U2 (Bono, kneeling, and Edge, left, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen in Dublin

U2 (Bono, kneeling, and Edge, left, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen in Dublin. (John Cogill / For The Times)

DUBLIN -- Bono is behind the wheel of his black Mercedes sedan, taking a visitor on a mini-tour of the city as he heads downtown to meet the other members of U2 for dinner.

The rock quartet has spent much of the day in its rehearsal studio on the River Liffey preparing for some television appearances, and it's time to relax.

U2 isn't fond of performing on TV--they haven't done it in 15 years. But they are excited about their new album and are eager to take advantage of every promotional opportunity, especially after the disappointing sales of their last album, 1997's "Pop."

Driving through the narrow, cobblestoned streets, Bono enters the central city--home to historic Trinity College, whose grounds Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett once roamed, and the restored buildings of Temple Bar, the city's new neighborhood for artists, filmmakers and designers.

These are heady times in Dublin, thanks to a financial boom over the last decade that has turned Ireland's once struggling economy into Europe's fastest-growing.

But Bono's not talking about Dublin's history or economy. He's speaking of the city's pugnacious character, and how it helped shape the restless and competitive spirit that drove U2 to become the most celebrated rock band in the world--and how it is now spurring them to work hard to regain that position.

"There's something about this city that's been good for us--a sort of city-as-critic attitude that becomes part of you if you live here," he says, looking at his passenger and seemingly paying no attention to where the car is headed.

"In Los Angeles, people are very nice. You park your car and someone will say, 'Hi, I love your new album.' In Dublin City, it's more like, 'Oh, hi. Your new album is [expletive].' And they haven't even heard it yet. It's just part of the humor and the wit of the city.

"I don't think that Dublin attitude is any kind of masochism, but I do think it keeps you in the mood for an argument," he continues. "That's good training for what we do because being in a band is like being in a street gang. A band has to leave room for the rows and the arguments if it's going to be able to compete."

Now Bono's inattention to the road has led him into a dead-end street. He has to back the car down the narrow lane to get back on the proper route to the restaurant.

During the last three years, many in the music world have been asking whether U2's career hasn't taken a wrong turn.

The group was at the absolute center of the pop world in 1987 with "The Joshua Tree"--an inspiring series of songs about spiritual quest, including "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." It sold more than 18 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy for album of the year.

It was the kind of eloquent and towering work that linked U2 with the Beatles, the Who and the other great bands in rock.

Detractors, however, complained that U2's tales of moral courage and ethical behavior were holier-than-thou. Bono was branded "St. Bono" and the band became the target of parodies.

Like many rock acts before it, U2 was stung by the backlash, and the band reinvented itself with 1991's "Achtung Baby," another brilliant album that set aside much of the group's glistening, guitar-driven sound for darker textures, and themes that set aside the unbridled idealism for an exploration of the tensions and contradictions in love and faith. On stage in the landmark "Zoo TV" tour, Bono turned to role-playing, presenting this rock idealist nightly as a leather-clad, egomaniacal rock star.

But the band may have overdone the irony and reinvention when, after 1993's "Zooropa" album, U2 returned with the "Pop" album and its related PopMart tour.

The songs were still solid, but many fans were confused by the group's increasing reliance on electronic loops and samples that came out of a collaboration with such dance world figures as London's Howie B. And what was with dressing up like the Village People in a video for the single "Discotheque"?

U2's new album, titled "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and due in stores Tuesday, should clarify things. As evidenced by "Beautiful Day," a track from the album that has been embraced by radio stations more than any U2 song in years, the music again is graced by the glorious textures of Edge's guitar, and Bono has dropped the masks.

The songs have a classic feel--from the pure exhilaration of "Walk On" to the thoughtful, bittersweet commentary of "Peace on Earth."