All That You Can’t Leave Behind was, like so many U2 albums, a response to a perceived weakness. There seems to have been another simmering identity crisis within U2 in the late 1990s. After their Pop hangover, the band wanted to regroup quickly and get back in the studio, once again with Eno and Lanois. In the manner that all U2 albums are recorded, the four members basically got in a room and noodled around until songs began to emerge. At one point The Edge began to form the base of what would become “Beautiful Day,” and the story goes that Bono initially balked at it for sounding “too U2.” For a band approaching their 40’s this was of course a ridiculous complaint. Every band has worked themselves into a mindset by that point, and these sessions came hot on the heels of the successful Best of 1980-1990 set, which showed that U2’s more traditional anthemic sound still had relevance.
For a band so committed to moving forward, this willful shift to embracing what had worked in the past is somewhat revolutionary in its own way. I am sometimes tempted to dismiss ATYCLB as a retreat, a conservative album that rejects innovation in favor of that which is comfortable. The truth is it never plays that way. Even though it embraces U2’s obvious strengths, it does so in a hungry way. The band clearly felt the need to prove themselves after Pop, that they were still the same band who had waved white flags in concerts and constructed the explosive openings of The Joshua Tree. It serves as a statement of purpose in that way, a sort of musical mission statement where the band consolidates all their strengths into a single album.
That might seem like a calculating move, but it also sounds like it has the potential to be an unstoppable album. And remarkably, for about half of its run time ATYCLB actually lives up to its promise. The first six songs are among the strongest stretches on any of U2’s albums, beginning with the explosive surge of “Beautiful Day” and lasting through the intensely soulful “In A Little While.” The first four songs were all successful singles and have ended up as classic U2 tracks. “Beautiful Day” is as uplifting a song as they’ve ever written, and “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” shows that the band finally had the maturity to integrate all of those gospel influences they couldn’t handle during Rattle And Hum. “Elevation” is actually kind of a dumb lyric, but it is served so well by its muscular riff that it hardly matters. Both “Walk On” and “Kite” are perhaps the most straightforward songs in this stretch, but they soar with the confidence of an experienced group of musicians. And of course “In A Little While” is an intimate song, with a wonderful vocal from Bono, one of his very best.
But right around that time, when “Wild Honey” begins, All That You Can’t Leave Behind runs into a bit of a wall. It’s not that the songs in the second half are exactly week, but it’s never again able to reach the heights of the first half. It does put up a good fight in places. “When I Look At World” is a nice meditation on the different languages spoken by two lovers, and “Peace On Earth” channels the pain of violence into something that sounds broken and sad, rather than angry. But both of those songs stay at a low simmer and never really take off. But the last two songs, “New York” and “Grace,” are frankly interminable. Both clocking in at over five minutes, they end the album on a disappointingly flat note.
On a bigger scale, All That You Can’t Leave Behind also signals the end of U2’s really bold experimental nature. For the first twenty years of their existence the band always felt the need to push forward, whether into ambient soundscapes, Americana, or electronica. From here on U2 settled into a mostly predictable groove of anthem rock. Such a shift is altogether appropriate for a band entering their third decade, and they have recorded some terrific music in that time. Still, I feel just a small sense of loss. I doubt very much that the U2 of the 21st Century could see their way to creating something like Zooropa or The Unforgettable Fire at this point in their career.
Many fans and wags in 2000 were quick to crown ATYCLB as another U2 masterpiece, in the vein of The Joshua Tree or War. It is indeed a very good album, but it has a lot more filler than either of those albums. In some ways, it serves as a parallel album to Zooropa, which also began with a clear vision but meandered towards the end. But even that album ended with “The Wanderer,” which remains one of the boldest songs the band ever recorded. All That You Can’t Leave Behind‘s bid for masterpiece status is torpedoed by its front-loaded sequencing. But that doesn’t change that it is still a strong entry in its own right. It has the confidence of an experienced band who is aware of their own limitations, and more importantly their strengths. Like the best music, it has moments that grip the listener by the heart. In a way that’s what U2 was always best at, and it’s wonderful to hear that they still know how to do it.
Into the heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the first U2 album I bought, and indeed was the one that made me a fan. I was not the only one, because 2000-2002 was a time when a whole new generation of fans was formed. As such it has a dear place in my heart, my first connection to my favorite band. I would actually say that “Elevation” was the first U2 track I ever really loved, though I don’t love it quite as much now. The band was positively inescapable in those days, all over movie soundtracks and Super Bowl halftime shows. No doubt this is where a lot of people really learned they hated U2, but I remember it as a heady time when I discovered one of my true musical loves. I’ll always love All That You Can’t Leave Behind for that.
From the sky down
In which Nate ranks each U2 album in order of his favorites.
1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
5. The Unforgettable Fire
6. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
9. Under A Blood Red Sky
10. Rattle and Hum