It’s a dark early, early morning in 2000, and we’re desperately trying to find the Dublin airport. “Highway” is a pretty rich word for what we keep losing as my wife and I attempt to follow the signs with the little plane on them, cruising along at 60 mph on a three-lane freeway, then suddenly screeching to a halt in a development of new houses, blinking, scrabbling for the map, and getting into totally unfair fights with each other.

Ireland is not a logical place in which to avoid a new U2 single, and, naturally, “Beautiful Day” is playing on the car radio. In fact, the song had been bombarding us for a couple of weeks already while we drove around the country. But I still haven’t gotten into it. I know it’s supposed to be U2’s return to sincerity and all, but it seems—well, kinda blah. Calculated and hermetic, even, not at all like those guitar-rock anthems of yore, when U2 really was sincere.

Then, just when I’ve given up hope of ever making our flight—or of my marriage ever outlasting this honeymoon—I see a tiny sign with an airplane on it. I floor it, we fly up an entrance ramp, and, in one of those hopelessly hokey it’s-stupid-but-goddamn-I-love-rock-’n’-roll moments, the chorus kicks in right as the lights of Dublin International appear down the roadway. The song, I decide, freakin’ rules.

I still firmly believe that U2 was responsible for our making that flight, but realistically it was just another instance of one of the band’s songs working its way into the soundtrack of one person’s life. The album this particular song came from, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, repeated the feat for countless folks over the next year: Joey Ramone listened to “In a Little While” as he died, and zillions took “Beautiful Day” as a palliative for Sept. 11. Remember U2’s Super Bowl performance, when the names of the victims scrolled behind Bono while he sang lyrics that had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever? Make that work and we’ll talk, Toby Keith.

Adaptability has been key to U2’s remarkable success over the quartet’s nearly 30-year career. So has ubiquity: If you don’t know that the band has just put out studio album No. 11, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, you probably don’t listen to the radio—or watch TV, read magazines, or surf the Web.

Most important of all, though, is believability. For a guy who always seems to be singing about himself, Bono has an uncanny knack for giving voice to every instinct that makes us human, for making the personal seem universal and vice versa. True, his multimillionaire’s life—jetting off to Africa with a Bush-administration official, say, or dodging Jamaican Air Force bullets with Jimmy Buffett—is beyond most of us. But not for nothing did the man write a song called “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.”

By now, Mr. Vox & Co. have become so comfortable in the space between the overweening earnestness of their early years and the full-on irony they embraced in the ’90s that it’s impossible to know whether anything you hear is being delivered with a heartfelt grimace or a wink and a smirk. Yet that never seems to matter: Their music, once again made more or less by four men and a microphone, a guitar, a bass, and a drum set, is at once epic and intimate—and can be instantly assimilated into whatever Special Moments your life may hold. As has been so often the case with a new U2 album, what Atomic Bomb means is up to you.

“Vertigo,” the first single, has served as the backdrop to an inescapable TV ad for the Apple iPod for a month or so, and it’s everything that people who’ve ignored U2 records since Achtung Baby could hope for this holiday season: a monster riff, a driving beat, and Bono yelling about a love that teaches him to “Kneeel!/Kneee-eee-eeel!” It also sounds like nothing else on Atomic Bomb, which typically recalls the more grandiose moments from classic ’80s albums such as The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire.

On first listen, moments like these can be a little deadly. One of the criticisms that U2 haters always make is that Bono can sometimes come across as as insincerely sincere as a motivational speaker. And certainly that tendency is on display here—see, for example, “One Step Closer,” on which he offers up this bit of hoary wisdom: “Well the heart that hurts/Is a heart that beats.”

So the group’s music and cynicism aren’t such a great fit. Whatever. There are worse things than listening to musicians who seem to genuinely believe that the world can be a better place if only they can make their message loud and catchy enough. This was U2’s original mission, and it’s one the band embraces even more on Atomic Bomb than it did on the back-from-the-rave Leave Behind. Heck, “City of Blinding Lights” could even be an outtake from 1983’s War, with the Edge’s chiming, delayed guitars meshing with tambourines and piano descants, giving the proceedings a gigantic, band-playing-on-a-glacier feel that harks back to the early days of rock’s most sweeping medium since the double album: the music video.

You can always tell which kind of Bono persona you’re getting by the length of his hair. A mulleted messiah in the old days, a close-cropped smartass during the PopMart tour, he now tellingly sports a sort of bob, a ’do that brushes his shoulders only when he really rocks out. This sincere but self-aware Bono takes several opportunities on Atomic Bomb to remind us how little he really knows about the world. On “A Man and a Woman,” he tells us he’d never cheat on his wife because of “love and sex and faith and fear/And all the things that keep us here.” Likewise, “City of Blinding Lights” begins with a couplet any Bob Seger fan can appreciate: “The more you see the less you know/The less you find out as you grow.” Could our man’s celebrated Christian faith be slipping?

Nah. He’s the same old questing soul, eager for God’s help but not sure whether such a thing is even possible. On “Crumbs From Your Table,” he says, “You speak of signs and wonders/But I need something other.” And on the subtly titled “Yahweh,” he prays for grace: “Take this soul/Stranded in some skin and bones/Take this soul/And make it sing.” The ironic Zooropa-era guy shows up only on “Original of the Species,” on which he warns that “Some things you shouldn’t get too good at/Like smiling, crying and celebrity.” And even then, that bit about smiling and crying gets ya right here, doesn’t it?

What Bob Bono does better than any Bono before him is convey that these struggles aren’t merely his own, in a way that doesn’t require us to overlook either his preachiness or his zany fashion statements. In this dude’s utter confusion about the world, and his utter determination to create something worthwhile while experiencing as much of that world as possible, we clearly see ourselves—or at least the selves we imagine we are. It’s corny as all get-out, but goddamn if Bono’s wish in “Love and Peace or Else” wouldn’t look great on anyone’s tombstone: “As you enter this life/I pray you depart/With a wrinkled face/And a brand new heart.”

I’m not looking forward to the moment the song actually describes. But with a little luck, I’ll have a million more that it would sound just perfect to.CP