For a band with the global familiarity of U2, the struggle to remain entertaining, let alone relevant, is a task of Herculean proportions. For this reason, aging rockers–in their attempts to prove that they’re still in the game–are more likely to reveal how out-of-touch they really are. Case in point: U2’s dismal Pop Mart tour, a smugly conceived, overpriced debacle that the Irish megastars kicked off with a press conference in the lingerie section of a Manhattan KMART for maximum, uh, irony. Rightly turned off by the band’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink embrace of mass consumerism, American fans heaved a collective yawn and stayed away in droves. U2’s ABC special–timed to herald the Pop Mart tour–still holds the distinction of being the lowest-rated prime-time nonpolitical hour in the history of the three major networks.
Even from their digs on rock’s Olympus, the band realized that merely continuing to exist was no guarantee of success–they’d have to deliver some actual songs next time out. With their careers and egos hanging in the balance, U2 knew they had to convince both critics and fans that they were still the inspirational guitar band of their early days: back before Achtung Baby, before Bono became “The Fly” and started wearing those post-metamorphosis Jeff Goldblum-as-Fly sunglasses.
Hence the massive “we’re a rock band again” campaign. The band, however, was still working with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. (Steve Lillywhite, whose last U2 project was War, was brought in for two tracks). In other words, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is still very much the drum-programmed, synth-driven U2 of the past decade, but with a decidedly American bent and a renewed respect for songwriting.
“In a Little While” features a laidback Memphis sound with Bono vocally doing his best to conjure Al Green, while “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is pure ’70s gospel/soul, right through to its uplifting, Staple Singers-inspired chorus. Elsewhere Bono–now a part-time Manhattanite–reaches back to Lou Reed with “New York,” a stab at lyrical realism that describes his adopted ‘hood. The single, the radio-friendly “It’s a Beautiful Day,” finds the band in searching-for-spiritual-truths mode, but the song is so stirring, so wickedly catchy, that it wouldn’t matter if it were a Guinness ad.
So is this the album where U2 “save rock,” as their press would have you believe? Only if you’ve forgotten what real rock–sans samples, programs and layers of synths–sounds like. But as a pop album, All that You Can’t Leave Behind is a powerful, emotional comeback by a band boldly confronting its midlife crisis.