Artistic longevity has its perks, but it also has its drawbacks. At some point, a band or an artist will inevitably falter. Why this happens depends on the circumstances, of course; how the artist reacts determines what happens next. For Irish rockers U2, that moment came in 1997; their album Pop found the group receiving some of their worst reviews and album sales to date. Of course, going Platinum might not seem like poor sales, but compared to sales over the past decade, this development couldn’t be ignored. Thus was borne 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band’s tenth album, and the subject of a fine deluxe edition.
Pop had been the cumulation of a decade’s ascent to the top of the rock star throne. Considering the harder-edged Achtung Baby’s world-conquering success, and the surprise success of the edgier, experimental companion Zooropa, the band fell down the trap of self-indulgence. Overproduced, overwrought, and largely forgettable, Pop felt like the end of an era, a band that had traded its passion for production, an expensive-sounding record that ultimately felt hollow—and, for the first time in their career—utterly superficial.
Wiser heads recognized this. For their next album, they brought back the duo of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the two men who helped turn U2 into rock royalty with the one-two punch of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire and 1987’s masterpiece The Joshua Tree. While Pop sounded bloated and not very U2-like from the opening “Discotheque,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind opened up with “Beautiful Day,” one of the band’s finest numbers. With a stripped-down production and catchy electric piano melody, frontman Bono sounds like his younger self, confident, proud, and energetic.
“Beautiful Day” sounds like the U2 of yore, and it set the tone for the rest of the album. Lanois and Eno helped the band channel their mid-80s selves once again, in more ways than one. With restrained production, the songs are shorter and succinct; All That You Can’t Leave Behind is the band’s shortest album since The Unforgettable Fire. Furthermore, it’s a very fast-paced record; the first listen felt positively Ramones-like compared to their previous albums. (The American version of the album had 11 tracks, while the other major markets added an additional song, the Salman Rushdie composition “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” which had already been released Stateside on The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack.)
Yet they didn’t fully abandon the tools they picked up over the decade. It’s nice to hear them return to the roots-rock/gospel hybrid of Rattle & Hum again on “Grace” and “Peace On Earth,” but it’s to their credit that these numbers don’t sound like a band imitating itself. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is perhaps the best song on the album. It is a melancholy gospel number that documents an argument Bono wishes he had with his friend, INXS’s Michael Hutchence. “Elevation” proves that Pop wasn’t a totally bad idea; the dance groove is restrained and works well when the excesses are paired down. Then there’s “Kite,” a song ostensibly about the end of a relationship, but if you listen closer, one might walk away thinking Bono is singing about the Pop misstep, and his moving words an apology to his fans.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind stands as a solid, consistent album; the only real flaw comes from its sequencing. U2 released four very fine singles from it . Yet all four songs are sequenced at the beginning of the album, making the album feel quite top-heavy. And if that’s the only quibble, then that’s a pretty good thing, no? Thankfully, the album cuts stand up on their own quite nicely.
The second disc of the set offers up leftover studio tracks: three outtakes and six b-sides. For the most part, the mood and tempo is melancholic and gray. U2 has always had a knack for hiding some fine jewels on the flipsides of their singles. The campfire singalong of “Summer Rain” is a delight, as is the brooding “Stateless,” which sounds a bit like The Dandy Warhols’ “Godless” to these ears. The only true clunker to be found is a calypso version of Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” an experiment that just doesn’t work. (The fifth disc in this collection offers up the remixes from their singles, as well as a few that stayed in the vault. Truth told, these are more for the hardcore fan; if that’s not you, you aren’t missing anything.)
This super-deluxe edition also contains a two-disc live show recorded in Boston in 2001 and previously released on DVD. Much like the album, U2’s live set finds them pulling back the overwhelming excesses of previous tours. The setlist reflects it, too; it features seven songs from the new album, plus a healthy selection of the band’s greatest hits. Only one song from Pop appears, the otherwise forgotten “Gone,” a song that became a dedication to the deceased INXS lead singer. Versions of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” “Desire,” and “I Will Follow” retain the white-hot intensity of the original versions while simultaneously flexing their muscles in a most appealing way. For those who saw it, The Elevation Tour felt like a band returning to form. This live show certainly makes the case, and is a superb concert experience.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind deftly pressed reset for a great band that had lost its way. For the next few years, they understood the lessons learned from Pop. Over the past decade, they’ve returned to a more experimental mindset. Unfortunately, unlike the risks taken with Achtung Baby, listeners have failed to connect with this new sound. Will they rally and pull off another All That You Can’t Leave Behind? That remains to be seen. Here’s hoping they can convene once more and reclaim their title as one of the greatest rock bands ever.
Purchase U2 All That You Can’t Leave Behind: Super Deluxe Edition: Amazon