U2 Embrace Roots They Can't Leave Behind

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Irish Times, October 25, 2000

U2 Embrace Roots They Can't Leave Behind

With their new album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 revisit the big music of their early days. It may be Dadrock, but it's what they do best, writes Kevin Courtney as he goes through the album track by track

Trick or treat? Magic mix or hellish horror? On the eve of Hallowe'en, U2 will release their new album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, and the world will find out if it's a cracker or a damp squib.

It's the band's first studio album since 1997's POP, and in the interim, pop music itself has burst into a million points of light, from the teen glitter of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to the slinky R&B of Craig Davis and Destiny's Child; from the dross of Westlife to the experimental tilt of Radiohead. U2 have spent the 1990s trying to keep up with pop's changes, but with this new album, the world's biggest rock band have decided to stop running, stand still and savour the oldfashioned smell of leather.

If Radiohead are heading towards the outer edges on Kid A, then U2's new album is going in the opposite direction - back to the rock 'n' roll comforts of home. All That You Can't Leave Behind is U2 getting back to basics. The band's 10th album is heavy with the desert air of The Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum, but it's also buoyed by a sharp, electric edge, honed by their last three albums, Achtung Baby, Zooropa and POP.

It seems U2 can't leave behind the big music which put them on the cover of Time magazine in 1987, and which swept them into the arms of the US and the whole world. Back then, rock music was a wide open frontier waiting to be explored by generation X, and U2 strode confidently at the vanguard.

By the time they'd made the film and double album, Rattle & Hum, it was apparent that U2 had become corralled into their own musical prairie, so they switched their gaze to the newly-opening frontiers of eastern Europe, added a bit of irony, embraced dance beats, and emerged triumphant with the acclaimed Achtung Baby album and the Zeitgeist-grabbing "Zoo TV" tour.

Zooropa exposed the built-in obsolescence of U2's new creative machinery, and though the POP album had its fine moments, and the "PopMart" tour its fair share of spectacle, there was a feeling that the band's headlong charge towards the seemingly endless horizon had come crashing up against a garishly-painted backdrop.

Radiohead's new album has since proved that there's nowhere left to go in rock, so U2 have probably done the logical thing: they've retraced their steps. The worry is that they may have gone a bit too far back. On their back-tracking trail, U2 have rediscovered some of the things which made them great in the first place. There's a warm, organic vibe emanating from All That You Can't Leave Behind, that natural, bluesy feeling that comes from a band who are clicking on the same mental track.

It takes a certain sense of adventure - and a bit of bravery - to go back over old ground. It is to U2's credit that they've dodged the more obvious pitfalls of the past and come up with a pristine, post-Oasis strain of Dadrock. It's what they do best, and they do it very well here, packing the album with hooks and choruses that - as Bono says in Stuck In A Moment - everyone can sing in their own company.

Bono's voice has never sounded so clear and connected: indeed, the Hewson pipes are probably the album's greatest strength. The Edge's guitar work is once again the stuff of guitar mags, rich in transcribable riffs and solos, but also tinged with subtle technical touches. Larry Mullen's drumming mixes force and finesse with masterly skill, while Adam Clayton's bass blams and slams in all the right places. The artful, understated production of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno lets all the U2 components breathe freely and naturally.

For the band's hard-core fans, and for soft-rock-loving record-buyers, this is a U2 classic, a safe haven for listeners who have been bombarded with too much techno, drum 'n' bass, ambient electronica, death metal and speed garage - some of it emanating from U2 themselves. This is U2 as we used to remember them, but somehow sounding even more melodic, more aspirational, more comforting.

What's lacking, however, is the sense of danger. After 20 years of swashbuckling and globetrotting, U2 have come home, and All That You Can't Leave Behind is the crackling of the hearth fire: warm, tender, laughing, forgiving, but not very exciting.

1. Beautiful Day

A powerful opening salvo, in which U2 fire off their full sonic arsenal, making you wonder if they've any ammo left for the rest of the album. Unlike previous opening tracks, The Fly and Discotheque, Beautiful Day doesn't try too hard be cool or postmodern, but uses its swirling synths, squalling guitars and splattering drumbreaks to dynamic effect. Modern Dublin becomes a metaphor for the age-old feeling of being mired: "There's no room/No space to rent in this town" and "The traffic is stuck/ And you're not moving anywhere". But hey, pleads the driving chorus: "It's a beautiful day/Don't let it get away." It may be a simplistic smell-the-roses anthem, but it hits the spot.

2. Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of

Wait till Van hears this one. A soul-drenched, mid-tempo rock ballad, it reiterates the previous song's theme of personal logjam. It could be about U2 itself, trapped in their own leviathan hide, unable to get past entrenched preconceptions; or it could be about the debilitating inability to change from within, the soul reliving its own groundhog day. A chiming organ sound, redolent of Moondance, provides the metronomic rhythm for The Edge's sliding, scaling guitar lines. Despite its unwieldy title, the chorus is instantly catchy: sing along to this R&B-flavoured belter, and clear out those blocked pipes.

3. Elevation

Crunchy, buzz-saw guitar riffs, submarine-sonar keyboards and lots of trademark whoo-whoos from Bono. Little hammer-on/pull-off acoustic guitar lines punctuate the chorus as Bono juxtaposes images of excavation and digging with skybound dreams of flight. It's a wrecking balls-out rocker which calls to mind the thundering beat of Bullet The Blue Sky or the taut, electronic twang of Wire. Mooted to be the next single off the album.

4. Walk On

And - presumably - you'll never walk alone. Once again, Bono reaches out his hand to help someone whose feet have become stuck to the ground (could even be his own self). Walk On is a typically U2-ish anthem, unashamedly passionate and un ironically old-fashioned; the album's title can be heard in the lyrics. The song sets out tentatively, tottering on a three-chord piano signature, before finding its balance and setting out bravely towards home. Home, in Bono's lateral, lyrical view, is "a place that has to be believed to be seen". The song fades with a Dark Side Of The Moon-style outro: "All that you fashion/All that you make/All that you build/All that you break".

5. Kite

Another old-school U2 anthem, this one tackles personal issues close to Bono's own home. Family loyalties are set against the temptations of rock stardom, with Bono caught between two hearts and a rock place. A breathy synth motif sets the tone, while The Edge's layered guitar keeps the song aloft on Bono's mosaic-cracked vocals. Sadly, Kite gets blown around by blustery production and woolly wordplay, finally disappearing into a fluffy cloud of nebulous ideas.

6. In A Little While

The Edge's breezy, bluesy guitar drives this soul-flavoured tune along. You can just picture Bono sitting on the dock of the bay, thinking home thoughts from a boardwalk. Earthy lyrics about a "girl with Spanish eyes" give way to star-gazing sentiments: "Man dreams one day to fly/And man takes a rocket-ship into the skies." It's a man's, man's, man's world, Bono seems to be saying, but it wouldn't be nuthin' without 'er indoors. Not one of the strongest tunes on the album.

7. Wild Honey

Stuck in the middle with U2. This weak, watery, West Coast ditty trundles along on strident acoustic guitars, and goes right off the cliff in a convertible. "I was a monkey/Stealing honey from a swarm of bees," reveals Bono, getting himself mired in a primeval swamp of metaphors. It's the album's low point, where the band's stripped-down approach threatens to reach total vacuity.

8. Peace On Earth

The album's "deep" song finds Bono once again addressing the ills of the world, only this time he's not offering easy slogans or pop-tastic platitudes. Written immediately after the Omagh bombing, Peace On Earth is a song of shaken faith: "I'm sick of the sorrow/ I'm sick of the pain/I'm sick of hearing again and again/That there's gonna be peace on earth."

As he sings a roll-call of some of the Omagh dead, it's clear that Bono's lofty pronouncements of old have been levelled by the reality of human suffering: "Their lives are bigger than any big idea." The music is muted, giving the platform to Bono's lyrics, although bells ring throughout the reference to John Lennon's song, Happy Christmas (War Is Over): "The words are sticking in my throat/Hear it every Christmas time/But hope and history don't rhyme." Peace On Earth would certainly make a powerful Christmas anthem; let's hope U2 don't succumb to the temptation, because by next year it may sound as shallow as Simple Minds's Belfast Child.

9. When I Look At The World

A discordant guitar strum counts into a plinking keyboard motif, as Adam Clayton's trundling bass and The Edge's stabbing guitars punctuate Bono's searchlight lines. It's the global brought back to a personal level, as Bono tries but fails to see the world through the eyes of another (try taking off those fly shades, Bono).

10. New York

On POP, it was a paean to Miami; this time, it's NY that gets the eulogy. While Bono sings about the city that never sleeps, The Edge recreates disjointed, insomniac feelings with some wobbly, flanged guitar licks. Echoes of Lou Reed and Frank Sinatra swish through the rumbling synthesisers and low-slung vocals, as Bono sings lines such as: "In New York I lost it all/To you and your vices/Still I'm staying on to figure out/My midlife crisis." Could be somewhat autobiographical.

11. Grace

A bassy organ and a lazy guitar lick set the tone for this slow, serene ode to the girl with redemption in her eyes. Eno's signature synth sound flits in and out of the shadows, adding that airy, ambient touch which gave With Or Without You its resonance.

12. The Ground Beneath Her Feet

U2 have decided to rescue this Salman Rushdie-inspired song from the soundtrack of The Million Dollar Hotel, where it was in danger of dying of neglect. It may have been the best tune on the soundtrack, but here it's not much more than a filler.

U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind is released on Monday, October 30th, on the Island label.

Copyright © 2000 Irish Times. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 25, 2000 5:08 AM.

U2 Drops Jagger Vocals was the previous entry in this blog.

A-OK: Bono and Polly Jean Make Peace With Rock's Grand Cliches is the next entry in this blog.

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