Thursday, December 10, 2009
Records That Rocked the Aughts Part II: U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind
U2 is a band that thrives on contradictions. They find intimacy in the most massive of stadiums, champion the poor while dining on champagne and caviar, celebrate the divine in the most decadent of art forms, and make a stunning comeback while still the biggest band in the world.
Released in September of 2000, All That You Can't Leave Behind was hailed as a return to the "classic" U2 sound: the soaring anthems, the chiming Edge guitar figures, the yearning for salvation. And while these elements were firmly in place, they also brought with them the lessons they had learned from more experimental (and underrated) fare like Zooropa and Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1. The title All That You Can't Leave Behind Is a reference to this point; unlike their masterpiece Achtung Baby, where the band shunned any sounds that would be thought of as U2-like, the point of Behind was to embrace their U2-ness, not run from it; to do whatever was best for the song, whether it was completely new or something they had done on The Joshua Tree.
It was the right move. The record was a smash right from the git-go, with "Beautiful Day" instantly taking its place in the U2 pantheon alongside "Where the Streets Have No Name and "One."
But the record took on an entirely new life after September 11, 2001, a day that started out beautiful but quickly turned much much worse.
The tragic events of that day left many looking for a connection that big-time anthemic rock music provides almost better than just about anything. All That You Can't Leave Behind - and U2 themselves - were tailor-made for the job. With global spirits at an all-time low and a gaping, smoking pit in downtown Manhattan, U2 were ready and willing to provide something we all needed: Elevation.
All You Can't Leave Behind even had a soaring anthem called "New York." Its charming, very Irish lyrics describe life in the city as can only be written by someone who has spent a lot of time there. My favorite line describes the pull of NYC's incomparable nightlife, i.e. you're going out, whether you want to or not:
In New York you can forget, forget how to sit still
Tell yorself you will stay in
But it's down to Alphavile
By "Alphaville" Mr. Bono means Alphabet City, the Avenues A through D, as they were still called before they were gentrified into the less colorful Lower East Side. U2 played the song on Late Show with David Letterman not long after 9/11, and re-wrote some lyrics to reflect the changin' times.
All That You Can't Leave Behind had many other, less grand charms to it as well, such as the throwaway gem "Wild Honey," the hungover "In a Little While" and the hymnlike closer "Grace." It was a perfect example of a great band rising to the occasion - in this case, a tragic occasion that had yet to happen.