Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Bud Scoppa


A new millennium, and a new phase. U2 re-examines their roots, and remember the true meaning of pop.

After the curve-balls of Zooropa, the Passengers album and Pop, many U2 fans had started to wonder whether they'd seen the last of the rock band they'd fallen in love with. Nearly three years had gone by since Pop - an eternity as far as the flock was concerned, but standard for this world-touring unit - when the four band-members got together in their Dublin rehearsal space to formulate the follow-up.

Not for the first time, they were aware of how their most recent record had been received, and tried to figure out how to respond to it; to come up with "a response to the response," as AllMusic's Stephen Erlewine insightfully put it in his review of No Line On The Horizon.

After two straight albums without a fresh stadium rouser, the band knew they needed to reassert their basic identity and their previous mastery of the pop charts. The plan was to work at home for the entire project, and also to bring back their reliable studio tandem of Eno and Lanois, who had introduced atmospherics into the line-up of the studio band. Banished was Flood, along with his sonic experiments. Then, at the tail end of the project, they brought back Steve Lillywhite to mix two of the key songs and to do whatever else "additional production" entails.

The buzz coming out of Dublin was that they'd made a back-to-basics rock album. The reality couldn't be nearly that pat. It never is with U2. They were, though, working outward again from a reliable foundation: playing face-to-face in a circular arrangement, with guitars, bass and drums, then plugging in Eno and Lanois and sending concentric circles outward from that rock-solid base.

"Pop music often tells you that everything is OK, while rock music tells you that it's not OK, but you can change it," Bono said of the attitude the band took into the sessions. "There's a defiance in rock music that gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Most pop music doesn't make you want to get out of bed, I'm sorry to say. It puts you to sleep."

Bono figured U2 possessed the wherewithal to have it both ways - using rock to build towering pop hits. "From the beginning, we were excited when music met the real world," he said, "and, going into this, we reckoned that people aren't buying rock records any more because of this progressive rock lurgy, which is on the rise, where the single has been forgotten. In our heads we've written eleven singles for this record." (He wasn't counting The Ground Beneath My Feet, an add-on twelfth track in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Japan but not in the States.) As it turned out, All That You Can't Leave Behind would yield three hit singles, two of them massive, and one signature anthem - on tracks one to four.

The signifiers of renewal were all over the record when it appeared. Anton Corbijn's black-and-white cover and package photos made an unmistakable connection to The Joshua Tree. There they were with their carryon bags in Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport about to go somewhere in a hurry - back home, perhaps, metaphorically speaking. Bono's doctoring of a sign listing the terminal gates to the apparent Biblical reference "J33-3" intimated an explicit return to the spiritual concerns they'd generally buried during their revelry at the discothèque. And the title was an uncoded message - a promise - that they were re-examining their musical roots.

Given all those indicators, it was somewhat perplexing to slide the CD into the slot and be greeted by yet more electronics - a heraldic string synth (Eno's apparent model for Coldplay's Viva La Vida), a tremolo keyboard and a beat blipping out from a sequencer. Ah, but it was only a tease. The Edge slips in almost unnoticed, like a tardy worshipper slipping into the back pew after mass has started, and if you listened really closely, you could make out the hint of a tambourine seconding the rhythm. And then, as the LED on the CD player hits 0:58, the band slams in like a sharp elbow to the ribs, and we're out of our seats.

Though Beautiful Day was stunning on the first listen, the surprise is now so firmly embedded that you really have to listen to hear what's actually going on in the track any more. When you take the time to do so, you'll recognise the intricacy and effectiveness of the detail. The almost operatic chorale of overdubbed and Eno-treated Bonos that enlarges the scale of the track immensely without really calling attention to himself. The climactic eruption, with Edge shooting off flares of billowing distortion and the rhythm section thundering mightily. Or the coda, where a spent sequencer putters out as a series of burnished electric guitar chords sends out a message: this will be a record about familiar sounds being made in unfamiliar settings, in keeping with the arrival of the new millennium.

Abandoning the sixteenth-note flurries that had provided the overdrive to the Mullen/Clayton motor, The Edge found new and effective ways to play the conventional role of lead guitarist, starting on Beautiful Day. He used his Gibson and lots of effects pedals, redefining the shimmering sound that had been his trademark from the start.

Eno's synths are still very much in evidence here and throughout, but tucked into the mixes so that they become subtle if not quite subliminal thickening agents. His role on All That You Can't Leave Behind parallels that of Garth Hudson on The Band's classic LPs: providing thickness, nuance, mystery and glue while staying in the shadows behind the guys upfront. Likewise, Lanois plays additional guitar - largely acoustic - on atmospheric songs from the second half of the album like In A Little While, Wild Honey and Grace. As for the shared production credits, Lanois' name appears first on seven cuts, Eno's on four - suggesting that Lanois' focal points of guitar and other human sounds took precedence over Eno's synthesised alchemy on this outing.

Eno, though, provides a sonar-like keyboard pinging through the second track (and second hit single), Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of, as the band ventured into soul-gospel territory, with a resulting feel closer to Hall & Oates than Stax/Volt - and that's an altogether positive reference point in my book. Bono said the lyric was inspired by the death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, as he recalled a conversation he'd had with Hutchence about suicide. "It's a row between mates," Bono offered. "You're trying to wake them up out of an idea. In my case, it's a row I didn't have while he was alive." The lyric also contains what comes off as a reference to another mysterious death - Jeff Buckley's, three years earlier: "I was unconscious, half asleep / The water is warm till you discover how deep... / I wasn't jumping... for me it was a fall / It's a long way down to nothing at all."

With its pummelling groove, radically fuzzed-out guitars and mindless lyric, whose most eloquent passage is Woo-oo, Elevation was designed to be a fist-pumping, shout-along show-stopper, the forerunner to the next album's Vertigo and Horizon's Get On Your Boots, and it's a kick to hear them let their hair down and rock. Walk On, whose lyric provided the album title ("The only baggage you can bring / Is all that you can't leave behind", Bono solemnly intones during the spoken prelude), opens with the shimmer of a tambourine.

The track, with nary a hint of Eno-tronics, come off as a counterpart to the Byrds's pumping take on Dylan's Chimes Of Freedom, in the way that "All that you fashion / All that you make / All that you build / All that you break..." against The Edge's spiralling riffage echoes "And for each and every person / In the whole wide universe..." over the church-bell chiming of McGuinn and Crosby's twelve-strings. Mullen's drumming is breathtaking, like one uninterrupted drum roll through the whole track. Edge's flock of soaring guitars also recalls the aerial acrobatics of Clapton and Allman on Layla, a touch that carries over into the next track, Kite, adorned with his swooping slide.

That extra-long pause between Walk On and Kite serves as a "turn the record over" gesture, because All That You Can't Leave Behind really has the feel of a two-sided album, if not the balance (tracks 1-4 run 17:23; 5-11 run 31:56). The bang-bang pace of Side One juxtaposes with the largely reflective Side Two in a way that seems intentional in its contrast, split into a "Rockin' Side" and a "Dreamy Side".

The sonar ping of Eno's synth on Kite seems to continue into In A Little While, with its Al Green-like falsetto vocal and swaying soul groove. The ringing acoustics and rolling rhythm of Wild Honey give it the feel of a '70s country rocker until Eno's synth crashes the hootenanny in the final minute. Peace On Earth is all Edge/Eno atmosphere, with bass and drums you feel more than hear, and When I Look At The World continues the spell, slide guitars and synthesizers wrapping around each other like strands of tinsel. A foghorn synth and a drum loop that sounds like a subway clattering down the tracks set the nocturnal mood of New York, broken abruptly when the band erupts, summoning up the city's rushing vitality. And the hushed Grace, which echoes the muted guitar tone in the coda of Beautiful Day, closes the album proper with what might be interpreted as a personification of the mystical state of grace, as the title character "makes beauty out of ugly things".

"This tastes very sweet," said Bono when Beautiful Day hit Number 1 all over the planet. "You think to yourself, you're a rock band, you don't need the pop charts, but you do need the pop charts. Singles are what makes rock sharp, and we've not been great at singles. I can't tell you how excited we feel; we've been around for a while, and to hear this song on the radio, it feels very special."

The albums' big songs were everywhere. Feeling giddy about recapturing their position as the biggest band in the world, they not only allowed Elevation to be used in the video-game cash-in flick Lara Croft: Tomb raider (complete with a crunchy new mix by The Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary), they got involved in the cross-marketing game, sharing face time with the footage of Lara herself, Angelina Jolie, in the music video. The band had the world by a string again.

And then, without warning, the world changed. just like that, the infinite promise of the new millennium celebrated by Beautiful Day exploded with the towers, and U2's album instantly morphed from the music to prophecy, along with its oracular companion piece, Dylan's Love And Theft. Like New York, New York on Ryan Adams' Gold, U2's New York became a radio hit of the emotionally complex sort, at once a remembrance of innocent times now gone for good, a tribute to a scarred and wounded city and a conveyor of hope. Some of the lyrics seemed hauntingly prescient, especially: "Voices on a cellphone - voices from home / Voices of the hard sell - voices down a stairwell..."

If Beautiful Day and Peace On Earth took on a heart-wrenching poignancy and Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of a bitter irony in retrospect, Walk On mystically reshaped itself into an anthem as timely and powerful in its own way as Dylan's The Time's They Are A-Changin', Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come and Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth had been in their own eras. When they played it just days after the attack on the healing TV special America: A Tribute To Heroes, U2 met their unanticipated appointment with history with dignity and embracing humanity. "I know it aches / how your heart it breaks", sang Bono as the song reached its newly, almost unbearably stirring climax. "And you can only take so much / walk on, walk on / leave it behind / you've got to leave it behind..."

Tracks: Beautiful Day / Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of / Elevation / Walk On / Kite / In A Little While / Wild Honey / Peace On Earth / When I Look At The World / New York / Grace
Released: October 30, 2000
Produced by: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Plus Steve Lillywhite, Mike Hedges, Julian Gallagher
Recorded at: Dublin, and the South of France
Chart position: UK: 1 US: 3