I’ve always delved into a wide range of genres, an outside might call it an ‘eclectic’ palette, but I think this applies to a lot of music lovers. This ranges through Bowie, Prince and Coldplay, from Radiohead, Arcade Fire, through to Queens of the Stone Age. Heck, throw in the finest produced pop of the modern era you can think of, add some of the smartest electronica, alongside the purest folk singer-songwriters and everything beyond, I’m sure you get the picture…
With this 20th Anniversary release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, I wanted to open it up to an audience who might misread U2, and in truth I can understand why. In 2020, U2 are a curious band. If you didn’t really have them in your life somewhere growing up, then I can appreciate that someone might not ‘get’ them but if you’re looking for a way in, then All That You Can’t Leave Behind (and probably The Joshua Tree) is a fine way to expand your musical knowledge and, with this one, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.
While Radiohead were releasing Kid A, and trying everything they could to get away from how they were perceived in rock music (and only on their fourth album), U2 were in a different place having tried experimentation on their eighth album, Zooropa, to a mixed reception in 1993, which was followed by 1997’s multiple-personality Pop offering. Incredibly, when they hit All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, it was their tenth studio album, and it found the band trying to rediscover what made them tick in the first place. It’s the sound of a band knowing who they are, writing soaring choruses, thoughtful lyrics and confidently banging out absolute top class tunes, especially when you considered those practically fallow 10 years before, in an iconic song sense, with only Achtung Baby in ’91 pulling the song-writing punches.
The year 2000 itself came with a renewed hope and optimism, and ATYCLB reached out to grab the hope of a new century and ran with it. Throughout the album, you can sense that renewed desire for a focused song, a compelling tune, and the self-awareness to explore their musicianship with a more ‘mainstream’ sound, something that Coldplay continue to excel in. It helped that they reunited with the production team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno to get them back there, who’d really honed their talents with the creation of The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and The Unforgettable Fire.
Released on 30 October 200, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a hugely welcome critical and commercial success. Even the album cover sees them push aside all the bravado of the previous albums, preferring a simple, silhouette-shot of them at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, taken by Anton Corbijn none-the-less. That artwork suggested a more adult sound within, but also showed where they wanted to go, in the senses of wherever they wanted to next, and it became their fourth-best selling album so far.
In terms of tracklisting, ATYCLB is their step up into another level of musical admiration. Beautiful Day kicks off the new-found freedom, a sunshine-kissed explosion of what’s to follow and represents that glorious confidence that flows throughout. In the UK, they used it for the titles of the ITV football show that tried to emulate BBC One’s Match of the Day and while the show failed, the motif of the song remained intact and is still connected to football. The beautiful game, and a beautiful day, continue to make a lot of sense, even today.
Optimism and hopefulness out of the darkness is a theme that doesn’t let up, and Bono hasn’t sounded that honest for years with the opening gambit of the second track, by saying “I’m not afraid of anything in this world, There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard…” offering self-realisation to where they’ve been, and being strong enough to say we can keep this going, and make it fresh. It’s hard not to think this isn’t the band talking to themselves when harmonizing the line “You’ve got to get yourself together, You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it…”
And then we’ve got something that is rarer than you realise on any record, a string of songs that work in harmony. From the heights of Elevation, even though I never fail to chuckle at the line ‘a mole, digging in hole…’, you’ve got to admire the balls of that moment in the sequence, through Walk On, Kite and the gorgeous In A Little While – the latter that surely tells the tale of Bono looking back through his time, maybe flecked with images of regret but also exquisite reflection. If you’re not always sure if U2 can get into your heart, put that track on now.
The melody of Wild Honey is pure R.E.M. at their most beautiful, but still U2 in their flow and an equally, catchy story-telling without the worry of rhyme and perception, it’s just a drift off into the ether, continuing the ongoing theme of hope, travel and the chance of what’s to come. There’s not a lot of albums that have seven consecutive tracks that fluently meld into one another, but here’s it’s achieved with poise and intention.
Then we hit track 8, the underrated Peace on Earth, that always stops me in its tracks. While the title suggests Christmas-themed Coldplay-esque lights, this isn’t what many people think it’s about, especially to the casual ear. It deserves to be dipped into deeper, telling a story of the desire for reconciliation and a better world, cutting into the reality of war and loss, not far from the truth of Sunday Bloody Sunday, because the honesty beneath is ultimately quite moving.
Finishing off with When I Look at the World, a sparky meditation that Chris Martin emulates on X&Y more than once, New York – another tribute to the city that never sleeps and bizarrely similar in progression as Richard Ashcroft’s identically-named track from his Alone with Everybody album released around the same time. The original album then closes with Grace, a favourite theme of Bono, it’s meaning of the name and a nice closer but on the 20th Anniversary edition they’ve also added in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which doesn’t fall to far from the previous track and ends the album on a mellow note with lyrics from Salman Rushdie’s book.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind remains a seminal moment in their career, even at their 10th studio album point, and for now is the peak of their later career, proving they can rightfully stand-up amongst the legends of modern music history. Whether they’ll get back to this point, or hit those serious highs of the early success, feels less likely – just given the sands of time – but that doesn’t take away from the sheer talent of this release, and it’s more than worth picking up for your collection.