Vintage reinvention

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Midway through “Stuck in a Moment,” a lovely gospel-tinged cut from U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, frontman Bono quips, “You’ve got to get yourself together now. You’ve been stuck in a moment and you just can’t get out of it ...” Hardcore U2 fans, especially ones of yore, will no doubt sympathize with Mr. B. on this one. Because if 1991’s Achtung Baby reshaped the band’s aesthetic, the ensuing tour (which barely broke even due to its monstrous production costs) literally rewrote the book on what a live performance could be. And if 1993’s somewhat dissonant Zooropa never really furthered the Achtung concept, the much ballyhooed Pop simply deconstructed it and rebuilt it with mixed results.

With techno beats to boot, Pop’s ambitious condemnation of modern-day culture never connected with U.S. audiences. The Massive Attack-Chemical Brothers ethos of Pop saw U2 take a big U-turn stylistically. The album clashed head-on with preprogrammed, antiseptic “dance” beats that masked the album’s better moments. Not that Pop was a bad record per se — just an underwhelming one. For the first time in U2’s career, the band was stuck in the unenviable position of having a record’s prerelease hype overshadow its relevance. But ultimately, it lacked the songwriting craft and engaging follow-the-leader approach of U2’s previous efforts. To quote a certain Robert Smith, Pop saw U2 “jumping someone else’s train.”

As U2 celebrates its 20-plus years of recording (24 as a band), they have few rivals. And to the band’s credit, no one’s died, no one’s quit (at least publicly) and, most important, they’re still a creative force to be reckoned with.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind sees the band renewing its ties with the essential production team of Eno and Lanois. As a result, where U2 could have gone retro on us, it hasn’t. What Leave Behind does do is successfully bridge the gap — or shall we say “synthesize” — of the songwriting structures of Achtung Baby with the subtle flourishes of the band’s more intimate songs. And like all U2’s best work, ATYCLB is not a first-listen record. Nor is it a return to the quote-unquote big arena rock of War or The Joshua Tree. It’s somewhere in between.

Never obvious, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is full of sublime moments, such as the soon-to-be-classic “Walk On.” The cut is percolated with dramatic crescendos that give way to full-on Edge histrionics, recalling some of the band’s previous triumphs like “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

If the understated “Beautiful Day” intrigues with repeated listens, the airy “Kite” is resplendent in its deceptive simplicity. The voice of Bono, ever the raconteur, wraps around the song’s verse, giving way to another memorable Edge slide-guitar riff. “Elevation” is yet another example of how the band meshes past with present. As the track ascends to its climax, U2’s wash of guitars blends with Bono-Edge’s dual vocals, taking the multitracked voices to glorious places.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind simply reaffirms what we’ve known all along: U2 is not just a great rock ’n’ roll band — it’s an essential one. If its relevance or commitment were ever in question, All That You Can’t Leave Behind will make you believe again.

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