U2 Leaves Little Behind

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Inland Empire Online, October 31, 2000

U2 Leaves Little Behind

The Irish quartet took its time on its latest album to blend old and new.

By Cathy Maestri
The Press-Enterprise

It's the album that truly took U2 20 years to make. "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is a synthesis of the Irish quartet's musical history, from its raw, ringing early sound through its discovery of American country and gospel and its recent infatuation with electronic dance music.

The huge sound, the funky grooves, crisp percussion, loops, effects, love, war, acoustics, the ultimately uplifting feeling -- it's all there.

"What you don't have you don't need it now, what you don't know you can feel it somehow," Bono sings on the leadoff track, "Beautiful Day" -- the album's most perfect amalgamation of the old and new. A fairly simple melody filled out with subtle wash of electronic effects, it then takes off, soaring on the strength of Bono's exuberant voice and the Edge's chiming guitar. And then there's the gorgeous bridge, voices atop voices.

Solid hooks and layers of texture make songs at once fresh and familiar. Considering all that's gone into it, the album is seamless. Partly because they returned to longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, while their early producer, Steve Lillywhite, pitches in on a couple of songs -- including "Beautiful Day."

Actually, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is a more accurate representation of the band than the "Best of 1980-1990" collection released two years ago. Those who miss the band's old days will be just as pleased as those who appreciate any of the directions the band has taken over the past decade.

That U2 took its time on the new album (in contrast to the rush to finish "Pop" to meet the tour schedule) has clearly paid off, from the music to some of the most consistently solid lyrics Bono has ever written. (No more oddball images to complete a rhyme.)

Thematically, the gist seems to be not about falling in love, but surviving it.

"All That You Can't Leave Behind" isn't the landmark that 1987's "The Joshua Tree" was. Nor is it the sort of bold move the band made on 1984's noirish "The Unforgettable Fire" or the electronic/dance direction begun with 1991's "Achtung Baby." But it does qualify as a masterpiece, both musically and in the realization that it's not enough to just keep moving forward if you don't learn from the experience.

"I'm just trying to find a decent melody," Bono sings on "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."

The song, which refers to suicide, seems to trace musically to the "Rattle and Hum" era, with its "Cruisin' " sort of Smokey Robinson feel.

"Elevation" gets it industrial groove on. But rather than merely the same loop over and over, the song winds again and again -- grounded by Adam Clayton's thick bass, Edge's buzzy, fuzzy guitar effects weave in and out as Bono ("I can't sing, but I got soul") whoops it up; it cycles into a darker break, and then resumes.

"Walk On" gets off to an unauspicious start with a spoken bit meant to be sensual (it comes off like something a boy band might do when it wants to get serious), but soon the sailing vocal-guitar effect pulls it back into line.

"Kite" seems to be a sort of electro-twang, country guitars blended with "Unforgettable"-era manipulation; "A Little While" pegs stripped-down blues on drummer Larry Mullen Jr.'s crisp playing.

"Wild Honey" is the surprise, with its '60s pop lilt and a treatment reminiscent of how U2 handled Thin Lizzy's version of "Whisky in the Jar."

Somewhere between an acoustic carol and Bruce Springsteen, "Peace on Earth" could easily become the season's bittersweet Christmas song. Proponents of the Irish peace process, the song was inspired by a 1998 bombing in Northern Ireland. Its tone is skeptical, wondering if the weary struggle is worth the trouble -- and realizing that it is, even as the question is asked.

Politics and negotiations also inform "When I Look at the World," its low-key drum 'n' bass beat subtle beneath the guitars (more reminiscent of the Flaming Lips' "Soft Bulletin" than old U2).

"New York" is the weak spot, its crackling drum nicely accented with a softer bass, but the Lou Reed-style delivery and atmospherics recall some of the least successful experiments on "The Unforgettable Fire," and it starts to swell too late.

The producers' influence is strongest on the final track, "Grace," Eno's moody keyboards and Lanois' muted guitar making it more than just a romantic ballad.

All in all, U2 has left little behind. It has merely pared it down; what's left is vital.

Published 10/31/2000

Copyright © 2000 The Press-Enterprise Company. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 31, 2000 5:07 AM.

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