Fans like me have been waiting for this album for a long time. I knew that the U2 I loved, the U2 who reached their pinnacle with the timeless "Unforgettable Fire", was gone for a while, if not forever, when their breakthrough album in America, "The Joshua Tree", started getting serious radio and MTV airplay. Even before that, it was clear to fans that the band had a lot of egos competing for center stage, not the least of which was Bono, who had gone from a shy Christian evangelist in their early days to a pacing onstage demagogue (complete with streaming locks of windblown hair and that unmistakably rockstar faraway look in his eye) for their "Unforgettable Fire" tour. "The Joshua Tree" itself was a great album, but the success that it achieved signalled a sea-change in how both the pop music world and U2 themselves looked at the band. Longtime fans feared that large-scale success would transform the band into something other than what they had come to love.
These fears were confirmed when "Rattle and Hum" was released as both a double album and a feature-length film documenting their "Joshua Tree" tour. It was just too much for them. Bono's head was already swollen to bursting from the critical accolades and cult following that had accompanied every record in their career; massive, worldwide popular acceptance was simply beyond his ego's control; McPhisto emerged and dragged the rest of band along for an ironic, pop-culture inspired ride with the devil that almost ended up killing U2's hard won (and well-deserved) reputation for making great music. The decade of the 90s chronicled the dismantling of a great rock band, starting with the radio-friendly leanings of "Achtung Baby", continuing with the world-tour influenced techno-rant of "Zooropa", and ending with the final humiliation of "Pop", in which the band apparently forgot that they didn't build their fan base by trend-hopping.
But good songs were still sprinkled here and there throughout U2's 90s catalogue; "One" and "Until the End of the World" from "Achtung Baby", "Stay" from "Zooropa", and "If God Will Send His Angels" from "Pop" are all classic U2 songs that could have easily stood alongside their seminal work on "The Unforgettable Fire" and "The Joshua Tree". But these albums overall were burdened with too much forced experimentalism; it felt like the band was trying to hard to stay relevant. (Take as a counter-example R.E.M., who, at the height of their popular success, released a quiet, moody album called "Automatic for the People" which placed an emphasis on stripping down their sound and recording with more acoustic instruments. This record turned out not only to be their most coherent and compelling album as a whole, but which also produced the singles for which the band is best-known, "Man on the Moon" and "Everybody Hurts").
"All That You Can't Leave Behind" reunites U2 with the producers behind "Unforgettable Fire" and "Joshua Tree", Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and is accompanied by much fanfare from the band trumpeting a return to the guitar-based sound that they built their early career on. The promise of such an album was enticing to fans like me, but it's usually a danger sign when a band pulls out the "return to our roots" quote after an album that was deemed less-than-successful by the popular critical press. It usually means the band has run out or ideas or is scared that taking chances will mean not selling as many records, so they return to a formula that has won them sales and airplay in the past. Unfortunately, this still means that the focus is not on the songwriting, which is always the prime mover for great bands.
This album, however, delivers exactly what the band promised it would: lots of solid songwriting and a decreased reliance on studio tricks and experimental hijinks. The album roars to life with "Beautiful Day", also the first single from the album. It starts out with Bono's plaintive, weary voice over a simple keyboard loop before exploding into a chorus that is vintage U2. Edge's guitar rings like a bell over Larry Mullens' rock solid drumming and Adam Clayton's simple but melodic bass lines; for the first time in a long time, you don't need to hear Bono's voice to know that this is a U2 song.
"Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is the perfect slice of whiteboy gospel funk that they've been trying to make since "Rattle and Hum"'s "Angel of Harlem", while Elevation is ... well, I don't know exactly what it is, but it's oddly appealing. Like something from "Zooropa", except with real emotional resonance. "Walk On", which includes the line from which the album draws it's title, is perhaps the most compelling and listenable track, combining an ode to Burmese political dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi with imagery exploring the difficulty of shedding your past when entering into a new relationship:
Love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind
After this, the album has it's ups and downs; the infectious stripped down soul of "In a Little While" and the carefree "Wild Honey" are followed by bland songwriting and Bono's heavy-handed preachiness on the overly sentimental "Peace on Earth". "When I Look at the World" has a promising beginning, but goes on just long enough for you to realize how uninterestingly repetitive it is, while "New York" sounds like a failed experiment that should have been given up on. The quietly beautiful closing track, "Grace", aptly sums up U2's return to straightforward rock: the music is great, and Bono's voice is great, but only if you don't listen to the lyrics too closely. Despite astonishingly complex lyrical themes on some of the album's early tracks, it's really Bono's sappiness and his inability to get down of his moral high horse for a while that leave a giant hole in this record's armor.
This is an album you should buy if you were a fan in the late 80's but found yourself turned off by the stadium tours and identity changes of the 90's; you'll definitely find more that you like than not on this record. It's not perfect, but it's a triumphant return to form from a band that many were starting to believe had nothing left to say.