Guitar-Driven U2 Gets Reacquainted With An Old Friend

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The Bergen Record (New Jersey), October 29, 2000

Guitar-Driven U2 Gets Reacquainted With An Old Friend

Rating: 3 stars

by Ryan Jones

So, you've been waiting for the new U2 record, eager to hear the "classic sound" the band allegedly resurrects on All That You Can't Leave Behind, its 10th and latest studio album. With that in mind, here's a money-saving tip for those expecting something resembling a greatest-hits record: Bono and the boys released that compilation last year.

If All That You Can't Leave Behind comes close to the classic U2 sound, it's only in snippets: a bit of Achtung Baby here, a touch of The Joshua Tree, or even October there. But the overhyped idea that the new record, due out Tuesday, would be some sort of blind retreat into the Irish band's mid-to-late-Eighties heyday proves largely unsubstantiated. And, for the most part, that's a good thing.

First, some heartwarming news for those old-schoolers who greeted the band's two previous studio albums -- and their dalliances with club-friendly rhythms and electronic influences -- with everything from indifference to loathing: This is not a dance record. All That You Can't Leave Behind is U2's most guitar-driven record in nearly a decade, and maybe more important, its most American-sounding effort in longer than that.

Ever since Achtung Baby, the band's famed 1991 reinvention record, U2 has seemingly gone out of its way to deny its New World influences. If intentional, the decision was somewhat understandable, given the chilly critical reception to 1988's hit-and-miss Americana tribute-vanity project, Rattle and Hum.But the band, and Bono in particular, has always had something of an infatuation with America and to shy away from that over the past decade didn't truly represent the group. Given that, much of All That You Can't Leave Behind sounds like U2's attempt to reconnect with an old friend.

The album's second track, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," is gospel and soul with a touch of Dylan; "In a Little While" could be a second cousin of "Angel of Harlem"; and "Wild Honey" sounds as if it might have been cribbed from the Jayhawks' songbook. None are among the disc's strongest tracks, but that doesn't mean U2 should give up on its love affair with the colonies. After all, it's a big American city that inspires the best song on the album -- but we'll get to that later.

For now, know this: U2 hasn't forgotten how to craft a song with guitar, bass, and drums (and maybe a synthesizer now and again), and Bono hasn't forgotten how to make magic with his words and voice. In that sense, it is something of a classic U2 record, with The Edge's minimal, chiming guitars filling just enough space, eschewing pyrotechnics for ambience, and the dependable tandem of drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton keeping time and setting mood. Bono is his usual late-model self, comfortable in his lower register, letting the lyrics do their job, unleashing his achy falsetto only when necessary.

And those lyrics. His homeland is famous for turning out an inordinate number of gifted writers and poets, and the man born Paul Hewson is an extension of that lineage. As has been the case for two decades, his most poignant thoughts are often drawn out by political matters. "Where I grew up there weren't many trees/Where there was we'd tear them down and use them on our enemies," he sings gently on "Peace on Earth," an understated plea inspired by the enduring troubles in Northern Ireland. In both its lyrical reference to weeping mothers and its instrumental prelude, the song echoes "Mothers of the Disappeared," the mournful finale on The Joshua Tree.

However, and in spite of long-standing accusations, Bono isn't humorless. On "Kite," he reminds anyone listening that, while his band is aging, it isn't oblivious: "The last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars," he coos with a self-referential wink, beating the doubters to the punch.

There really isn't a stinker in the bunch -- "Beautiful Day," the album's opening track and lead single, is smoothly addictive, while the quietly anthemic "Walk On" promises to be a live-show favorite -- but the standout is "New York." The penultimate track continues the band's recent trend of terrific, little-heard gems buried near the end of records (see "Gone" and "Please" on 1997's Pop; "Dirty Day" on '93's Zooropa; "Acrobat" on Achtung Baby) and should go over quite well when the band plays Continental Arena or Madison Square Garden next year. The song manages to combine at least a whiff of every era in the band's history, and a close listen on a good pair of headphones is like a 5 1/2-minute U2 history lesson. It all peaks in the song's refrain: The Edge at his monotone, churning best, Mullen and Clayton thundering steadily ahead, Bono pulling drama from his lungs and his heart.

Like the best U2 songs, "New York" does more than one thing. It tells a story, drops a few hints, references history and politics and love and loss. Much of All That You Can't Leave Behind does the same, finding varying degrees of success but never coming up empty. But all this talk of a "classic" sound? The return of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (the production duo behind The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby) to the studio must have something to do with it, and Bono has made comments in recent months that seem to have encouraged the hype. Then, at the MTV Awards last month, he put the hype in check. Responding to the question of whether this record was U2's attempt at "going back" to its past, he said, "This motor doesn't go in reverse."

And so it doesn't. All That You Can't Leave Behind sounds very much like a band moving ahead and aging well. When U2 does reference its past, it does so less for cheap nostalgia than for a reminder of where it came from and what it's learned along the way. Does that qualify as classic? No, and this isn't a classic record. But it is a very good one, and that should be good enough.

Copyright © 2000 Bergen Record Corp.. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 29, 2000 4:52 AM.

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