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Older and Wiser, U2 Finds Their Groove

Review of U2’s latest album release, All That You Can’t Leave Behind

by Tim Johnson
November 30, 2000

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Older and Wiser, U2 Finds Their Groove_Tim Johnson-Review of U2’s latest album release, <i>All That You Can’t Leave Behind</i> First things first, U2’s latest album-length release All That You Can’t Leave Behind is worth a listen. In fact, it’s worth a full price purchase like a Friday or Saturday night movie. Further, it’s worthy of one of those special listening sessions where you don’t do anything but concentrate on the music (and you even have the words handy for reference in case you hear something particularly intriguing). It’s not a protest release in a recycled cardboard CD folder. It’s not a latest craze retro record available on vinyl only ‘for the first couple weeks.’ It’s not even a rash attempt at in-your-face commercialism bashing like their last album. It’s simply a good piece of musical and lyrical art that looks to stand as a significant accomplishment for the 20-some year old Irish pop/rock cult band. Rolling Stone calls it the bands “third masterpiece” along side Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. I rank it about fourth behind Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree and October, just ahead of Achtung Baby. (But then, Achtung Baby is surrounded by bad karma for me, so my assessment can’t be trusted.)

The album's highlights come from what U2 does best. They produce interesting flow. The tunes go somewhere. Musically it’s all rather simple. Repetitive phrases or even two chords. In the case of the two chord songs, they swing from one into the other. Back and forth, it’s barely noticeable. What U2 possesses that other two chord, pattern bands don’t, is a natural frequency. U2 oscillates between a couple chords in the same way that a garden gate moves back and forth in the wind or the strings on a guitar leap back and forth after being struck. When you listen to “Peace On Earth”, you certainly don’t find yourself wishing for a more complex chord structure. Instead, you feel as if they have tapped into the natural frequency of Bono’s poem and given it the matter or substance that it needs to exist. With that said, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is not Joshua Tree. It’s not all yearning and poetry. All That You Can’t Leave Behind brings with it the rhythmic groove of the last couple U2 albums. It’s hard driving techno droning is more subtle than on Pop or Zooropa, but is definitely present and is a positive testament to the bands’ experimentation in the middle and late 90’s. “Elevation” has a great groove and is without doubt a keeper for the glove box/open road/play it loud with the windows down collection.

I have only one negative comment about this new offering and that’s the endings. U2 thrives off of band chemistry and this album makes it clear that such inspiration is U2’s unique gift. The Edge demonstrates this in an interview with Guitar Magazine when he describes the development of one of their new songs. He begins with an interesting phrase of some kind and Larry and Adam join in with their own spin-off inspiration. The band collectively shapes it and expands it from there and a song eventually emerges from the chemistry of personalities, talents and emotions all within a certain piece of time. This is the essence of jam session recording. A jam session is always interesting at the beginning. In fact it is the nature of a jam session that it only exists because it’s interesting. So how do you know when to end? When it’s no longer interesting… that’s when. So jamming often makes for lame endings. Good thing that fade-outs are passé’ right now or we’d have 11 tracks ending that way on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Instead we have repeats and ringing final notes on almost every piece. Oh well, it’s probably not wise to have interesting beginnings and endings in the same song. It would be nice to have them in the same album though.

If you happen to purchase U2’s new album this Christmas season, remember that U2’s made up of four extremely famous musicians who have enough influence to contribute to the end of deep seated societal conflicts in Ireland and maybe Eastern Europe. They’re musicians who have sold out 20,000 seat stadiums in as short as 7 minutes. Mega-personalities who can do whatever they want and it may very well become fashionable (Bon specifically). Yet they still produce their best art while shut away together jamming like they did 23 years ago with crappy hand-me-down musical gear. If you buy All That You Can’t Leave Behind this Christmas, rest assured you’re buying real music.

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