U2 Can't Leave Itself Behind

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The Orange County Register, October 27, 2000

U2 Can't Leave Itself Behind

By Ben Wener

If you've heard that this is U2's mighty return to its past, well, it is.

And that stinks.

Forget the experiments of the '90s ever happened. Erase "Zooropa" and the Passengers stuff from your mind - surely some of you were more than willing to years ago. This is the highly anticipated (right?) album for everyone who thought "Lemon" was lame, who would never dance to "Discotheque," who still doesn't understand what Johnny Cash was doing on a U2 song, who would rather it be "Pride" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" forever and ever, amen.

Guess what? After all that "PopMart" buffoonery, your idols decided to listen to you.

Happy? I'm not.

Forgive me for having high expectations of one of the greatest bands rock has ever seen, but I want more than a grand leap backward - and for the same reason that Springsteen's "Tracks" is still a dumb move and the Stones should stop recording.

There is always room for nostalgia in rock, yes, but it cannot come at the expense of progression.

Yet with the all-too-appropriately titled "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (in stores Tuesday), U2 pulls a creative U-turn, then stalls on the divider of its own arena-rock superhighway. Geez, even the sullen black-and-white photos are back.

I disliked "Pop" because it was the sound of a band that knew it needed to take another bold step forward but didn't know what step to take. I dislike this thing more because it's the sound of a band that knows it needs to take another bold step forward but instead is retreating.

And though my ears like "Elevation" because it reprises "Mysterious Ways" and the lovely acoustic number "Wild Honey" because it's the most laid-back these uptight prophets have been since "Party Girl," that's not enough to sell the whole package.

Yes, U2 fanatic, you're gonna eat this up. You'll think "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is a kissing cousin of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," even though it's just a bland Philly soul rethinking of it. You'll love "Walk On" because it's got one of those moving all-together-now choruses like "One" and "Bad," even though the phrase "walk on" is nowhere near as powerful as "one love," or "let it go," or even (hear falsetto now) "hoo hoo hoo."

You'll hear a chorus like this: "Who's to say where the wind will take you?/ Who's to know what it is will break you?/ I don't know which way the wind will blow." And you'll think that because Bono's making a metaphor out of the title, "Kite," his lyrics aren't just a cut above high-school poetry.

You'll listen with reverence to the self-explanatory "Peace on Earth" and its sister, "When I Look at This World," thinking the Dublin gang is back to save us all - when actually "Please," the forgotten classic from "Pop," said all they need to about the globe for a while. Sample from "Peace": "Sick of sorrow/ Sick of pain/ Sick of hearing again and again/ That there's gonna be peace on Earth."

Yeah, so are we, Mr. Hewson. So how 'bout saying something more compelling, more inspirational, more intelligent? Do more than moan. We have enough moaners these days.

You've done as much before, you know. Well, of course you know. You know it all too well. Excuse the lengthiness of the following excerpt from a Billboard interview with Bono, but it merits attention. He's talking about "Beautiful Day," which is undeniably a glorious single and not nearly the throwback he makes it out to be.

"We were laying the song down in the studio," he begins, "and the Edge just cut loose a riff that could only be described as classic, early-days U2. It was a sucker-punch - a truly brilliant moment that made everyone's hairs stand on end. But I froze and said, 'Oh, no, we can't use that. It sounds too much like quintessential U2.' "

In that instant, the Billboard writer tells us, the Edge shot a glare from across the room that spoke volumes. "It said, '(expletive deleted), we are U2, and this is how I play guitar.' And I got it. I understood that it was time for us to reclaim who we are."

No, it's not. It's time for them to once again take the impressive tools they've amassed - Bono's weary mope, the Edge's genius riffing, Larry and Adam's pulsating, still-martial beats, all that atmosphere they can't leave behind - and create something we've never heard before. Something that doesn't sound like a lazy follow-up to "The Joshua Tree" and a precursor to the dazzling, decade-old "Achtung Baby."

This, then, serves as a reminder: Bands who think too much about what they were and what they are now make messy, almost bad, albums. U2 is so much better than this. Better than we can imagine. Maybe better than they can, too.

Grade: C+

You might enjoy if you like: "The Joshua Tree" and the most anthemic moments of "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Achtung Baby," especially "One".

Copyright © 2000 Orange County Register. All rights reserved.

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

Former pop ironists reinvent themselves once again, this time in the cunning guise of a rock'n'roll band was the previous entry in this blog.

The Irish Band's New CD Is A Mellow Return To The Past is the next entry in this blog.

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