Album Review: U2 "All That You Can't Leave Behind"

A 'back to basics' approach is a well known trick of the record trade: a band becomes famous, its music familiar, so it ducks and dives, twists and turns, trying to throw up a few surprises. Then, when the fans break the code and the envelope can't be pushed any further, the earlier style is reprised and sold in a combined package of nostalgia and 'old is new' novelty. This is the slash and burn agriculture practiced by the music industry. With Oasis on the wane, the Verve having broken up, and Radiohead disappointing their rock fans again, a return to their straight rock roots by U2 couldn't be better timed.

In 1988, with the World at their feet, Phil Joanou's epic rockumentary Rattle & Hum attempted to carve U2's visage on the Mount Rushmore of rock 'n' roll legend by trawling them through America's musical heartlands of gospel, blues, and rock. Soon after this, however, the band started to move away from their trademark sound of intense, almost messianic vocals against a soundscape of clanging guitars and epic rhythms in favor of a more produced, textured sound arrived at with the help of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Impassioned, naive idealism was replaced with a worldly, sophisticated, clubby, media–savvy, ironic sensibility.

U2's aptly titled new album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is an attempt both to undo some of the damage done by this move as well as consolidate some of its gains. Bono has dubbed the new album's sound "titanium soul," and claimed that the new songs are "tunes rather than just ideas," implicitly criticizing U2's earlier output. "There's no storytelling or artifice," he declared on the band's official website. "It's about the pure joy of playing in a band, with or without an audience."

After the jaded cynicism of the MacPhisto period when Bono projected himself as the bad end of a Faustian bargain, there is now reported to be a renewed burst of spiritual energy coursing through the group, courtesy of Bono's newfound idealism campaigning for the abolition of Third World debt. This, along with the more stripped down sound, has raised expectations.

Beautiful Day, the first single, makes a brave attempt to live up to these hopes as lushly layered harmonies are flailed with incendiary guitar. On Walk On the melding of the Edge's clanging guitar and Bono's impassioned singing also signals that U2 are no longer content to communicate through the ouija boards of producers, sound engineers and the mixing console as they were in the Zooropa and Pop years. The suspicion remains, however, that the guitar overdubs are merely being cranked up in the mix to give a rawer feel.

The sound and fury of the noisier tracks are balanced with some slower numbers which allow Bono to mug the microphone with some embarrassing stabs at soul. In A Little While is a low–key, piece of pop that is as pleasant to listen to as it is forgettable. Grace and Wild Honey also provide anodyne ballast.

Great albums impress with every track, as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby did. Over 99% of albums, however, stand or fall by the quality of two or three key songs and the inoffensiveness of the rest. All That You Can't Leave Behind definitely falls into this latter category. Whether it is a worthwhile album depends on whether you can find a couple of strong songs on it. Luckily you can.

On Kite, a soaring, catchy, anthemic song, Bono delivers one of his most impassioned vocals, emblazoned with some intricate guitar riffs and tugging rhythms that relentlessly drive the song without overpowering its delicacy, while Peace On Earth shows the singer's sense of irony deployed to good effect as he examines the woes of the World in one of his most poetic lyrics, with just the right amount of distance to go with the insinuating melody and infectious hook.

Colin Liddell
Asahi Evening News
10th November, 2000
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