Let’s hope U2 can bring back the focus and commitment they had with this album and use it to create another fully-realized gem.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is an album of endings and new beginnings for U2, a focal point in their career.
The album marked the end to the more experimental and irony-soaked ‘90s. And it was the beginning of modern U2, a band that, for better or worse, reaches for the stratosphere and for the radio waves. It’s also a definitive celebration of life, for all its joys and sorrows, in a package of excellent songwriting that the band has struggled to match in recent years.
Most of the memories or impressions people have from this record mainly grow out of “Beautiful Day,” the last full-out U2 anthem to dominate the radio, MTV and everything in between. It’s near impossible to think of a concert from the four-piece without it. And for good reason. “Beautiful Day” is a building, heart-accelerating gift of a song. With a jubilant spirit, Bono sings about overcoming troubles by reflecting on the little moments of happiness in life. In the wrong hands, such a song could come off as cloying – U2 themselves have struggled to rise above sappiness in other tunes – but the band plays with such tightness, power and passion that you can’t help but get swept up in the moment.
The group achieves similar liftoff with “Walk On,” the Edge’s chiming notes provided the guiding light to match Bono’s wonderful singing about hope in the face of overwhelming adversity. As great as these two songs are though, it’s like looking back in a time portal to another era. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was still in the throes of the upbeat ‘90s, but also provided solace immediately after 9/11 changed everything. Parts of the album feel like a look back to a more innocent time. Hell, “Walk On” was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, back when she was an activist under house arrest rather than a ruler turning a blind eye to the genocides and massacres Myanmar’s military has committed.
Part of the reason why the anthemic moments of hope work so well on All That You Can’t Leave Behind is because they are balanced with despair, pain or loss. “Kite,” one of the most underrated songs of the band’s career, mixes distorted, melancholic strings with sharp cries of the Edge’s guitar. In one of his best vocal performances, Bono sings, “(I want you to know/ That you don’t need me anymore,” at peace that his children will be fine when he’s gone. As the band gets older, those lines hit harder. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” brings a gospel-tinged soul to its piano arrangement as Bono sings a desperate one-sided argument to his late friend, Michael Hutchence, who had committed suicide. On the political side, “Peace on Earth” is one of the bitterest songs they’ve ever written. Tired of continued violence and empty platitudes, Bono sings, “Sick of hearing again and again/ That there’s gonna be/ Peace on Earth.”
Musically, All That You Can’t Leave Behind has a reputation as a back-to-basics record. While U2 certainly sounds much closer to The Joshua Tree than Pop or Zooropa on this album, it’s inaccurate to think the band was just rehashing old sounds. Yes, the Edge brought back out the old echo unit for some tracks, but he had other tools in the box to use. “Elevation” turns his guitar into a groovy Transformer, its swirling fuzz only matched by Bono’s wordless yelps. At this point in their career, such an unabashed, explosive and fun rock song was new ground for the band. His guitar solo on “When I Look at the World” is otherworldly in tone, like a pulse of sunlight warping through a prism. It’s not just Edge that brought out new tricks. Elsewhere, the electronic drumbeat and steadily pulsing bass of “New York” captured the jostling bustle of the city. “In a Little While” and “Wild Honey” bring forth a jammy, stripped-down vibe, like U2 just got in a room together one afternoon and knocked them both out.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is also notable in U2’s career in another way – it’s the last time the band released an uncompromised vision for an album. Every subsequent release felt like it was trying to recapture the magic of this record, even those that tried to do move in another direction. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb came closest to succeeding on the back of its strong songwriting. But despite many great tunes over the last 20 years, those U2 albums are all compromised in some way, the band either too gun-shy to fully dive into sonic experimentation again or too focused on trying to dial up another “Beautiful Day” or “Vertigo.”
With two full decades since All That You Can’t Leave Behind, let’s hope U2 can bring back the focus and commitment they had with this album and use it to create another fully-realized gem. It sometimes feels unlikely, but then again, hope was always the point.