By Eileen Murphy
ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND – U2. Interscope Records.
It will hardly come as a surprise to U2 fans that Bono still hasn’t found what he’s looking for — spiritually, at any rate. Throughout their 23 years together, the one constant for the band and their chief songwriter has been a sense of yearning in the music, a constant search for a higher truth to help them make sense of the world. On the new U2 album, "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," they seem, at last, able to sketch out a map to help them with their quest.
To borrow a phrase from Larry Mullen Jr., the band has been on quite a musical journey since they answered that ad on the Mount Temple school noticeboard 23 years ago. From the youthful defiance of "I Threw a Brick," on 1981’s "October," U2 has worked through righteous anger ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"), quiet desperation ("Bad"), ambivalence ("With or Without You") raw sexuality ("Desire"), decadence ("Love is Blindness"), redemption ("Stay [Faraway so close]") and postmodern cynicism ("Discotheque"), they have grown from boys to men — to borrow a current Bono bromide — on the public stage.
Simply put, "All That You Can’t Leave Behind" is the album it took U2 two decades to write. The band has been able to distill the anger, the desperation, the ambivalence, the sexuality, the redemption and the cynicism of their past work into a breathtakingly beautiful, deceptively accessible work of art.
It’s tempting to describe "All . . ."’s collection of 11 songs — 12 if you buy the UK import version — as a return to the classic U2 sound. All of the familiar U2 touches are here: Edge’s trademark licks (aptly described by Rolling Stone magazine as "pins and needles" guitar work) are at the heart of the first single, "Beautiful Day." Bono still occasionally lapses into that impossibly high register, the "fat lady" voice he perfected on "Achtung Baby." Larry’s drums provide a strong rhythmic base (sadly AWOL on too much of "Pop") and Adam’s in his own cool bass groove (largely lost in the ambient mess of "Passengers"). But they’ve cut most of the frills and flourishes, which, admittedly, gave some of the other albums their punch. They’ve come to the realization that it’s all about the songs, and, in the end, that’s what they couldn’t leave behind.
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The band’s choice of leadoff single seems vaguely counterintuitive. "Beautiful Day" is one of the weaker tracks on the album, although the lyrics are great (aside from a few notorious clunkers – "Miami" comes quickly to mind — Bono simply can’t write a boring song). A better choice would have been the catchy "Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of," which has an irresistible, vaguely regg’ beat. It’s the band’s return to the grand gesture — Bono’s searching again, but this time it’s for "a decent melody / A song that I can sing in my own company." Because the album is so much a sum of the band’s many parts, it’s easy to find echoes of other songs in these new offerings. "Stuck . . ." would segue beautifully into "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World" — similar beat, same breezy feel, but the lyrics of the new song are deeper, older — sober, if you will.
It’s hard to pick a favorite on the album – "Elevation" and "Wild Honey" are unabashedly sexy, and it’s even possible to give Bono some latitude on lazy wordsmithing like "I and I in the sky / You make me feel like I can fly" in the former.
The track that is likely to cause the most comment is "New York," with its mention of midlife crisis and vague references to infidelity. It’ll be tempting for critics to view the song as an autobiographical piece, since Bono turned 40 this year and recently purchased a house in the Big Apple. "In New York I lost it all to you and your vices / Still I’m staying on to figure out my midlife crisis," he sings, acknowledging that he "hit an iceberg."
"Peace on Earth" is the most clearly spiritual song on the album. The man who wrote "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is 17 years older now, and it shows – "Heaven on earth / We need it now" he implores. He’s worked through his anger with God, expressed on "Pop’s" standout song, "Wake up Dead Man," and is in a more conciliatory mood: "Jesus could you take the time / To throw a drowning man a line? / Peace on Earth." On "Sunday Bloody Sunday" the 23-year-old Bono couldn’t believe the news; the 40-year-old has heard it far too often, He invokes the names of victims of the Omagh bombing: "They’re reading names out over the radio / All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know / Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Breda . . ."
It would be easy to wax on, holding each song up to the light, analyzing it to death. But what really counts is what comes out of the stereo speakers, and "All That You Leave Behind" ranks with the band’s masterworks, "War," "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby." They may not have found quite what they’re looking for — but it’s a good bet that their fans have.