Irish Rockers Return, Gracefully, To Their Roots

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The Hartford Courant, October 29, 2000

Irish Rockers Return, Gracefully, To Their Roots

by Roger Caitlin

The problem with U2 in the '90s wasn't its music.

Its songs were relatively overlooked not because of the misleading notion, promoted most often by the band itself, that it had gone all-electronic and modern.

No, the main problem was the overblown image band members invented to go along with their stadium-size status - slick, oily rockers in wraparound shades and gold lamé suits illuminated by giant disco mirror balls. The problem with satirizing crass commercialism is that, to most eyes, it looks like crass commercialism.

Their willfully smarmy persona didn't square with the image of U2 that rose up in the '80s: an important band concerned with important things that performed so urgently, it would make you, too, think such things were important.

It was too easy, too tempting for them to slip back to the major chords, pealing guitars and military march drumming that made U2 the world's top rock band.

To save themselves from being parodies of their strident selves, what they tried to do on 1991's Achtung Baby, 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop was to avoid their old selves and force a metamorphosis into something new.

Declining commercial interest in the band may have forced their current move, a return to form that comes on the tellingly titled All That You Can't Leave Behind (Island), the band's 10th studio album, due out in stores Tuesday.

In 2000, there is, at last, no longer any of that unfair pressure on U2 to "save rock 'n' roll" (that monumental task has been shifted to Radiohead, who shrugged it off in style on its nearly guitarless Kid A).

But in the interest of self-preservation - or finally making peace with the sound that made it a success - Ireland's biggest band has returned to its U2 sound of yore.

In these sessions, we have learned, the influential guitarist The Edge was no longer halted when he came up with the kind of ringing sounds he churned up for U2 classics like The Joshua Tree.

It's that approach in accepting the past (and not, say, the constant use during the Olympics) that makes "Beautiful Day," the album's first track, so familiar and welcome.

Working together for two dozen years has given Bono, the Edge, and bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen an unspoken ability to expand and contract their ambitious musical themes.

If U2 can be divided among members striving toward arty electronic esoterica and those who wanted to stick to rock, the latter clearly win on All That You Can't Leave Behind.

If Bono, the charismatic lead singer (and influential world activist), is unsure about this step back, he doesn't show it.

Instead, his remarkable voice has a calm confidence throughout. The word "grace" comes to mind, partly because it appears in both "Beautiful Day" and the final song, "Grace," about a woman who effortlessly "makes beauty out of ugly things."

Middle age has given some measure of perspective to the rock star. "There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard," he declares in "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." "I'm just trying to find a decent melody, a song that I can sing in my own company."

In the celebratory "New York," right along the lines of Richard Ashcroft's similar urban valentine, he sings of a friend falling victim to its lures while "I'm staying on to figure out my midlife crisis."

The album reaches a lovely high-water mark with "Wild Honey," (a title previously used, in part, by both the Beach Boys and the Beatles). To a lovely acoustic melody, and the album's most dreamy riff, Bono sings convincingly of the past "when we were swinging from the trees."

While the band's direct activism is limited to the liner notes (where they urge support for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, War Child and Jubilee 2000), they dedicate "Walk On" to Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and speak in utopian terms in "Peace on Earth."

There's no such global focus on "When I Look at the World," which is more concerned with a way to survive its challenges: "I try to be like you."

Which is to say U2 isn't getting soft - it has removed the fly sunglasses and is getting more human.

At a time when most successful rock bands mix bleak howls of cynicism with bludgeoning riffs, U2's ostensible retreat is actually a brave move to bring optimism and joyful music into the new millennium.

Copyright © 2000 Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 29, 2000 5:05 AM.

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