Where do you go once you’ve gone over the top? After you’ve shared enormodome stages with gigantic fruit, written operatic quasi-techno tunes about consumerism eclipsing spirituality, given your sunglasses to the Pope? After you’ve tried to be about Art and Politics? There’s only one place to go. Back to the drawing board, and try to be about Music.
U2 are both the world’s biggest rock band and its most ridiculous. Their flag-waving epic affectations (and their mullets) defined the ’80s, but their grip on the zeitgeist slipped and they spent the majority of the ’90s trying to regain it. This meant prancing around in wraparound shades and leather trousers, making ill-advised ‘dance’ records and trying to save the world. For the most part, they got away with it. But even they realised, sometime during the ludicrous hullabaloo of 1997’s PopMart stadium romp, how far they had travelled from Planet Reality.
The making of ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, U2 album number nine, was reportedly fraught with indecision. It took much longer than anticipated to complete, but they have emerged with possibly their most straightforward, honest record. Gone are the experimental ambitions and Big Ideas, back are the chiming guitars, the stratospheric synth and – best of all – the tunes. ‘…Leave Behind’ is modern enough to sound new, but sufficiently evocative of their prime ‘…Joshua Tree’ days to make it seem as though they have come full circle.
There is no fat on this record, the lines are clean. Its beauty is in subtlety rather than extravagance – a feat for a band responsible for some of the most hyperbolic moments in the history of sound. Easing with the heat-hazy optimism of ‘Beautiful Day’, each song is as much a showcase for Bono’s freshly fine-tuned vocals as it is an extension of the album’s very apt central theme – the clarity to be found once obstacles are overcome. In addition to the well-exercised U2 template (The Edge’s hallmark fretwork) on ‘Walk On’ and ‘Elevation’, there are also some interesting surprises. ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ conjures up the soul-pop of Dusty Springfield, ‘In A Little While’ evokes the funky blues rock of prime era Stones, and ‘Wild Honey’ has an alt-country backbone. Although this is clearly a record made by men coming to terms with middle age, it refuses to feel tired.
This being U2, there are naff moments, notably ‘Peace On Earth’, where Bono’s idealism veers into sentimentality. And, like all comfortable, streamlined things, ‘…Leave Behind’ is also a teensy bit dull. It is, nevertheless, a laudable achievement.
Where do you go once you’ve gone over the top? If you’re U2, you simply move on – sunglasses firmly in place – into the blue horizon.