U2 has had a long habit of reinventing itself. From the coming-of-age concept album Boy they shifted gears into the Christian rock of October, and then dove straight into political anthems with War, hitting the big time in the process. From there, they started a pattern of huge albums followed by offbeat departures, seemingly as a corrective to overwhelming success. After War came a live album and then an atmospheric, abstract record in The Unforgettable Fire.
Thanks to Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Unforgettable‘s sound was a major departure from the martial rock anthems of War (with the notable exception of “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”), but its blurry, impressionistic music and lyrics were jettisoned for The Joshua Tree, a classic stuffed with incredible songs, and not coincidentally an unbelievable hit-making machine. The band pulled back again with Rattle and Hum, a partial live recap of Joshua interspersed with tribute covers of favorite artists, and new songs which felt a bit like outtakes from the last album.
Achtung Baby introduced yet another new sound, this time a buzzy, industrial brand of effects-heavy alternative rock, and while the result didn’t quite reach Joshua heights sales-wise, it wasn’t far behind, and was an artistic triumph to boot. On the heels of that success, U2 threw yet another change-up with Zooropa, an experimental, sometimes almost avant-garde record that once again left familiar territory behind and let the band’s creativity roam free.
Based on this pattern, one would have expected Pop to be another massive album, something to match War, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby. Funny thing, though — it really wasn’t. It was another change of course, yes, but this one had a feeling of desperation rather than exploration. Seeing the members of U2 dressed up as The Village People in the video for “Discothèque”, it almost felt to me like the band had become its own detractors, and had nothing left but to ironize and satirize their own success. All the way through Achtung Baby, stylistic changes aside, what all of U2’s music had in common was commitment and sincerity. Zooropa injected a bit more distance, on an intellectual plane, but Pop was the first record in which the band themselves seemed emotionally detached.
This is a long-winded way of setting the stage for All That You Can’t Leave Behind, in which sincerity, commitment, and songcraft came roaring back. This was the album I wanted Pop to be, worthy of standing alongside the band’s other peaks. They waste no time making their mission clear on “Beautiful Day” — as soon as that huge guitar/drum combo kicks in, and Bono moves from his head voice to his chest voice, we know what U2 meant when they said that they were “reapplying for the job of best band in the world.” Application accepted, and by five songs in, you’ve got the job.
After “Beautiful Day”, the album falls into two sections, the first focusing on the personal and the second on the world, the micro and the macro. Songs like “In A Little While” and “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” resonate with empathy for loved ones who are struggling. Of these two, “Stuck” is the stronger song, both because of its stirring, heartening lyrics and because of the queasiness-inducing bit of “Little While” in which the speaker seems to be saying he’s known his current girlfriend since she was a baby. (“That girl, that girl she’s mine… When I first saw her in a pram they pushed her by.”)
On the other hand, “Elevation” and “Walk On” both deal heavily with inspiration. “Elevation” lives on the more romantic, sexual plane, though knowing U2 there’s always the chance they’re talking about God, a la “Mysterious Ways.” (However, “the orbit of your hips” would seem to rule against that interpretation.) “Walk On” seems addressed to a personal inspiration for leadership, offering both admiration and encouraging words. That song includes one of my favorite U2 lyrics, one from which I’ve drawn inspiration myself during tough projects: “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / A place that has to be believed to be seen.”
The gem of the collection, though, is “Kite”. So many of U2’s strengths coalesce on this song. There’s a musical warmth, thanks to Adam Clayton’s strong, thrumming bass, and spiraling, swooping Edge guitar. Bono’s performance is breathtaking, rising through calm, through fear, and into a heartfelt declaration of faith. In the peak moments of the song (“You don’t need anyone, anything at all”, “I’m a man, I’m not a child”), the band holds him up to the heavens so that he can reach the power he needs to bring the full emotion across. The metaphor in the lyrics beautifully encapsulates a tenuous but strong connection between people, and the surrender that must come with real love.
In comparison to these songs, the more macro-level ruminations like “Peace on Earth” and “When I Look At The World” feel just a bit more strained, like they’re trying to make a Big Statement. If there’s any group ready to make those grand gestures, it’s U2, and those songs are fine, but I find I like the band a little better when they’re a little closer to the ground. On the other hand, “New York” is thrilling, especially at 2:10 when the song suddenly explodes with energy befitting its subject.
The album ends with a synthesis of the personal and the global, in “Grace.” In some ways U2 has spent its career refining the art of speaking about the spiritual, the romantic, and the political in the same breath, and “Grace” is one of its most explicit attempts to do so. “Grace, it’s a name for a girl / It’s also a thought that changed the world.” The lyrics describe a state of mind, personified as a woman, and in doing so achieve the rock and roll synthesis they always crave most, making love with God to save the world.