- 30 Oct 19
19 years ago today, U2 released their tenth studio album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. Featuring hit singles like 'Beautiful Day', 'Elevation', 'Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of' and 'Walk On', the project saw the band reuniting with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois – who they had previously worked with on The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. To celebrate, we're revisiting our original 2000 review of the classic album.
When we last left U2, at the conclusion of 1997’s Pop, they were marooned on a spaghetti Golgotha, shouting, “Wake up dead man!” at a god who had apparently reneged on his promise to live forever. Well pilgrims, here’s the resurrection shuffle.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is powered by a kind of rogue hope; it’s Beckett’s “I’ll go on” with a firework up its arse, the pragmatic madness of beginning again. And again. With a bloody nose. You get the feeling U2 would’ve called this opus Grace had Jeff Buckley not gotten there first, a word that invokes that most rock ‘n’ roll of devotionals, the one that goes, “How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me”.
That, as I see it, is at the spirit of the album: some sense of détente with the demons. But it’s an uneasy peace, achieved by way of the turmoil in less than civil memos to God such as ‘When I Look At The World’ or ‘Peace On Earth’, the latter being a natural successor to ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ – an AntiChristmas carol echoing Omagh and Kosovo and lost lives “bigger than any big idea”. It’s only by embracing these black-minded episodes that Bono can get away with celebrating the heart as “a bloom/It shoots up through the stony ground” and sound like the late RS Thomas or Paddy Kavanagh rather than one of the happy-clappy squad.
So much for the big ideas: what about the merchandise?
Well, over the last decade, the band have tended to announce campaigns with singles that break new sonic ground but aren’t necessarily the best tunes: ‘Discotheque’, ‘Numb’, ‘The Fly’. ‘Beautiful Day’ breaks that pattern, being a patented U2 cavalry charge from U23 through The Joshua Tree to Jubilee 2000. It also flies in the face of the first commandment of rock ‘n’ roll: thou shalt not be uncool.
Cool is not a concept with which U2 have ever made their peace, despite all the wraparound fly shades and Big Friggin’ Yella Lemons. In essence, PopMart was as much a sequinned soul revue as Al Green’s, and Achtung Baby a broken heart held together with leather.
Unlike those endeavours, ATYCLB makes no attempts at second guessing the future. Instead, it speaks of what it knows, and knows of what it speaks. Bono and Edge have come close to dance dilettantism in the recent past, but this year the charts are mapped upon the same black roots the group have tapped into since The Unforgettable Fire.
But this isn’t a return to Rattle & Hum’s past-iches. Despite hints that U2 have been keeping one ear cocked to the pop-gospel of Lauryn Hill or TLC (and perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is a very feminine record, emphasising empathy over ideology, thus promising some highly-charged live shows), there are few gurgling Hammonds or hip-opera choirs. Nevertheless, ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ does sup of vintage Van and even Mahalia, plus Bob and The Beatles (the latter’s influence being oft evident but not overt, notwithstanding the odd Harrison-esque slide figure from Edge or the harmonies on ‘Wild Honey’). Put in this context, the 1998 re-release of ‘The Sweetest Thing’ makes more sense now than it did at the time.
If pushed to describe the new record in two words, you’d have to say songs and soul. And so, it figures that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are back on the board. Soul is the intangible but integral quality the former first recognised in U2’s lyrics, brought to fruition in tracks like ‘MLK’ and later ‘One Tree Hill’. Lanois, for his part, is a song and dance man, equally schooled in the disciplines of narrative ballad and bottom end. It was the Canadian who was most uneasy with the cold industrial vibe at the Achtung Baby sessions in Berlin – you can bet he’s at least part responsible for the warmth of the players’ performances on these dozen tunes.
So, U2 have never sounded more like U2 while being less hung up about it. And there’s no greater emancipation than sitting easy in your own skin. After all this time, they’ve achieved a paradoxical state of giving-a-shit but not caring, a lightness of being defined by Kavanagh in Self Portrait: “It took me many years to learn or relearn not to care. The heart of a song singing it, or a poem writing it, is not caring.”
On ‘Beautiful Day’ for example, Bono has fashioned his own twist on the serenity prayer – “What you don’t have/You don’t need it now.” Faced with being “the last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars”(‘Kite’) and having already gone Out There with Passengers, the band have now applied their competitive instincts to compositional rigour (check out the elegance of the segue between song proper and outro passage in ‘Walk On’), letting Radiohead take the post-rock route.
But despite the air of an ensemble coming to terms with their own identity, these are hardly tranquil waters, and Bono can’t resist a pre-emptive kick against the pricks: “I’m not afraid of anything in this world/There’s nothing you can throw at me/That I haven’t already heard/I’m just trying to find a decent melody/A song that I can sing in my own company” (‘Stuck In A Moment…’).
Or another side – the wry pugilists: “Where I grew up/There weren’t many trees/And where there was we’d tear them down/And use them on our enemies” (‘Peace On Earth’).
In terms of text and technique, U2 are now operating on the premise that the shortest distance between performer and punter is a straight line. It’s their least showy record; only on ‘Elevation’ (possibly a lyrical extension of The Pixies’ ‘Levitate Me’ redirected heavenward, yet set in one of Bowie’s dingier Berlin disco-bars) does the rhythm machine go day-glo. There’s plenty of ear-candy, sure: Edge’s guitar counterpoint on ‘Kite’, Larry’s allusion to hip-hop kick drum in the opening bars of ‘In A Little While’, but really, it’s a record of superlative vocal melodies, with Bono peaking as a singer.
On previous outings, the big B could sometimes get in your face with a lyric; now he’s in your ear, alternately assuming the role of confidante and confessor, gadabout and spouse, barroom buddy and big brother. Remember when your Da would dispense some unpalatable piece of advice you knew to be true but resented anyway because it just wasn’t… hip? That’s where many of these tunes are coming from, except half the time the singer’s taking himself to task.
‘New York’, which occupies roughly the same function as ‘Miami’ or ‘Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World’ did on previous records, is a deadly serious joke about lost weekends and midlife crises in the big city: “I hit an iceberg in my life though I’m still afloat/You lose your balance, lose your wife/In the queue for the lifeboats/You gotta put the women and children first…”
Here, he’s being frank with a capital F, having had one too many for the road and not enough for his baby.
And then in the end, ‘Grace’ is like ‘Gloria’; a song about a girl, or god’s gift, or both.
If John Lennon once observed that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is the sound of U2 trying not to make other plans, dealing with icky, sticky stuff like humanity and fallibility and fidelity.
One from the heart.