U2's Latest: 'Behind' The Times

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The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 29, 2000

U2's Latest: 'Behind' The Times

by Tom Moon, Inquirer Music Critic

The U2 discography is filled with impulsive flings followed by acts of contrition. After the thundering The Joshua Tree brought its "righteous" rock into the global spotlight in 1987, U2 worked to modulate the fury and bring its songs back down to earth. That led to more compact, traditional compositions, such as "Angel of Harlem," written for the partly live Rattle and Hum, released the next year.

Now, after the zany, zoned-out electronic explorations of 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop, considered by many loyalists to be a particularly bad creative patch, the Irish foursome returns with an odd assortment of mealymouthed equivocations and dim homilies it calls All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope **1/2).

Advance word from U2 is that it has rediscovered its core rock values. The band is all but apologizing for its recent missteps, and vows it will surprise people when it hits the road for a world tour in March.

But be warned: This is rock from a group that lusts for a hit, and will go through any contortion to get it. This is music of the market-research focus-group variety - not too harsh, not too outlandish, lots of melody, lots of empathy. Songs such as "Walk On" and the deliriously sunny first single "Beautiful Day" aren't driven by the fire of true believers; they are the result of bald calculation, a move to solidify a base that may already have slipped away.

If the band wanted to pronounce this its return to some perceived golden age, U2 might at least have turned up the guitars. Gone are the majestic instrumental passages that defined earlier projects, those breathless gallops that gave the music epic sweep and a sense of tension. In their place are tepid little two-chord vamps and nondescript shoe-gazing from the Muzak arranger's manual.

The band's early snarling dissonance has been replaced by an eerie, contemplative serenity. The burrowing, harpooning guitars of Boy (1980) and War (1983) creep in now and then, but more often, the Edge is reduced to workaday strumming. If old U2 was the soundtrack to bustling city streets, this is music of, and for, idle moments.

Apart from the hurtling "Elevation," the rhythms lean on soul and pop as much as rock. Where the album's obligatory, mid-tempo marching-to-enlightenment anthems plod along, the more unusual beats - such as the slinky Marvin Gaye-ish soul of "In a Little While" - find the guys groping toward new expressions, or at least novel ways to frame familiar existential dilemmas. In search of a twist on the typical soul confession, Bono, now 40, guitarist Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen cast themselves as a Detroit lounge band, digging into the spongy beat as though happy to escape the tyranny of rock's rigid crunch. These R&B moments, which include the gospelized "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," are the highlights of the set: Bono's voice cracks in the most telling places, and the band, disciplined but loose, sounds as if it's enjoying the ride.

But there are problems elsewhere in Bonoland. The singer's attempts to express his high-minded ideals fall woefully flat: The rote "Peace on Earth" and its companion, "When I Look at the World," are State of the Planet addresses. Delivered from on high, they're loaded with sanctimonious indignation and lack the "we're-in-it-together" sentiment that distinguished previous appeals. He's even more cloying when he strives for intimacy: The couplets of "Walk On" ("I know it aches, and your heart, it breaks") try to offer encouragement, but end up striking a talk-show host's tone of glib compassion mixed with indifference.

The most distressing thing about All That is the band's eagerness to regress: U2 spent several years looking forward, grappling with technology and its impact, trying to capture the dizzying contradictions of this on-demand moment. It got close to doing just that. But now, as it crawls back to comfortable, nonthreatening mass-appeal rock, it appears wounded in retreat, tethered to what we thought it had outgrown, imprisoned by what it evidently cannot leave behind.

Copyright © 2000 Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 29, 2000 5:16 AM.

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