While both Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993) had won U2 new audiences and critical acclaim, as the 1990s wore on their new image began to turn on them. In 1995, following the end of the Zoo TV Tour, the band collaborated with Brian Eno on Original Soundtracks 1 (1995), a mostly instrumental album of songs for imaginary films. Released under the band name Passengers, the album was spurned by both fans and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who worried that the band were becoming self-indulgent. These feelings were exacerbated by Pop, an album recorded at breakneck speed because of the pre-arranged tour. Despite being dark and political in places, the album received mixed reception from critics and the cold shoulder from many fans. Following the release of compilation The Best of 1980-1990 (1998), the band returned to the studio in a desperate bid to reinvent itself, just as it had done ten years before.
We begin, of course, with 'Beautiful Day'. It may been merecilessly overplayed on ITV, and reduced to the relative banality of a football theme tune, but this is a still an amazing song. The oscillating keyboards and bass drum are a great way to introduce this new U2 - combining the best from the heavy rock of the 1980s and the more electronic touches of the 1990s. Bono's voice is weaker than it was on, say, The Joshua Tree (1987), but he still wipes the floor with just about every other forty-something rocker on the planet. If anything, the lack of his once-trademark falsetto - for the most part - allows you to discover a new, more pleasant side of him, a side you thought had been lost long ago. The band as a unit feel tight, together and thoroughly modern. They have their pulse on the sound of the day, but still create something new and defining. This gets better every time you hear it, it's a sheer belter.
I have been unkind about the next track before. In my review of The Best of 1990-2000 (2002, #43), I attacked 'Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of', describing it as a bizarre cross between pop rock and lounge music. Some of that is still very true - Bono's lyrics are not his best, fulfilling his own words that There's nothing you can throw at me/ That I haven't already heard. But somehow, in the context of the album as a whole, this comes across a lot better. Being only the second track, we are still getting used to the new sound, and so there are bound to be little things we don't like even in the best tracks.
'Elevation' needs no such excuses, though. It may begin with the e-piano pootlings of a five-year-old, but The Edge's riffs are jagged and distorted, filled with a new metallic potency. Bono begins annoyingly, but soon he settles down into a very bizarre set of lyrics which push the boundaries of what it acceptable as rhyme without being cheesy. It's a proper rock single - not the most substancial thing in the world, but still a great listen. The most interesting section is the bridge - Bono's voice is electronically altered, not something he would have normally allowed.
With 'Walk On', we downstage slightly in terms of subject and take a more spiritual approach. The song provides us with the album's title and is dedicated to Burmese peace activist and 'prisoner of conscience' Aung San Suu Kyi. This does feel more like traditional U2, with The Edge soaring on the choruses on his highly strung Strat and Mullen playing more crisply than on previous songs. The lyrics achieve the rare feat of being both political and spiritual without sounding twisted or compromised. We get our fair share of both in the second verse:
You're packing a suitcase for a place
None of us has been
A place that has to be believed
To be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly
From this point of view, this is one of the band's finest achievements - though not as fine as 'Kite'. This is a complete heartwrencher, designed to move you beyond what you consider possible. The violins in the opening section are beautifully orchestrated, and The Edge is at the top of his game on slide guitar. Mullen keeps the drumming economical but effective, perhaps conscious that this is Bono's song. The meanings of the lyrics are many and varied, including that of a father letting his children out into the world, lovers getting over a failed relationship, and a eulogy of sorts to Bono's father, Bob Hewson, who passed away during the Elevation tour in 2001. Whichever of these you choose to believe, it is impossible to deny the emotional power of this track, summed up in Bono's breathtaking (and breathless) performance on vocals, his most emotive and exceptional to date. This is a song which you will listen to sparingly, so that you can savour its every perfection; in return, it will always, always, bring you to tears.
After what can only be described as a phenomenal start, the band drop the ball on the next two tracks. 'In A Little While' is about the much less attractive subject of a hangover, picking up the drunk song baton from 'Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World' (from Achtung Baby). This is U2 trying to be funky, incorporating the open hi-hat and scratching sound of hip-hop to create something which at its worst points is, frankly, embarrassing. 'Wild Honey' is equally disparate, beginning with some gut-wrenchingly tinny guitar, such as you would hear on a theatre student's demo tape. And while the chorus might have something to it, it cannot in itself hold your attention for the length of the song. This means you will have to try and understand the verses, exposing yourself full on to the apogee of modern tweeness.
We get back on track with 'Peace On Earth'. Despite the daunting title, this is actually indicative of the relationship between Bono and the rest of the band at its best. Just as on 'October', the other members, especially The Edge, have tied Bono to the ground, stopped his head swelling up and forced him to deliver an honest performance. The result is a very real, pleaful and lifting piece (see my review of October (1981, #87)). The lyrics are very focussed and yet modest, with the digs being subtle and shrouded in principle, e.g. It's already gone too far/ They say that if you go in hard/ You won't get hurt. Then Jesus comes into the equation with no cheesy fanfare, and the honesty factor rises again.
'When I Look At The World' is much in the same vein. We find a U2 more restrained, still potent but trying to reign themselves in to avoid looking like a bunch of rich ageing idiots. The lyrics should be relevant to anyone who has been a Christian for a long period of time. They describe deep-seated doubt, prompted by world events but rooted in questions about the very foundations of one's faith. When Bono sings the chorus, he is so stricken that you really do feel that he is wrestling with God:
So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
Growing up, but it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world
In the midst of all this soul-searching, The Edge keeps the song rolling along, providing some wonderfully crisp chords on a guitar which sounds like a wasp stuck in a steel pipe. Mullen uses his snare and ride cymbal well to create another dynamic rhythm, and as if by magic Adam Clayton's bass pops up at the most apposite moments, lifting the whole mix. The song concludes with the classic lines of the doubting Christian, Tell me, tell me/ What do you see?/ Tell me, tell me/ What's wrong with me?.
The last major slip-up on this great album is 'New York'. Until now, Messrs. Lanois and Eno had been on sensational form, but here they have taken a good mix and then made a hippo sit on it. As a result the drums, especially the hi-hat, sound tinny and overly funky - and worse still, it is impossible to hear Clayton al. With this in place, Bono may as well have not bothered. In the lower registers especially he sounds like a threepenny crooner. Even when the band kick the tail out at the end, it still sounds impotent.
'Grace', on the other hand, is a gem. Clayton begins the song, with his double-tracked bass taking both the high and low rhythms while The Edge lays down a downbeat, chilled-out series of chords which make you close your eyes and picture a garden full of summer flowers. Despite being very long for a U2 song (a not-so-punchy 5:32), there is hardly any drag here. Bono may be singing in what feels like slow-motion, but he is not slow enough to try your patience to any great degree. Instead, he produces a worthy sequel to the likes of 'One', for this has all the sensitivity and great lyrics of that track, combined with a contemporary feel and much better production.
We round up with 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet'. This is unusual in that it is one of the few songs in the U2 canon without Bono as lyricist. The words come from the pages of Sir Salman Rushdie, which is not hard to pick up on. This does have a more literary feel to it, much more arty and poetic than anything Bono could have created on his own. Despite that, this is easily one of the most accessible songs on here, which is just as well when you consider how good this is. We have an ethereal slide guitar melody from The Edge, counterpointed by Bono's acoustic and captured like rain on a lake by Lanois. We have a vocal performance from Bono to rival anything he has produced thus far at his peak. And we have a finished product which sounds like both a rock song and a piece of orchestral soundtrack work. It is a fabulous way to finish.
In many ways, All That You Can't Leave Behind is like the Rolls Royce Phantom. First, you get the instant impression of quality everywhere you go, from the playing to the production - even the album cover looks like brushed aluminium. Then, when you step inside, you are made to feel as comfortable as humanly possible, cocooned in your own little world with nothing to distract you or disrupt the experience. Leaving the car analogy aside, this album offers you the best of everything U2 have served up thus far, but there is still enough variety among the tracks for you to choose your own favourites. The follow-up could do that too, but How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004, #82) suffered from trying to be too political and in doing so saw the band slip into self-parody. Here, though, everything feels genuine, everything sounds new, and everything is worth savouring. It may be quieter and more understated than any U2 album since The Unforgettable Fire (1984), but it is in this meticulous level of restraint and self-control that true beauty emerges, making this truly the Rolls Royce of U2 albums.
4.00 out of 5