On October 30th U2 will be reissuing All That You Can’t Leave Behind 20th Anniversary edition with two other deluxe and super deluxe offerings, each including a plethora of live tracks and other additional material. This reissue event offers a great opportunity to once again examine the original release which is what follows.
Y2K had come and gone and the last musical offering the public had heard from U2 was their 1997 studio album POP. POP bears the distinction of being what many critics believe was U2’s first stumble in both critical and public esteem for the band. The band was on the rebound after POP which in reality documented the band reaching the end of their sensory overload journey that began with Achtung Baby and ended with the underappreciated POP.
The music industry was like a cat on a hot tin roof waiting for the result of what U2 would produce next. On October 30th of 2000, the band would unleash All You Can’t Leave Behind displaying a band that was returning to the familiar yet deliver another unique perspective. The album would acknowledge the band’s storied musical journey mixed with a 21st-century sensibility. The aim of the record was to once again capture the band playing in a room together while allowing them to reclaim the title of the “Best Band in the World”.
The members of U2 after a lengthy break returned to the studio to begin work on their 10th album with their now established production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The band members initially wanted to develop songs before beginning recording, but Eno convinced them to wait until they were back in the studio. Eno believed the songs would have a more organic feeling if created in that manner. The first song that emerged during the studio sessions was Kite. Unlike the environment of POP’s creation, this time the band had a loose deadline. They insisted upon this due to the band’s belief that the hard deadline for POP lead to forcing tracks to completion to meet deadline demands. As with every U2 album, a number of personal and political events informed the songwriting; the birth of numerous band member’s children, Bono’s father’s terminal illness and the imprisonment of Burmese Human Rights Activist Aung San Suu Kyi. These situations and many other events informed the lyrics and imbued the album with emotional depth.
All You Can’t Leave Behind would resonate with their fans as it aptly chronicled a journey for the band and their followers of going from teenagers to adults. It examined the baggage of life that you either had to let go of or bring with and searched for how to live with the losses along the way. The album was smaller in scale and frequently turned inward making it feel organic and unfiltered as it reflecting its creators and the Creator in a beautiful balance, emotional yet utterly accessible. These factors made for an extremely successful commercial and critical outing. All You Can’t Leave Behind reached number 1 in 32 countries. It sold 12 million copies and was hailed by critics while spurring a record-breaking tour. The album and singles won seven Grammys and was the only album in history to that point to win a Grammy for Record of the Year two years in a row.
To fully appreciate the context that All You Can’t Leave Behind would arrive into and why it was so embraced the scene must be set. The record business had been traumatized by the “great band cullings at the end of the ’90s along with a number of suicides that included Kurt Cobain and INXS’ Michael Hutchence. The success of the album would calm the nerves of recording executives. With the unsettling 2000 US election cycle the world and especially the US needed something that assuaged fear and gave hope and All You Can’t Leave Behind was just the ticket offering a panacea to the disenchanted.
Looking back there is an uncanny dichotomy that emerges when looking at the two major releases of October 2000. One is the October 30th release of All You Can’t Leave Behind which would bring emotional reassurance to the world. The other, being the October 2nd release of Radiohead’s masterwork Kid A which was in stark contrast to All You Can’t Leave Behind with its emotionally anaesthetized examination of the human condition at the edge of the 21 century. In the period of a month, the listening public was suddenly spoiled for quality as both noteworthy albums sat at the opposite edges of the emotional spectrum. Each would serve as a sonic snapshot of the confused and yearning post Y2K world.
The album opens spectacularly with Beautiful Day an anathematic prayer of thanksgiving and uplift. The track builds gradually and served as the counterpunch to the cynical end of POP’s “Wake Up Dead Man”. The song is a palette cleanser drawing a line under the ennui of POP and allowing Edge to return to his goosebump-inducing guitar work. It is an instant earworm and a beautifully rendered single. In contrast, Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of is a slow tempo soul/gospel infused rumination. It is just as world-weary as POP in emotion as it deals with a serious subject, suicide, specifically Michael Hutchence’s suicide. On the selection, Bono takes himself to task for not intervening, as so many left behind after the act does, and additionally takes Michael to task for being selfish. The track becomes an anthem to striving against the demons while pointing out that suicide is a drastic permanent solution to an often momentary problem. The track is a crafty exhortation without getting preachy and why it was embraced by the listening public. I love the doubling down on the gospel chorus at the finish of the track.
There are those who give a lot of stick to Elevation, and yes it is in many ways a nonsense song, but it is so much fun and so unexpected from U2 that it works. It has to be experienced in concert to appreciate what a hip-swaying good time the track is and even the most po-faced critic cannot deny its catchiness. This crazy track makes it ok to feel happy and makes the listener feel good. I have always interpreted this track as Bono have another go at channelling his inner Mephisto.
The song that completely captured my attention on this album the first go-round was Walk On. This is U2 doing what they do best. It continued the theme of encouragement when faced with unmitigated adversity. It was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi and her fight for the Burmese people against an oppressive totalitarian military junta. This drama-laden track was about her struggle but like every great song has a universal application. It could address struggling with mental illness, political oppression, death, and facing down bullies. This song would take on even more meaning after the 9/11 attacks. The marriage of that exquisite expanding guitar lick with soaring vocals still gives me goosebumps. It is the flagship track of the release delivering deep inspiration. Kite aptly continues the emotional punch of “Walk On”. It is a magnificent examination of the life and the journey we travel. Bono’s considers the future pondering his children, how fate and luck decide so much and like “a kite blowing out of control on a breeze” he wonders what the outcome will be. Also reflected in his pondering on his father’s life as it was coming to an end, questioning “what was the big idea.” Another not to be missed track and Edge’s guitar work including a solo is fantastic.
From that rather contemplative pair of songs, the momentum changes over to two really overt love songs. Bono writes some of his best stuff when inspired by his wife of many years Ali. In A Little While is a Soul/Al Green open-armed track that is uncomplicated and lovely. Wild Honey again extols Ali’s ability to save Bono from his demons with an earworm sonic that will not let you go once listened to, it is a simply delightful romantic song.
Peace on Earth is a song that combines King Solomon’s book of Ecclesiastes with the familiar Christmas carol and comes out with a moving examination of our current world situation. Found is Bono questioning where the peace promised throughout the millenniums actually is and what all of man’s striving is actually for. It is both rumination and a prayer examining how mankind ruins everything with war, violence and disagreement. The accompaniment is very reminiscent of “Miss Sarajevo” as it harking back to the ennui and bitterness of “Wake Up Dead Man” from POP as Bono begs, “Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line, peace on Earth.”
When I Look At the World is a continuation of the theme started with “Peace On Earth” but in an even more profound way. Threaded throughout the song is Bono coming to grips with how he has no patience with the failures of mankind and standing in awe of those who can carry on doing what needs to be done. This is personified in his wife Ali, the Pope and Jesus. Bono questions how God can love even the vilest persons and never gives up hope. Bono then points out that when he is striving to be Christ-like he is brought down by the evils of mankind and can’t do it as he ends the song asking, “What’s wrong with me?” This is my favourite deep track of the album.
New York is a travelogue/stream of consciousness outing that catches all the chaos and verve of the title city. The loud/quiet approach makes for an amazing song that simply soars. The drums drive the song and simply explode mid-track as Larry Mullen unloads his thunder of the gods play upon we mere mortals punctuating a fantastic track. Lyrically Bono does a great job identifying the drive for success that is on full display in this city leading to the question of what you are willing to give up to get ahead. It is an aggressive track that delivers a punch before the quiet denouement that is “Grace”.
Grace reels back the drama of “New York” but it is just as impactful as it contrasts how the concept of Grace is forgiveness, a gift freely given of God while Karma is a bitch delivering what you truly deserve. The simple accompaniment of guitar, bass and keyboard deliver more of a punch than if this song had been performed with a more aggressive full-on rock approach. In the end, after deliberating Bono decides that we deserve Karma but are given Grace by God, “because grace makes beauty out of ugly things, grace finds beauty in everything, grace finds goodness with everything’. That statement is the takeaway thought of the release.
U2 with All You Can Leave Behind solidified their position at the top of the Rock and Roll hierarchy. The album would allow the band to ride the top of the music wave through a decade of transition, and position them well for what would follow. The subsequent Elevation Tour would see them succeed live as they cut back to arenas bringing continued innovation to the concert world with heart-shaped catwalks and huge projection screens that are now de jour for concert setups while bringing back festival seating.
The album hit the right balance between what had come before and what was to follow. All You Can’t Leave Behind displayed all the skills of songcraft the band had developed over their first 20 years and provided an inspiring listening experience. All the while making it look oh so effortless. I recommend the listener forget all the baggage that has since been loaded onto U2 and simply sit back and enjoy a great recording with All You Can’t Leave Behind, you won’t regret it.