David Nobakht dives back into an album by the Irish globestraddlers which sits at the precise midpoint of their career to date…
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of U2’s 10th studio album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band have are rereleasing it as a lavish box set, fully remastered and accompanied by a selection of B-sides, outtakes, alternate versions, remixes, live tracks and previously unseen Anton Corbijn photographs compiled in a hardback book. It’s also the 40th anniversary of U2’s debut album Boy; All That You Can’t Leave Behind seems to mark a halfway point where U2 took stock of what they had achieved and where they were going next.
The troublesome, brave and innovative Pop album, which preceded ATYCLB in 1997, seems to have been sidelined in regards to getting a supersized reissue – although a fair few U2 fans would love a Pop box. On that release, U2 blurred the edges between rock and dance music with Discotheque, Do You Feel Loved and the mighty electronic onslaught of Mofo. The task of producing Pop fell to Flood, whose previous credits included luminaries like Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, Nine Inch Nails and PJ Harvey.
Flood had also worked with U2 before, graduating from engineer on 1987’s The Joshua Tree to engineering and mixing 1991’s Achtung Baby and producing Zooropa with Brian Eno. Having previously helped Depeche Mode develop a more organic, performance-based sound on their Songs Of Faith And Devotion album, Flood was to take the opposite tack with U2: pushing them in a more electronic, sample-led direction, whilst maintaining a sound still identifiable as being U2.
Album closer Wake Up Dead Man is one of the quartet’s darkest moments, while Please and If God Will Send His Angels also carry fair conflict and religion-themed clout. “I think what this album tells you is that some things you can’t leave behind. It’s like the university professor who just can’t dance. Deep down we weren’t as shallow as we’d like,” said Bono a few years later, reminiscing about the making of Pop.
The Warhol-influenced irony of announcing the PopMart tour in the lingerie department of a K-Mart store in New York, playing a garage rock-like B-side live at the launch, and starting said tour in Las Vegas with a stage design that included the biggest video screen in the world and a 100ft cocktail stick with a huge fake olive might have been lost on fans in America wanting The Joshua Tree part two – as was the band’s decision to make an album that was sonically “an ode to club culture”. Pop was far from being a flop, selling seven million copies on release, yet U2 later confessed frustration over it having been released before being properly finished – an upcoming tour commitment viciously clashing with their studio deadline. Bono once described Pop as being the “most expensive demo session in the history of music”.
In 1998, as the band were winding down from the PopMart tour, a bomb was detonated in Omagh town centre, killing 29 people and jeopardising the fragile peace process that had been negotiated in Northern Ireland after decades of conflict. “It was one of the lowest days of my life,” recalled Bono. Not only did U2 have this shocking event on their minds, there was also family illness, problems with vocal cords, and what the band were going to do after the Pop experience, yet these problems helped shape what was to come next.
In late 1998, U2 went back to working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the production team who shaped The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, for what would become All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The first new U2 songs to be released from the Eno/Lanois sessions, in Spring 2000, were Stateless and The Ground Beneath Her Feet – both appearing in underrated Wim Wenders film The Million Dollar Hotel, whose soundtrack is itself worthy of a reissue, and both included in the ATYCLB boxset.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet – Lanois on pedal steel guitar, Craig Armstrong’s strings, and lyrics taken from a song in Salman Rushdie’s book of the same name – is a deep cinematic ballad that builds to a staggering crescendo, and served to demonstrate that U2’s flirtation with irony and club culture was over. “It’s like a Robert Johnson blues, kind of sci-fi blues,” is how Bono described the other new track Stateless in Niall Stokes’ book U2: Songs + Experience (thoroughly recommended to anyone wishing to dig deep into the band’s past).
ATYCLB’s release was preceded in early October 2000 by what would become a Grammy-winning single, Beautiful Day: a song about experiencing elation after loss, Eno’s futuristic synth sounds jostling with The Edge’s trademark – if rarely heard for a period – guitar and a rousing chorus. It put them back on the airwaves worldwide, and when the album followed a fortnight later, it topped charts in over 30 countries. U2 had reconnected with their past to go forwards, bringing back those who had left the fold during Pop as well as gaining new fans.
The album sleeve art departed from the grid system used from Achtung Baby via Zooropa through to Pop. Anton Corbijn’s black and white photo of the band standing in the futuristic Roissy terminal of Charles De Gaulle airport, with Bono looking at his passport, resembled something from the imagination of Stanley Kubrick. If you look at the left-hand side of the cover, the LCD display reads ‘J33.3’ – relating to Jeremiah 33.3, a Bible verse. Geeky facts aside, the band look like they have reached their destination or are on their way in this photo; further, the theme of emotional baggage as luggage is depicted with the airport signage symbols in the inner sleeve.
Opening with Beautiful Day’s euphoric lift, track two Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of was written for Michael Hutchence of INXS in the aftermath of his untimely death, and can apply to those that find themselves in a dark place at any time. The acoustic version included in the box set packs an emotional punch. The sex-themed Elevation kicks off with a distorted Kraftwerk-doing-Hendrix groove, descends into some brutal guitar sounds last heard on Achtung Baby and sounds like it was made to be played live. Walk On gained momentum in the aftermath of 9/11: an anthem for freedom and resilience that still sounds timeless and inventive today, and a prime example of U2 harnessing what they did before and taking it forwards. Kite is restrained, sparse and brittle-sounding, with mortality at the heart of its subject matter.
In A Little While is a soulful, Stax-like ode to coming home or going to heaven – a song Otis Redding could have sung brilliantly, and which had a fan in Joey Ramone. The cuckoo in the nest, meanwhile, is perhaps Wild Honey. Not a bad track at all, with its Roy Orbison-meets-Beach Boys sound, but a bit too jolly for the songs that surround it; Stateless might have been a better choice, with Wild Honey relegated to B-side status. Numerous single-only tracks are included in the box set – as is Levitate, an outtake from the Eno and Lanois sessions which is not to be sniffed at with its vibe somewhere between Zooropa and The Million Dollar Hotel.
Peace On Earth, written just after the Omagh bombing, is a deeply effective song about the madness and sadness of violence; with Eno’s synth, it’s more restrained than Sunday Bloody Sunday, but equally angry, with one’s faith hanging by a thread. A crisis of faith is questioned again on When I Look At The World, soaring Edge guitar backed up by more Eno synth. New York – as much about walking away from responsibility as it is about the city itself – is the heaviest guitar track on the album, propelled by Adam Clayton’s bassline while The Edge summons the power of The Ramones in full flight, not forgetting Larry Mullen’s drum beats looped at the beginning.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind ends on a quiet note with the beauty that is Grace: hushed tones, not unlike Lou Reed, in a song that celebrates the resilience and strength of women. The Ground Beneath Her Feet was included as a bonus track in some territories on CD only; this time around, it’s been included on the vinyl edition of the release.
With the Elevation tour that followed, spanning the majority of 2001, U2 returned to playing indoor venues, with a stripped-back stage design in comparison to PopMart. The foursome dwarfed their technology on this tour, performing live on their heart-shaped B-stage. Included in this boxset is a live recording of a Boston show in June: with an emotional all-killer-no-filler setlist, the band are on fire.
There are those that wished U2 had never left their dancefloor experimentation for dust in the aftermath of Pop, and think that All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is maybe a little safe in comparison. Yet after listening to the latter many times again over the last few days, it sounds like it was made today. More sophisticated and futuristic-sounding than it’s been given credit for in the past, its songs of heartache, faith and loss resonate even stronger in 2020 than they did in 2000.
words DAVID NOBAKHT photos ANTON CORBIJN