Time, distance, and the slow dawn of reason have finally enlightened us: All That You Can't Leave Behind sucked. U2's last record saddled the megaton-transcendent single "Beautiful Day" with ten awkward, flailing whiffs at the piñata of beauty, poignancy, and cultural relevance. But then 9/11 raised an urgent need for Bands That Matter and Bono, with his American flag jackets and poignant, nudity-free Super Bowl half-time shows, gladly acquiesced to "Save the World." What a crock.

Thus, the triumphant arrival of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, a far superior effort that highlight's U2's diminishing skills -- both the "diminishing" and the "skills." First, the latter. If the new iPod commercial doesn't beat it to death completely, "Vertigo" will earn a place in the classic rock pantheon. It's as brash, unhinged, and "Dude, turn it up" a tune as this fat 'n' happy band of rock god lifers could hope for. Another track, "Miracle Drug," even trumps it, as Bono sings the first of several bumbling, earnest lines ("Freedom has a scent/Like the top of a newborn baby's head") before the band unleashes one of those monolithic, blood-freezing blowout choruses that remain its sole province. Mocking U2 is great, great fun, but when the planets align, its dominance is unquestionable.

What's diminishing? Ballad quality control. Those who cling to "One" or "With or Without You" are left without. Although "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" manages a dynamic shift (The Edge's mournful guitar, Bono's somber croon), U2 is hell-bent on pounding out as many midtempo, melancholy-but-optimistic, self-help VH-1 rock numbers as disc space will allow, so Bomb's second half is loaded with well-worn vanilla lullabies. Just do a duet with Dido and get it over with.

Still, even the yawners here emit a quiet sophistication. The Edge, his mastery of guitar delay as resplendent as ever, still deserves to bear (or sire) your children. And when the house lights go down and U2 bursts onstage to the mashed-potatoes-for-the-soul strains of "City of Blinding Lights," your fist will invariably pump along as Bono sings, "Oh! You! Look! So! Beau-ti-ful tonight!" These dudes have clearly fallen off, making one song title, "Crumbs from Your Table," a little too uncomfortably apt. But those crumbs remain sufficient to keep them, and us, alive. Eat, eat.

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Rob Harvilla
Contact: Rob Harvilla