The Irish Band's New CD Is A Mellow Return To The Past

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The Oregonian (Portland), October 27, 2000

The Irish Band's New CD Is A Mellow Return To The Past

Grade: B+

By Curt Schulz

After 11 albums and 22 years, U2 has just about come full circle.

Having established themselves as the dominant young, politically aware rockers of their era on the first few albums (Boy, October, War), the Dublin-based group went on to celebrate its sturdy position in the charts with the epic sweep and breadth of The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree in the mid-1980s.

The band then became self-consciously fatuous arena rock stars-cum-media icons with Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993), then went out of their way to deconstruct and mock their own hard-won imagery and bluster on 1997's admirably snarky Pop. Doing so, the quartet proved they'd developed a deft, McLuhanesque approach to how they're perceived (as megamillionaires who profess a blend of righteousness and liberal politics that verges on the ridiculously stuffy), and that they find the whole construct downright hilarious.

Which brings us up to where U2 is at right now: the New Sincerity.

Mind you, the New Sincerity isn't all that different from their old sincerity, but it's a little older and more centered. If the fresh-faced idealistic and slightly confrontational offerings of their legendary live album, Under a Blood Red Sky, are scant now, what remains is a generosity of spirit and a warmth not heard from the group in some time. It's almost as if they've run out of things to prove.

All That You Can't Leave Behind is being touted as a return to classic form for the Irish band, now well into its third decade with nary a band member substitution. Certainly, parts of the album sound more like U2 than U2 has sounded in ages - it turns out that the one thing the band couldn't leave behind was its own unique approach to making music.

In particular, the lead-off track "Beautiful Day" will be enough to prompt casual eavesdroppers into asking what's spinning in the CD rotation. "Sounds like old U2," they'll say. They'll be correct: The track is a dead-on approximation of the superhero rock the band churned out so expertly in the '80s. All the parts are there and they sound just right, from the slight ringing echo of the guitars to the surging production to singer Bono's playful vocal whoops. They manage to harness an exuberance not heard from the band in ages.

Moving into the diet-soul of "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," U2 comes to grips with its strengths and limitations nicely. Bono as much as admits it, singing "There's nothing you can't throw at me that I haven't already heard/I'm just trying to find a decent melody/A song that I can sing in my own company."

If it's all downhill from there, at least it's a gradual slope. And let's not forget this group's troughs beat most bands' peaks. If the material is not as strong as during the group's zenith Joshua Tree days - there's no "With or Without You" or "Where the Streets Have No Name" here - there certainly is a wealth of strong songs. These include the unabashed affirmation of "Walk On," the light reggae bop of "In a Little While," the redemptive "Peace on Earth" and an earthy ballad of loss and displacement, "New York."

The production on All That You Can't Leave Behind, by U2 collaborator and ambient pioneer Brian Eno, is so ornately polished it's almost as if you've experienced a violent explosion at the Kiwi factory. After a certain point the whole approach is so slick that you can't quite dig in your fingernails for a full, satisfying ride.

If U2 really wants to get back to basics, a few mild imperfections in the mix would have gone far in helping reclaim the mantle of their classic sound. But it seems petty not to meet them halfway on this one.

Copyright © 2000 Oregonian. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 27, 2000 5:15 AM.

U2 Can't Leave Itself Behind was the previous entry in this blog.

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