Your Gateway to Music and More from a Christian Perspective
     Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
SubscribeAbout UsFeaturesNewsReviewsMoviesConcert ReviewsTop 10ResourcesContact Us
 
Home
Subscribe
About Us
Features
News

Album Reviews
Movies
Concert Reviews

Top 10
Resources
Contact Us

 
November 2000 Pick of the Month
All That You Can't Leave Behind
Artist: U2
Label: Interscope Records
Length: 11tracks

Sample
In a Little While
U2 Rediscover Their Strengths, Renew Timeless Psalms

U2 have become the torch-bearers for David the Psalmist.  They careen from faith to doubt to faith again, sometimes all in the same song.  No matter how strong their belief, "peace on earth" still eludes them.  In 1986, Bono crooned their banner cry: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

Their journey stretches back more than twenty years now, and they don't show signs of stopping.  At first they wore their hearts on their sleeves.   Then they put on masks and told us, with a wink, that they could sell us something "even better than the real thing."  Throughout varying manifestations, U2's themes, message, and questions have remained the same.   Yes, God is there.  Yes, Jesus was God's gift to us.  Yes, we human beings have really messed up the world.  But is God still listening?  Will He keep his promises? 

Those essential sentiments have not always been clear to everyone.  During the 1990s, when they delved into devilish clowning, pointing to the truth by laughing at the lies, much of their audience did not get the joke.  Many preferred U2's straightforward messages and organic rock and roll.  Some were more deeply concerned, claiming U2 abandoned their faith and their convictions.  But the boys from Ireland pressed on, experimenting, absorbing the newest technologies and trends, increasing the spectrum of their sound. 

Have U2 lost sight of their strengths?  Can they exist anymore without the special effects?  Now, at the turn of the millennium, a new album arrives... All That You Can't Leave Behind.  And it effectively answers those questions. 

Getting Back to Basics

As the title suggests, this collection is about what is essential, what is left when the trappings are stripped away.  In other words, the last albums were about surface, but this one’s about soul.

Bono and the boys have dropped the masks, dropped the irony, and now they're shooting straight from the hip.  With enthusiasm and newfound confidence, they're storming back with eleven new songs that echo the sincerity and the soaring sounds of the 80's.  But this isn't time travel.  They're still dusting each confection with new sounds, new tricks.  The balance is stronger, truer.  The effects don't clutter and crowd the songs; they merely enhance them. 

All That You Can't Leave Behind is striking some listeners as "U2-lite", almost easy-listening.  That's because we're accustomed to the angry, militant U2 and the noisy, sarcastic U2. This is an older, wiser U2.  The world is full of angry bands.  Anger is easy.  Sarcasm's a cinch.  This time they abandoned bone-picking and discovered something very hard to find in modern rock...joy.

Bono told the press lately that U2 wanted to see if they could invent a "valid noise" at the turn of the century.   Their conclusion?  "Maybe  not."  Bono explains, "The only thing that would make a rock band valid right now would be if that rock band could write songs that would transcend the time they were made in."  "Most of the album is like a soul record," says drummer Larry Mullen Jr.  "We've never made anything remotely like it."

Soul-Searching Soul Music

Reunited with the producers that took them to the top, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 sound excited and rejuvenated.  The songs are indeed rock solid.   Each track seems poised to top the charts.  Each chorus is instantly unforgettable.  Once again, Larry's drums are central, so much more effective than drum machines.  Adam's bass playing provides the firm foundation every time. 

And The Edge's guitar supports these songs with creative mixes of chords and harmonics rather than stealing the show with fancy solos. His punchy buzz guitar on "Elevation" ensures that the song will send the concert crowds into a euphoric hooting frenzy.  "Walk On" and "Kite" reflect the high arching tones of past anthems like "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?" 

Instead of comparing these tracks to those by Smashing Pumpkins or Nine Inch Nails, you're more likely to think of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" or something off of the Beatles' "Rubber Soul".   Listen to the musicians' chemistry on the raw and remarkable "In A Little While," perhaps the simplest little number they've ever cooked up.  And sometimes the music just gallops along with contagious glee, as on the blissful "Wild Honey."  Have these guys ever had so much fun?  They're exhilarated by the very act of being themselves.  All That You Can't Leave Behind might as well have been called... well... U2. 

Bono makes wise decisions here.   The years of touring have taken their toll on his voice, but he makes up for lack of power and volume with expressiveness and grit.  His melodies and voice are resonant with soul, ebullience, and freedom that speak of contentment.  Listen to him effortlessly leap from a hush to a roar in "Walk On". 

His lyrics aren't as ponderous and poetic as they were in "With or Without You."  But they're not as frivolous and freestyle as they were in "Some Days Are Better Than Others" (a song that proved its own point.)  It's as though someone asked him to look back over his career of songwriting and distill the things most important to him into one song cycle, a sort of "Bono's manifesto." 

Yeah, he still insists on rather ridiculous rhymes, as in "Peace on Earth": 

    Where I grew up/there weren't many trees/where there were we chopped them down/and used them on our enemies.
But he's done some of his best writing here as well. In the same song, he cries:
    Jesus, this song you wrote/The words are sticking in my throat/'Peace on earth'/I hear it every Christmastime/but hope and history won't rhyme/So what's it worth? 
After scolding God for negligence in "Peace on Earth",  Bono ends up turning the accusations upon himself, to question his own wisdom and perspective, just like King David does in his own laments.  In "When I Look at the World", he prays for a Christ-like perspective.  "Tell me, tell me, what do you see?/Tell me tell me, what is wrong with me?"

While such meditations ended Pop on a note of despair ("Wake Up Dead Man"), this album closes with an answer.  In "Grace", Bono composes a lovely picture of a girl who "carries a pearl in perfect condition", a mysterious figure who, if you will, moves in mysterious ways.   He admits his own metaphor, "It's a name for a girl/ but it's also a thought that can change the world."  Grace, he asserts, really is our hope, because "she travels outside of karma."  (Hear that, John Lennon?)  Rather than despair in fear of judgment, Bono turns to the mystery of God’s grace, which breaks the rules and comes to us undeserved. 

Rediscovering U2-Classic

While this confident and upbeat record is indeed another masterstroke for U2, I would not go so far as to say it is their finest.  Personally, I  found the 1990s albums, which I call “the Underworld Trilogy”, to be rich, satisfying concept albums, whose interwoven themes and riddles offer profound insight on how the world is trying to heal its own spiritual wounds.  And I doubt that Bono will ever write more poetically or sing more beautifully than he did on The Joshua Tree. 

But I'm not going to complain. All That You Can't Leave Behind shows that U2 hasn't had an identity crisis.  They've merely added new tools to their toolbox.  Even The Beatles knew, after revolutionizing the sound of rock with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's, that they needed to stay strong in the fundamentals, and by going back to the basics they produced some of their finest work. 

U2 still haven't found what they're looking for.  But they have come to a fuller understanding of who they are, and what the journey has made them.  "You've been all over/and it's been all over you…" sings Bono the Wanderer, probably talking to himself.  And yet he concludes, in spite of all the darkness he's seen, that it's a "beautiful day."  "The heart is a bloom/that shoots up through stony ground," he sings during the album's first glistening notes.   Against all odds, hope springs eternal, and grace rains down.
 

Jeffrey Overstreet 11/2/2000


 
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Green Lake Reflections web page  and in The Crossing , a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com

There was that moment during the Pop Mart Tour when Bono raised his hands in gesture to the huge glitzy over the top staging that he was standing on and said that he was “looking for the baby Jesus underneath all this trash”. That in essence was the point of the entire 90’s decade for U2. After the stadium anthems and serious sloganeering of the 80’s they took another angle. Dreamed it up all over again as Bono had said from the stage of The Point Depot in Dublin on New Year’s Eve 1989. The nineties were about irony, taking on personas, investigating the technological age both its communicative possibilities but also the spirit within it. Was it a joke to be rock stars? What were the TV screens filling our heads with? Where was the devil in it all? And what of that Baby Jesus? It was an interesting ride.

So here is another new decade and indeed new millennium and with the first U2 release of the “zeros” it looks like they’ve dreamt it up yet again. Maybe, they’ve found Jesus under the trash. Certainly the cover tells us that all the technicolor has gone and indeed the first thing that the albums hits you with is what is not there. No techno sounds. No Berlin industrial. No Howie B.

It’s stripped back and about as naked as Adam was photographed on Achtung Baby. Indeed and this is no reference to that picture but the word that most comes to mind about this new album is beautiful. Grace would be another good adjective and that would not simply describe the album's elegance and charm but also the spiritual subject matter. As well as the music being stripped back, Bono has lost his Fly shades and McPhisto horns. There is no character acting here. Bono is Bono and he’s musing about his faith in as upfront ways as he ever did.

It’s possible that every track is a single and it just might be that "Beautiful Day," which remarkably for a bunch of 40 year olds beat Kylie and Robbie to Number 1, is the least accessible one of all. Well New York might not be a good choice of a follow up, but that  apart, built nicely on Brian Eno synths and Edge’s deftly dashes of gorgeous playing, Bono gives his best ever vocal performance, we have an album that you cannot get out of your stereo or your head. Astonishing.

Beautiful Day

As with "The Fly," "Numb," and "Discotheque" the lead off single always seems to elbow its way on to the radio without anyone being sure that they want it to be there. "Beautiful Day" is a grower and after the constant rotation on radio and television it is well deserving of being number 1. Imagine that 40 year old rock stars more interested in art than charts beating Kylie and Robbie to the Top of the Pops. And yes there is a rather strong whiff of Aha’s Sun Always Shines On TV which might be no coincidence when you are leaving the television walls behind for the dawning of brighter times. It rocks harder than most on this album. Of all the singles destined to be released from it may be the least likely…but it did!

Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out of

You can hear this one being covered by Motown to be cred or much more fearfully Westlife to be sad. It is the most pop thing that the band has ever done and that would explain Eno’s bet that it’ll be the hugest thing too. Yet it is another serious song about someone imprisoned with the walls of the moment closing in. Bono’s sense of belief that was there throughout the nineties but now with a new found confidence is trying to bring the comfort of the bigger picture ­ “It’s just a moment/This time will pass.”

Elevation

Closest thing here to Pop and the most likely to get some kind of a remix. Big guitars and a few Bono trade mark Woohs has them digging like moles for their souls to get some elevation.

Walk On

Starting with the monologue spoken word thing that Walk to the Water was on the b-side of… it then brings the clearest of Edges trademark guitars and there is no doubt that Joshua Tree is revisited. You can also hear the Gospel Choir on this one. A hymn for  sure and a look at eternity where as you walk on towards it you can leave behind fashion, your creations, your words, schemes and your failings. Interestingly it is dedicated to Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi which maybe echoes "Pride" from Joshua Tree where again the hero has left everything behind except that which their murderer cannot take and he cannot leave behind.

Kite

Soaring on the synths of Eno, Bono is again dealing with the tragedies of life and realizing that like the wind they are going to come in unpredictable ways. The lyric moves from mortality and the getting as much as you can get out of this life to the idea that someone has moved on to another place. There is hope though and “this is not goodbye.”

In a Little While

Maybe Johnny Cash’s next U2 connection this is just a love song from the road. Seems to be the story of Bono and Ali’s love.

Wild Honey

With the frivolity of The Beatles' "Honey Pie" and the same spirit as "Staring At the Sun" this one again goes with the previous track and is a celebration in the longetivity of his relationship with Ali.

Peace On Earth

The tender follow up to "Wake Up Dead Man" from Pop this is another one of a tender beauty on the saddest of topics. Bono even names some of the victims of the Omagh bomb. “Their lives are bigger than any big idea.” It could have been so sentimental had it  not been the rant at Jesus that Bono seeks him to throw him down a lifeline and twists the Christmas slush into tough hard real questions. Oh that many a vicar would learn the lesson for this Christmas morning.

When I Look At the World

Follow on to "Peace On Earth" it is Bono asking Jesus what he sees as he looks at earth and in the yearning voice of a pilgrim longs to see what the divine does see but confesses his own human frailty to do so.

New York

I wondered for a time why this was here. I thought it might be a mistake but this album seems so meticulous in sound and theme that I had to look closely. Seems that it is here to make more sense and impact of Grace that follows. New York spoken in Lou Reed local drawl is a tough place and the place that could steal all that is good. It finds Bono linking his own recent purchase in that city with the sinking of the Titanic and though he doesn’t sink, the thought is there at the end of the record. "What Can’t You Leave Behind" in such a sinking. We’re looking at riches again. It first raised its ugly head in "God Part 2" when Bono sang that he didn’t “believe in riches but you should see where I live.” Seems that that is sometimes in New York these days.

Grace

Here is the conclusion. Like the last few verses of Ecclesiastes Bono comes to the point. Grace. Unmerited love. The perfect pearl that Jesus said man would give all his riches (New York included) for. A moody haunting meandering poem of a song. It is pretty darn near perfect. A little dig at those who would see eastern religion as cool and the Christian faith that U2 have heralded for twenty years as uncool. Grace lives outside of Karma. It’s the only hope. It’s there underneath all the trash. It is the reason for the hopefulness of this album. It is that which you can’t leave behind.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

An extra track and for me a mistake in that it takes us from the conclusion, like an encore after the dramatic concert climax. Great tune but we have it on Million Dollar Hotel.

So underneath that trash, there is the baby Jesus and that frail little baby seems to have given Bono the pearl in perfect condition. Glad that from it Bono gives us a wee gem too.

Steve Stockman 11/6/2000
 

Steve Stockman is a Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He used to book the bands for Greenbelt, edits Juice magazine, has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster and a web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.
   
  Copyright © 1996 - 2000 The Phantom Tollbooth