on the evidence of its 11 new subwoofer-busting tracks, is determined not to go gentle into that good night.
"[In] interviews going back to 1979 and 1980 in some of the Irish newspapers and magazines, they made it clear from Day 1 that it was their intent to place themselves right next to The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Beatles," says Matt Magee, webmaster for www.@U2.com, the oldest U2 fan site on the Web.
"That to me seems to be what has driven pretty much everything they do," he says. "They have always wanted to be that No. 1 rock band."
To that end, the album's launch Tuesday has been preceded by the sort of multimedia marketing blitz usually reserved for a Hollywood blockbuster. In addition to multiple interviews and an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," the band has positioned new songs on demographically diverse shows such as "The O.C." and "CSI." And only a dedicated TiVo watcher could have screened out the ubiquitous TV ads for the band's promotional tie-in with Apple's iPod.
"Look at how hard they have to work to keep that mantle," says David Browne, the principal music critic for Entertainment Weekly. "I'm amazed they don't buy Goodyear blimps and put their names on [them] and fly them across cities - it seems like that's the next logical step. It's probably more telling of the state of rock now that a band has to make such grand promotional gestures just to get people excited again."
Rock doesn't rule contemporary music as it once did. U2's 4.2 million sales for "All That You Can't Leave Behind" are impressive given that the album didn't score a US hit single. But the figures pale next to, say, Eminem's 9.3 million for 2002's "The Eminem Show." Bono acknowledged this cultural shift in a lyric on the 2000 album, when he claimed to be "the last of the rock stars/ when hip hop drove the big cars."
But Bono's star power has increased since then. The politically liberal rock star has always worn his bleeding heart on his sleeve, most recently drawing attention to debt in developing nations, AIDS, and trade issues in Africa.
Yet world leaders, not to mention many members of the public, didn't take him very seriously. The Irishman's 2002 trip to Africa with then Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was a turning point in people's perceptions, says Mr. Browne. Soon after, Bono appeared at the side of President George W. Bush for an announcement of a $5 billion aid increase to the world's poorest countries.
For Bono "to have so many contacts with world leaders and to be able to have their ear ... is remarkable," says Steve Turner, author of "U2: Rattle and Hum." "It keeps him more relevant because he's really in the thick of important issues."
Bono's engagement in world affairs may have given the band newfound pertinence. Though "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" is short on overt political statements, its recurring theme about the importance of love is ideally suited to the post-Sept. 11 era.
"[Bono is] writing very personal things but they are universal. I think that is one of his real strengths as a writer," says Dianne Ebertt Beeaff, author of "A Grand Madness: Ten Years on the Road with U2."
The band's new album is full of uplifting anthems and songs about serious themes. It's a contrast to their '90s work.
There was a time during the late '80s when critics pilloried U2 for its earnestness. Stung, the band cut back on writing political songs and presented a more playful live show that included a wardrobe of Liberace-like gold lamé jackets and a stage that included a giant lemon from which the band emerged. That led critics to call them a '90s version of the faux band Spïnal Tap - and sales fell. U2 responded with "All That You Can't Leave Behind," a record with occasional hints of the old U2.
Now the band has come full circle. In addition to adopting a retro sound, U2 is comfortable with making grand statements with their music again. The public - and critics - seems to be responding: U2 already has its first No. 1 single in the US modern-rock format since 1997.