U2 redeems itself in 'All That You Can't Leave Behind'
In a decade rife with Euro synth trash and cloying pop ballads, U2 invigorated the sound of the1980s with a majestic blend of passion, politics, and impeccable musicianship.
From the band's 1980 major label debut, the raucous punk accented "Boy," it was undeniable that U2 was destined for superstardom. The band's crown jewel, the 1987 classic "The Joshua Tree" sealed this fate, providing a ceaseless blend of radio-friendly, yet mature, often inspirational cuts.
U2's claim to rock royalty was further verified with the band's first release of the following decade, the multi-faceted masterwork "Achtung Baby." But their subsequent 90s' offerings, the muddled electronic-spiked "Zooropa" and the contrived "Pop," proved that U2 was not invincible.
These lackluster bandwagon-jumping attempts proved to be mere side effects of a compulsion towards excess that appeared to consume all aspects of the band.
Case in point: for the group's extensive world tour in support of "Pop," U2 paraded an arsenal of gaudy towering stage props and garish Halloween-grade costumes that made fans wonder if the Irish quartet gave style precedence over their music. With this demeanor of over-ambition, the band did not merely stare at the sun; they attempted to fly towards it.
But before U2 could melt their mighty wings and plummet back to earth, Bono and company have reinstated themselves in rock's upper echelons with their heavenly first offering of the new century, "All That You Can't Leave Behind."
Thankfully, not a lemon can be found on this lyrical and musical gem that harkens back to the band's unassuming heyday and mirrors such exceptional contemporary releases as Travis' "The Man Who" and Elliot Smith's brooding "Figure 8."
With the album's opener and first single, "Beautiful Day," Bono segues his low seductive vocals into a soaring, jovial chorus -- think "With or Without You" on Prozac. Such optimism and confidence is peppered throughout "All That You Can't Leave Behind."
"Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of," the album's next track, begins with Bono asserting "I'm not afraid of anything in this world/ there's nothing you can throw at me I haven't already heard."
On "Kite," which examines a rocky relationship, Bono proclaims, "I'm not afraid to die/I'm not afraid to live." The gradual increase in tempo on "Kite" explodes into a persuasive call for reconciliation.
Bono often presents a "been there, done that attitude," on "All That You Can't Leave Behind," particularly in the field of relationships. The soulfully rich "In a Little While," which follows "Kite," is a charming love ditty in which a cocksure Bono claims, "In a little while/surely you'll be mine."
The band never attempts to go overboard with "All That You Can't Leave Behind," keeping the pace simple and satisfying. On the hopeful John Lennonesque "Peace on Earth," the familiar concerned global activist side of the band resonates without the ferocity of a "Sunny Bloody Sunday," but rather a new-age folk stability. When Bono sings "sick of sorrow/ sick of the pain" he remains calm and collected, as if to convey a sense of sureness that harmony can be attained.
Absent from "All That You Can't Leave Behind" are guitarist The Edge's wailing bombastic riffs that pervaded U2's previous efforts. Instead, Edge yields success with variable methods such as straight-laced acoustic strumming on the poppy uplifting "Wild Honey." His versatility is showcased at the tail end of "All That You Can't Leave Behind" where the band and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois wisely pair the album's heftiest offerings, "New York" and "Grace," both of which clock in at well over five minutes.
The former splices stark Lou Reed coolness with a rumbling progressive soundscape as Bono grapples with mid-life crisis. "I hit an iceberg in my life/ but you know I'm still afloat," he croons with a quiet tenderness. No, Bono will not meet the fate of Jack Dawson; he is above and beyond titanic.
"Grace" wraps up the album with a low-key sensitivity that lives up to its title. Bono's emotional crooning, Edge's soft guitar, Adam Clayton's subdued bass, Larry Mullen's minimalist percussion and Eno's calming synthesizer provide the foundation for a Zen vibe that leaves the listener soothed and complete.
Such sophistication is the key to "All That You Can't Leave Behind." With the album's near-flawless 11 tracks hinged on the band's "back to the basics" formula, U2 is able to successfully reclaim the position that they are not consumed by flash and flamboyancy, but are centered on precision and well-honed craftsmanship. "I'm just trying to find a decent melody," Bono professes on "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." It shows.