After a decade of waywardness, backsliding, and experimentalism, U2 returns with a home-cooked offering that harkens to the golden treasures of the past. The curtain-raising sextet of songs showcases the Dublin lads at their most euphoric. Not content to merely fiddle with the juvenile dynamics of pop songwriting, the Dublin lads salt their lyrics with elegiac references to middle age (Kite) and death (Stuck), dramatically marrying their most earnest and heartfelt sentiments to the buzzwords of the radio. In this respect, the band’s ambition remains in consonance with the interplay of elements found on their previous album, Pop, which marked their pronounced foray into cooked electronics and dance culture.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is just as concerned with mixing the rich with the cheap, the poor with the profound, “looking for the baby Jesus under the trash,” however the Warholian aesthetic has undergone a facelift. The plan of attack is more subtle here, occurring mainly on the formal level of sonics. Gone are the gaudy costumes and the overwrought stage contraptions, the noisy machinery of corporate grandstanding. Bono the earnest crusader has returned, trilling again like a savage bird. While the Edge channels his younger, more urgent, hirsute self. And the stolid rhythm section, well, it has been buried in the back somewhere with the roadies (Eureka! The formula still works!).
It does and it doesn’t. There is a light and heavy touch throughout. Walk On is driven by fire and bloat, and yet it still soars majestic; Beautiful Day, the album’s heart-and-hearth, state-of-the-nation appeal, is chock-full of instrumental kitsch and lyrical truisms, but it’s saved by the bands reckless abandon into the ipsissima verba last heard on their transcendent albums of the 80s. This soulful Celtic touch was nearly lost on the Dublin lads during their turbulent but productive 90’s period, recaptured here with great pathos and joy.
That’s not to say the ATYCLB is better than their eclectic, wandering-through-the-wilderness, 90’s material. ATYCLB exhibits several miscalculations with the pastoral clip of the latter tracks, the lone saving grace being the blue-toned Christmas harmonics of When I Look at the World; but they say love covers a multitude of sins, and the undaunted light of the album’s ebullient first half is nothing if not love incarnate.
It is great to hear the Dublin lads finding their legs again and rediscovering their mystic signature. Whoever said, “you cannot put your feet in the same river twice,” was clearly unacquainted with the unique, nearly Catholic staying power of U2. The stage has been set for a collective return to heroic 80s rock (quick, somebody get Bruce on the phone!). God help us all.