After ascending to the pinnacle of the rock world and establishing themselves as one of the worlds most important bands during the 1980’s, U2 took the ’90’s off. Not in the sense that they didn’t release any new material because they did. It was just that the new musical direction the band took sounded awful. Starting at the beginning of the decade with the release of Achtung Baby, U2 made a move to a more electronic sound. By the end of the 90’s they sounded like a self indulgent caricature of themselves. Such was the backdrop leading up to the release of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.With the albums release the band repeatedly stated that they were “reapplying for the job of “Best Band In The World”. While many critics hailed the album as “a return to the traditional U2 sound” , I don’t believe that to necessarily be the case. In many ways, however, this is an oversimplification, as the album breaks new ground by retaining the sonic nuances of their 1990’s work and reconciling it with the melodic, hook-filled rock of their 1980’s work. But that is just my opinion (which for purposes of this blog is always correct!). What is for sure is that if you were a fan of the bands earlier work but not so much of the it’s 90’s output… you will find this disc astonishingly listenable. When the dust settled All That You Can’t Leave Behind and it’s associated singles would bring home seven Grammy Awards in two years. In 2001, “Beautiful Day” won “Song of the Year“, “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal“, and “Record of the Year“. In 2002, “Walk On” won “Record of the Year”, “Elevation” won “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal”, and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” won “Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal”. The album also won “Best Rock Album” that year. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is the only album ever to have two singles win “Record of the Year” in two consecutive years.The band exploded the record out of the gate with release of “Beautiful Day” as the first single. The song, by itself, would bring home 3 Grammy’s and announce with a sonic boom the return of U2 as one the worlds most important rock bands. The pounding heartbeat at the outset of the song provides a feeling of urgency Bono’s vocals are wonderfully understated helping you to focus on the lyrics, which also seem to be more subtle than that of a 1985 Bono.There is still undeniable greatness in the songwriting that contains “word paintings” that are Bono’s signature (See the world in green and blue.. See China right in front of you.. See the canyons broken by cloud.. See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out.. See the Bedouin fires at night.. See the oil fields at first light.. And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth.. After the flood all the colors came out). There is no denying that it is immediately not only a classic U2 song, but a classic rock song. The second single released off the album is also my personal favorite song on the disc. “Stuck In A Moment and You Can’t Get Out Of It” is such an infectious melody and catchy chorus that after I hear it… the god damn thing gets stuck in my head and won’t get out of it… for the rest of the day. While I completely understand that most would balk at the notion that any cut on this record is superior than “Beautiful Day” to me this one is.While lyrically and musically it may not be as heavy and complicated…it is in that melodic simplicity in which lies the genius of the song. The lyrics provide the listener comforting aid in an obvious time of desperation (you’ve got to get yourself together…you got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it). It doesn’t let you off for whatever mistakes you may have…it tells you to own it, learn from it and move the fuck on, don’t let yourself be pulled into the abyss by whatever it is (And you are such a fool …To worry like you do… I know it’s tough… And you can never get enough… Of what you don’t really need now) . And in the last lines of the song…..it’s just a moment, this time will pass. “Walk On” is an inspirational message of persevering through any type of personal anguish that the world throws on your shoulders. The ability to shrug off the pain and hurt and move forward despite it. If there is a track on the album that perfectly blends the “old meets new” sound it’s “Elevation”. It is one of the edgier cuts on the offering. It leaves the hard hitting topics alone and is just…hard hitting. A love song in urgency would be the perfect description, at least according to me (and for purposes of this blog I am always correct!). Although never released as a single “In A Little While” is another one of my personal favorites, not on just this U2 record but any U2 record. Musically it is in much the same vein as ‘Stuck In A Moment“, melodically simple but maintaining the beautiful sense of urgency that was,is and always will be the magic of this band (When the night takes a deep breath…And the daylight has no air..If I crawl, if I come crawling home.. Will you be there?)…need I say more?
Rolling Stone magazine called it U2’s “third masterpiece” alongside The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. I’m not sure I would go quite that far, but I don’t that I would vehemently stand opposed either. For those of us that grew up in the 1980’s, almost all of us have a piece of U2 in us. For some of us it may have been the drum beats and cold war politics of War. For some it may be the cries for peace and equality that was The Unforgettable Fire. For most of us it is the near perfection of The Joshua Tree. Perhaps the strange and sonic change of Achtung Baby. Really the argument of whether or not this is classic U2 is not as important as to why they did not continue down this path they started on with this disc. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was surely a return to grace…albeit far to brief.
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