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Two thousand and four was not the best year for me. I lost my father in late October and my life suddenly became a whirlwind of strange, sometimes conflicting, emotions. There was not much I could rely on in lieu of consolation – I only told a few friends about his death; in addition, I did not feel that most people around me would understand my confusion and pain, as only a few of them had actually gone through something similar at the same age I had. My boyfriend at the time was a fortress of patience, support and resilience, but whatever was going on inside of me just could not be dealt with at the time, even with all the love and care in the world.
So, as I would in any conflicting occasion in my life, I resorted to music. It had always been an integral part of how I understood the world and where I stood in relation to it. At times, it felt like an extra organ, like something flowing through my blood along with the oxygen that kept me alive. I could feel it in my heart and in my bones, so strong and moving that it would sometimes paralyse me. It was my rock and my friend, my only steady companion throughout my life.
Around a month after my father’s passing, U2 released their eleventh studio album, “How to dismantle an atomic bomb”, to which I reacted with mixed emotions. Some songs were instant mood boosters, such as Vertigo and All because of you. Others spoke directly to my recent loss – I will still shed a few tears with City of blinding lights, and I still skip over Miracle Drug and Sometimes you can’t make it on your own, as they are both too painfully personal to me. Other songs were left largely unexplored, like One step closer and Yahweh.
The album was clearly not an instant hit on my CD player (I had one of those back then. I carried it around everywhere, despite its mammoth size). After “All that you can’t leave behind” – another album that was not capable of convincing me right away of its musical qualities – I was expecting U2 to come up with something harder, faster, heavier. I wanted a true rock album, but all I could hear was the lamenting of men dealing with the hardships of middle age (not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with that). It just did not speak to me the way most other U2 albums had so far. When I think of how releases such as “Boy”, “War” or “Achtung, Baby” started a revolution inside of my teenage brain, anything after “Zooropa” just pales in comparison.
Years later, I realised my primary mistake. Some albums seem to be custom made for specific moments in time, like personal guides on how to better approach our lives at a given moment. Others need to be left to mature, as we are also maturing and start to see things differently. “How to dismantle…” is such an album. It was the slowest burn in my history with U2 releases, a relationship 10 years in the making. I still feel myself falling for it, discovering its hidden beauty and ubiquitous wisdom with every listen.
Some of its emotional, sometimes too personal songs make me relate to Bono’s own pain when writing the album, as it was the band’s first release since his father, Bob Hewson, passed away in August 2001. Some of the recordings sound like his impressions on an experience no child wants to live (even though that is what happens to most of us, considering the natural order of things). I could now empathise with his lyrics in ways I never thought I would be able to – in ways I never wanted to.
Back in 2004, being all emotion and raw feelings, as well as red-hot anger after my father’s passing, I stuck with the songs from the album I immediately liked. I skipped the ones that made me bawl my eyes out and left the rest be, as they neither spoke to me at that difficult moment I was going through nor helped me get out of the endless deep of my grief. I had other songs and albums to do that job for me, some from U2’s own discography.
Today, listening to “How to dismantle…” is a treat. It feels fresh, new, strange and mysterious, like uncharted waters, inviting adventurous explorers to navigate through them. The album sounds like a gift I hid for myself a decade ago, a time capsule meant to only be opened after those raw feelings had turned into understanding and compassion. I can even listen to City of Blinding Lights, a sure tearjerker, without completely losing my composure nowadays. My eyes still water, but I will not cry a river like I used to.
That does not mean the album does not affect me any longer. I have experienced my very own version of the stages of mourning (I can guarantee it was not like what you read in books) and music was the only constant as I was going through my personal storm. The especially healing powers of music are not lost in me, and I have diligently exposed myself to the wondrous effects of masterfully executed U2 songs over the years to see if I could forcefully, wilfully get myself out of a sorry state. This approach did not always work – with my father’s death other kinds of help had to be summoned, of a more powerful persuasion –, but it certainly made my sad days less difficult, and my happy days last longer with the company of great music.
“How to dismantle…” is a musical lesson on life’s complexities, from personal loss to poverty, from love between two people to amazement at the world and its vastness. It is about belief, doubt, patience, inadequacy, getting old and understanding where we stand in the universe. It is a classic U2 album in the sense that it covers every delicate subject that is dear to the band, but it differs from other releases as it does not run with a single theme throughout most of its songs.
It is not a conceptual album, like “Zooropa” or “No line on the horizon”. Its grasp is quite clear and accessible to all. Just live life, go through bad and good moments, experience some kind of loss and you will totally get what Bono means when he sings lines such as “what happened to the beauty I had inside of me?” or “we fight all the time, you and I”. Whether it is a conversation between a dying father and son or a tale about the plight of developing countries, “How to dismantle…” sheds light on a series of personal or group experiences that can be shared and understood by all, like vignettes of everyday life as experienced by human kind since the dawn of time. It is honest and straightforward, as real life usually is. It is still not one of my favourite U2 albums, but it is one I learned to appreciate for its simplicity and beauty.
Thirteen studio releases later, the band still has a lot to offer in terms of wisdom and musical exploration. Their latest album, “Songs of innocence”, is the rock record I have been expecting them to put out for years, and it presents the band in a wholly new light. It is a journey back to their Irish roots, to the time when they were fresh-faced 20 year-olds from Dublin trying to leave their mark on the music scenario amidst the revolution of post punk. The album has a theme, but it brings some of the lessons learned since “How to dismantle…”. Its songs are more accessible than those found in, say, “The unforgettable fire” or “October”, the lyrics more easily relatable for general audiences. It may be a pop-ier version of U2, but it carries their genius DNA nonetheless.
They may be approaching 60, but U2 still know how to rock hard and fast, with a sense of curiosity and innovation that so many other long lasting acts have already lost. Their albums are testament to their deep humanity, and their music is sure to outlive their physical existence. From the instant classics to the sleeper hits, the band has something for (almost) everyone, and every song further consolidates their incredible legacy.
This improbable outfit from Mount Temple Comprehensive School may not be your classic rock band, but they certainly took the genre to new, ground-breaking heights. “How to dismantle…” is just proof that they can still rock and be sensible at the same time, as they always strived to be. After all, as the saying goes, you cannot dance to U2 (unless you are listening to their remixes, but that is a whole other thing).