U2's Monotonous Musical Monogamy

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The Washington Post, November 1, 2000


U2's Monotonous Musical Monogamy

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer

U2 has spent the past decade in the loving embrace of some memorable floozies. The band ditched its rock and blues foundations in 1990 and fell hard for techno-dance, a passion it amplified on "Achtung Baby." It was smitten three years later by moody minimalist electronica on "Zooropa," followed by another tryst with synthesized dance tunes on 1997's "Pop," a chaotic meditation on turn-of-the-century consumerism. These affairs were not meant to last, but they were rarely dull.

For a band trying to stay relevant as it ages, this kind of aesthetic promiscuity is essential. Bono, the group's chameleon-like lead singer, and U2's three other members have long been willing to down a few stiff drinks and proposition the freshest and most fetching young things at pop's never-ending cocktail party of ideas. Just ask Madonna, one of U2's few rivals in terms of longevity: To get near the charts after two decades in the business takes a Lothario's sense of adventure.

While "All That You Can't Leave Behind," the band's 10th album, features some of U2's signature restlessness, it's more the sound of a band that would like to settle down, at least for a moment. Nearly everything about the album--including its title and its cover, which features the quartet standing in an airport, as though back from an extended vacation--signals a homecoming of sorts.

Unfortunately, like a lot of homecomings, this one seems awfully dull about three minutes after the welcome-back salutations are over. With the help of producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who first collaborated with U2 16 years ago, "All" has a gauzy feel that seems to wrap the band in a velvety new space-age scrim. But peel away this outer layer and you're left with some surprisingly bland music. And if Bono's fortune-cookie lyrics seemed grating when he still hadn't found what he was looking for, they're no easier to digest now that he's narrowed his search.

"I'm just tring to find a decent melody, a song that I can sing in my own company," he explains in the gospel-inflected "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." It's a pleasant shock on this and other songs to hear again the whirligig guitar scratchings of the Edge (David Evans to his mum), even if that echo-drenched sound is largely buried, rather than filling every spare inch of space as it did during the early days of the Dublin-born band. And Bono seems almost relieved to drop the alter egos he conjured during previous outings--the Fly for "Achtung Baby," and MacPhisto for "Zooropa"--and bellow like a rock star again. On songs like "Elevation" and "Kite" he's back to full-throated, arena-rock decibel levels.

The band, along with Lanois and Eno, deserves credit for bucking the new thin-is-in craze in pop. Taking a cue from the latest trends in dance electronica, Radiohead, Madonna and rappers like Jay-Z have all recently made emaciated albums, as though they ran out of cash and had to downsize the band. U2 already went through an anorexic phase; "Numb," the single from "Zooropa," was little more than a beat and a passel of buzzes. Here the band offers up a refrigerator full of noise. Two years in the making and the result of months in the studio, "All" displays care, craftsmanship and a fullness that are obviously the work of pros. Touches like the robot beeps that kick off "Elevation" and the Beatlesque Mellotron that opens "Kite" give the album a finely wrought feel on every tune.

If only they were better tunes. Most of the songs open softly, then are unleashed with full blasts of sound when the chorus rolls around, a formula that, though well tested, can't rescue "Beautiful Day," the album's first single, a wisp that offers little but optimism and vanilla homilies. ("It's a beautiful day, don't let it go away.") This upbeat album is filled with biblical nostrums ("Heaven on Earth, we need it now") and travel advice ("In New York summers get hot, well into the hundreds"), but the "decent melody" that Bono seeks largely eludes him here. The exception is the stirring "In a Little While," which takes flight courtesy of some Keith Richards-like chords and proves just how earthbound the rest of the album truly is.

Maybe you can't go home. Or maybe Bono has been so busy fighting for debt relief for the Third World--a cause that's enjoyed startling success, by the way--that the whole songwriting thing has been back-burnered. Whatever the reason, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is enough to make you hope that U2 won't hang out at home for long. Stay for tea, gentlemen, then pack your bags and find another exotic lover.

Copyright © 2000 Washington Post. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on November 1, 2000 5:32 AM.

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