All That You Can't Leave Behind
by Simon Reynolds
U2's tenth album, says Bono, is where the group "reclaim who we are". It's always alarm-bells time when a band starts pining for an earlier sonic incarnation of itself, for a time when it all felt so fresh and for-the-first-time. Think of those other Eno-ites Talking Heads scaling down from Remain In Light's oceanic sprawl to the rootsy scrawn of "Road To Nowhere". In U2's case, though, they've scaled back up, to the panoramic swirl of Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree, the Eno/Lanois sound that made your ears gaze into the far distance.
That sound coincided with U2's megastardom, but I really don't think the band have got Uncle Brian and Danny Boy in the co-producers' chairs again purely and cynically in order to be Big once again. No, this album is a naive, heartfelt attempt to go back---back to when they sounded naive and heartfelt. "Reclaim who we are" means no more postmodern play with identity, no more sub-McLuhan/Baudrillard embracing of media hyperreality , no more Warhol-esque we-are-product malarky.
It's good timing, too, Zeitgeist-wise. The culture is shifting away from media-saturated referentiality and surface-oriented cynicism towards earnestness, activism, giving a fuck. Hence Bono's work with Jubilee 2000's Drop the Debt Campaign, and his heralding of this album with pre-postmodern phrases like "righteous anger" and "fire in the belly". Soon, very soon, the blank irony and mainstreamed camp that ruled the Nineties will be rejected as mere fin de millenium decadence (Seinfeld as our Oscar Wilde), and loss of nerve.
But isn't it simply too late for a U2 makeover? Here's Bono again: "Pop music often tells you everything is OK, while rock music tells you that it's not OK, but you can change it". Hang on a minute, wasn't the last U2 album actually called Pop? Didn't the first video off it have the boys camping up it under a giant discotheque glitterball? U2 seem to be suffering a bit from Orwell/1984-style doublethink: "Howie B? Who's that then? Dance music? Not us, mate!"
All That You Leave opens with "Beautiful Day," a song stunning enough to blast your hackles into oblivion: for four minutes you truly believe U2 can go back to 1987. Apparently almost abandoned at birth because it sounded too much like "quintessential U2", the song is like Boy's wide-eyed ardour filtered through Unforgettable Fire's tingly shimmerscape production: Bono struck by a bolt of joy, Edge's echoplex chimes cascading like a sun shaft through clouds, the rhythm boys shedding Achtung-style funk'n'grit for the chaste, chesty surge of old. The tune sounds deceptively simple, but the production teems with subtle flickers, dub-wise backwash whooshes, and vocal harmony embellishments.
"Stuck In A Moment" is gorgeous, too: a Philly soul-influenced midtempo ballad with a "tears are not enough" lyric to an emotionally paralysed friend. But lines like "if your way should falter on that stony path" point ahead to the album's slide into boggy Rattle N' Hum terrain: the sort of semi-balladic bombast and elemental widescreen imagery that have made U2 scorned by sophisticates for so long. "Walk On" and "Kite" resound with epic-sounding vagaries, as if Bono wanted to come back and show Richard Ashcroft how it's really done. In "Kite", Bono admits "I don't know which way the wind will blow". Most likely it'll be gusting in whatever direction your gob is pointed, Bono.
The Stax-flavored "In A Little While" and Caledonian soulful "Wild Honey" (featuring yet more wind and breeze imagery!) belong on that chest-beating Celtic continuum that spans Hothouse Flowers and (shudder!) The Commitments. "Peace On Earth," a song for the bereaved and their "sons underground", at least lets the Edge sound Edge-like, with radiant supersaturated overdubs. "When I Look At The World" likewise glimmers like a planetarium, all shooting stars and reeling constellations, but by this point the listener is suffering from grandeur fatigue, like spending one day too many at the Grand Canyon. It makes you want to listen to something modest, withdrawn, almost imperceptible--like, where did I put that Young Marble Giants album?
"New York" saves the day with its subdued "Streets Have No Name" twinkle-rush. It gets louder, though, and you start praying that it doesn't explode into passionate gesticulations, and of course it does. Even so, it's a fabulous showcase for Edge as cinematographer of the guitar. "Grace," lovely and low-key, ends things with a welcome whisper.
Book-ended with brilliance, All That You Can't Leave Behind's centre is hollow and overblown, and that's got everything to do with bad faith. You can't simply unlearn the lessons of postmodernity--it's like imagining you can become a virgin again. Removing the quote-marks and attempting to speak straight from the beating heart, U2 end up somewhere even worse than lame-ass Beck-style irony: corn without authenticity, its only saving grace.