Plastic Bono Band Bounces Back

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The Times, October 27, 2000

Plastic Bono Band Bounces Back

NEW POP ALBUM: After the hubris of the Pop Mart tour, the public knocked them down. Now U2 have got up again with a zinging tenth album, says Barbara Ellen

It is odd that U2 have garnished their comeback by announcing their manifesto to "save rock", for they have never been your quintessential rock outfit. Even in the beginning, with their debut, Boy, you never quite knew where to put them. It might seem funny now, but, at the time, it was a real head-scratcher for music-loving fifth- formers everywhere -- where, oh where to put U2? Over there with the stadium-rock guys? Over here with the pop people? In the post-punk corner with the "alternative" mob? No, none of those, not really, not exactly -- so where then? For even then, when the U2 "sound" was embryonic and crude, at its most innocent and raw, there was something very complicated and sophisticated going on in the mix. With the following albums, October and War, their uniqueness continued, though not always in an accomplished or lovely way. And so it remained for the longest time. However loved, however "huge" U2 were on a cult level, there was always too much foot-on-monitor hollering and messianic fannying about going on for the general public to feel totally simpatico. Interested, yes (especially where songs like I Will Follow and Shadows and Tall Trees were concerned) but still bemused.

The U2 thing, the thing they had, gelled with The Joshua Tree. Finally, their restless melting of influences, their borderline-hammy imploring and keening, even the defiantly appalling frock coats and poncing about in deserts for photo shoots, made perfect sense. With songs such as With or Without You and Where the Streets Have No Name, U2 had done what many a band had done before them. They had blown the dust off the terrace anthem and given it back to the people. What made it all so special, so exciting and unique, was that, this time, it seemed like the right people.

Bounce forward a fair few years, and we see the release of All That You Can Leave Behind -- the latest U2 waxing, their tenth studio album, and with longtime studio mucker Brian Eno producing, along with Daniel Lanois. It is a heartfelt, emotional, almost quaintly simple affair, which may come as a surprise to those who last saw Bono running amok around the world's stadiums, bellowing fantastical notions about global consumerism and the culture of the logo, all the time slinking about in plastic grope-suits, with a chat show host's grin plastered all over his face. The world called for a doctor: quick, Bono has caught irony. Bono responded by gleefully lying on his back and pretending to be a fly. Oh dear.

While Achtung Baby and Zooropa sowed the seeds of U2's well-intentioned electro-experimental self-destruction, the grandiosity of Pop Mart finished them off good and proper. I caught the Pop Mart show in America. Well, I caught half of it anyway. I chose to leave early, not because I seriously hated the sounds they were making (even at their pretentious worst, U2 have never turned their back on The Tune), but more because I took umbrage at the fact that I couldn't see the band for the stage set.

Which is another way of saying U2 were at a point where they couldn't see the wood for the trees, or indeed their fellow band members for the stage decorations. Whatever was happening, it made me turn away, as did a lot of people. Whatever it was the world wanted or needed from U2, it definitely wasn't rehashed Pink Floyd.

Fortunately, getting your bottom kicked with widescale public derision and sliding sales never did a decent band any real harm, as is now evidenced with All That You Can't Leave Behind. A long time coming, it is the sound of a band not so much going backwards or forwards, but more completing a 360-degree circle of the key stages of their career, as well as the flashpoints of their influences. The opener, Beautiful Day, is all uplifting urban spirituality -- a rock-pop soundscape with a point. It is swiftly followed by the Bob Dylan-melt of Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out, and the buzzing electro-Iggy Elevation. So far so good, and then it gets better, nicer, warmer, but it's hard to put your finger on why.

It sounds good of course -- U2 back to being stylishly precise, and song-based, instead of grimly self-indulgent, and theme-based. And Bono is in fine voice, either when teetering on the edge of a sob with Walk On (dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader), contemplating the shifting sands of fashion in Kite, growling about his "midlife crisis" in New York, or wading manfully through Salman Rushdie's mawkish lyrics on The Ground Beneath her Feet (don't give up the day job, Salman). U2 as a unit are still concerned with the "outside world", sometimes to their own creative detriment -- they are indeed guilty of sacrificing melody to oratory in the Troubles-inspired Peace On Earth, and the rather dull When I Look at the World. All is redeemed with In a Little While and Grace, which manage to lick soul alive again.

However, what really stands out about All That You Can't Leave Behind is how resolutely it does not "save rock". How could it when U2 seem so intent on singing and playing their age? Throughout the album, there are recurring themes of mortality and faith, sex and love, mistakes and recriminations, courage and disgrace, questions asked but never answered. It is an album which eschews pop-rock's macho bravado and sentimental certainty for pop-soul's blurred edges and bleeding loose ends, stirring in the odd rock-electro aside to keep things buzzing. So it is that U2, the band who once memorably announced that they still hadn't found what they were looking for, still can't be categorised exactly. Even it would seem by themselves.

Copyright © 2000 The Times. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 27, 2000 5:26 AM.

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