All That You Can't Leave Behind

All That You Can't Leave Behind

The members of U2 headed into the 2000s in the midst of an existential crisis—not to mention a musical one. The band had both overwhelmed and underwhelmed fans with 1997’s would-be future-disco record Pop. Around the same time, the group’s PopMart tour was earning millions of dollars, but few accolades. Suddenly, the group’s cool cred was in doubt. Perhaps this was inevitable: After all, lead singer Bono had spent the decade simultaneously playing up and poking fun at rock ’n’ roll ludicrousness—only for him and his bandmates to share the stage with a giant, sporadically malfunctioning lemon. Bono had started the decade as a jokester, and ended it as a punchline. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a self-conscious corrective—the sound of a band turning down the noise, throwing out the glittery props, and refashioning the old-school U2 sound into something more stripped-away and direct. To some, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a bold return; to others, a bit of a retreat. Either way, it sold a gazillion copies, and erased any doubt of U2’s raw abilities (while also seemingly wiping clean any collective cultural memory of PopMart). U2 makes its intentions for All That You Can’t Leave Behind clear from the get-go with the opening track: “Beautiful Day,” a monstrous, undeniable bit of uplift, featuring an atomic guitar riff the Edge apparently recorded while strapped to a jumbo jet, and a gorgeous mid-song harmonic breakdown. “Beautiful Day” is so on-the-nose, so perfectly U2, that everyone forgave its sheer U2-ness. And the song demonstrated what 21st-century commercial rock could (and would) sound like in the years ahead: loud, proud, and only slightly ridiculous. That was certainly the mantra behind the album’s other smash-hit anthem, “Elevation,” a trampolining assortment of swan-diving guitars and sky-high vocals that manages to answer the age-old question: “Can a rock song rhyme the words ‘mole,’ ‘hole,’ and ‘soul,’ and still retain its integrity?” (The answer: Yes, but only in this instance.) But the roof-raising tracks on All That You Can’t Leave Behind are paired with (slightly) quieter, more carefully layered numbers. The reassuring ballad “Walk On” finds Bono doing what he does best as a lyricist—namely, taking off his shades, looking listeners directly in the eye, and giving them what feels like a one-on-one heart-to-heart. And the lovely “In a Little While,” a low-key bit of soul-searching, is one of the band’s most effectively pared-down numbers (it became a favorite of Joey Ramone in his final days). Still: All That You Can’t Leave Behind didn’t top the charts because of such quieter moments. This is an album custom-made for beautiful days, and no song sums up its powers greater than “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” a sumptuous, gospel-tinged heartbreaker that features a sing-along chorus to which even the most cynical U2 listener will eventually succumb. Is that song—much like the rest of All That You Can’t Leave Behind—a little too needy, too tidy, a little too desperate to be embraced? Sure. But after U2’s struggles in the late ’90s, at least this album—and its success—reminded the band members why they’d been so huge in the first place. Better to be stuck in a moment you can’t get out of than to be stuck inside a giant lemon.

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