U2 Comes Back from the Future

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The Baltimore Sun, October 29, 2000

U2 Comes Back from the Future

The Irish rockers return to something resembling their past.

by J.D. Considine, Sun Music Critic

On its last album of new material, 1997's Pop, U2 threw its past away and lunged for the future. Sensing a shift in the zeitgeist, the four lads from Dublin declared that rock was dead and insisted they were going to ride the mirror ball of electronica into the next millennium.

Well, everybody makes mistakes.

Now that they're actually in that new millennium, rock and roll doesn't seem quite so outmoded. At least, that's what the group suggests with its new album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, arriving in stores today.

It isn't just that the band has abandoned the synthesized sheen and looped rhythms of Pop and moved back to the guitar-driven sound of its youth; if its lyrics are to be believed, U2 has seen the future and decided it doesn't belong there.

As Bono sings on "Kite," he's "The last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars."

So instead of continuing to update its sound, as the band has done since its breakthrough 1987 album The Joshua Tree, this new album marks a sort of sonic consolidation. Instead of dance beats, there's a mild retread of the fuzz-guitar funk rock that fueled "Mysterious Ways." In place of bold new sounds, we get new arranging tricks, like the vintage Chamberlain providing the synthesized string sounds on "Kite."

For those who winced at the band's blind pursuit of cool in recent years, it's probably a relief that U2 stopped before it got to Limp Bizkit. But that doesn't mean All That You Can't Leave Behind is a return to the glory days. For all its strummed guitars and passionately thumping drums, the album never touches on the sonic heroism that made its early efforts so uplifting.

All That You Can't Leave Behind simmers more than it soars, preferring crooned vocals and softly chiming guitars to fist-pumping fury of such oldies as "I Will Follow" or "Sunday Bloody Sunday." That doesn't necessarily mean all's quiet on the U2 front, as "Elevation," "Beautiful Day" and even the semi-acoustic "Wild Honey" all build a pretty good head of steam rhythmically. But even at its most insistent, this isn't an album that begs to be blared from windows.

Blame Bono for much of the music's diffidence. Where once his lyrics wrestled with issues and abstractions, suddenly they've turned personal and self-doubting. "I hit an iceberg in my life," he sings in "New York," and then casts himself as a lesser character in "Titanic": "You lose your balance, you lose your wife/In the queue for the lifeboat," he croons.

It isn't just the lack of heroism that makes the lyric so surprising; it's the naked admission of failure implicit in his metaphor. Even though the lyric assures us that our hero is "still afloat," there's no missing the fact that he sees New York not as a new home, but as an escape. Rather than face the issue head-on, he opts for distance and reflection - and the music mirrors that avoidance of conflict.

To their credit, the lads are more than capable of pulling interesting music from such anomie. No matter that Bono jokes in "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" that he's "just trying to find a decent melody" - the gently insistent groove and gorgeous, gospel-inflected keyboards behind him make the tune memorable. The song's slow-paced, sweetly harmonized chorus is one of the album's highlights.

Still, it's hard to be happy with occasional cleverness when dealing with a band that was once routinely brilliant. Sure, there's a certain kick to the way "Beautiful Day" builds from the heartbeat thump of its slyly insistent verse to the roaring guitars and triumphant vocals of the chorus. But there's no denying that the song itself is appallingly trite, urging listeners to forget their petty personal troubles and tune in to the beauty of nature.

Been reading the greeting cards again, Bono?

There are moments when it would almost be easier to appreciate the album if you weren't burdened with an ability to understand English. "Elevation," for example, is wonderfully eloquent on a musical level, playing off the rubbery thump of Adam Clayton's bass and the rasping pulse of the Edge's wah-wah guitar. But the lyric is built around rhymes so obvious and nonsensical ("A mole, digging in a hole/Digging up my soul...") you'd think Bono had overdosed on Dr. Seuss. Except Dr. Seuss generally reads better than that.

Then again, this is a man who thinks that lines such as "The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can't leave behind" constitute deep thoughts. So maybe it's better just to focus on the music, and take this album as a reminder that while U2 is no longer at the top of its game, it still plays pretty well.

Copyright © 2000 Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 29, 2000 4:50 AM.

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