The Good: Some decent lyrics, Catchy tunes, Some good vocals, Album cohesiveness
The Bad: Some terrible rhymes.
The Basics: A well-constructed, thematically-rich album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind deserves its status as one of U2's best.
Every now and then, an artist or musical group wins an award and it becomes pretty clear that it is for the body of their work, not necessarily the project they are being honored for. So, for example, many scholars - myself included - tend to believe that Hemingway's Nobel Prize for literature for The Old Man And The Sea (reviewed here!) was pretty much that body betting that novel would be their last chance to honor him for all of his earlier, greater works which had gone unrecognized. U2 received a number of Grammy Awards for their album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, or tracks from it. I think that the argument that U2 was granted a Hemingway-like honor with All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a false argument. If anything, U2 deserved an award for just departing from the pure suck that was "Pop." In truth, it is easy to see why this album finally garnered some serious awards for U2 (though the Grammys it won for this album were not the band's first).
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a decent, if occasionally obvious, rock and roll album by U2. Back from their musical experimentation that defined their albums in the 1990s, All That You Can’t Leave Behind returned the band to a remarkably direct rock and roll sound driven primarily by drums, bass, and guitar and the vocals of Bono. And it works, creating a memorable rock and roll album that is distinctly U2, complete with social and personal messages that are easy for the listener to hear and comprehend.
With fourteen tracks clocking in at 49:25, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a remarkably straightforward rock and roll album by the most enduring original act in rock and roll today (to the best of my knowledge, U2 holds the current record as longest running band to only have its original members, no more, no less). All of the music was written by the band, all of the lyrics came from Bono and the Edge; the band plays all of the primary instrumentals. In fact, the only thing the members of U2 do not seem to do is get in on the production aspects of the band. No member of U2 is credited with production on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but it does seem like the group got the album they wanted released.
For the most part, that's good. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a generally smart, socially conscious album with lyrics that are easily above the average. In general, this is true. Wanting to knock the negative out early, some of the lyrics on songs on this album are absolutely inane. For all my desire to credit the Grammy voters for noticing U2 and the songs on this album, how they could award "Elevation" a Grammy absolutely baffles me. "Elevation," written by Bono, despite having some of the stupidest lyrics to ever grace the lips of rock stars with obvious rhymes like "A mole, living in a hole / Digging up my soul / . . . I and I in the sky / You make me feel like I can fly / So high . . ." ("Elevation"). Bono, apparently having consulted Dr. Seuss, wrote "Elevation" and it is as bad as it sounds by its obvious and simplistic rhymes. On "Elevation," it seems that the group is more concerned with making the lines rhyme than actually saying something coherent. Fortunately, this is the exception to the rule on the album; even though I like "New York" less than "Elevation" at least I can acknowledge that it has something it is trying to say.
For those who have not heard of "New York" by U2, it might not be a surprise; it was on the last half of the album. The first four songs on All That You Can’t Leave Behind were each released as singles and U2 had quite a bit of success with them. This is a seriously frontloaded album, but perhaps the band was concerned (again, after Pop, not an unreasonable fear) that they needed to hook their listeners right away. By the time the album wends its way to "New York," the listeners are already back. Perhaps that is why U2 presents one of its more preachy and direct social statement songs when they sing, "The Irish have been doming here for years / Feel like they own the place / They got the airport, city hall, concrete, asphalt, they even got the police / Iris, Italian, Jews and Hispanics / Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew, / Living happily not like me and you / That's where I lost you . . . New York" ("New York"). Despite singing about the myriad of problems in New York City, "New York" just falls flat, possibly because of how many times the name is repeated (though as an Upstate New Yorker, it's quite possibly some of my distaste or apathy for the song "New York" comes from how the song never refers to it as "New York City" and it's a pretty big state - we get pretty sick of being lumped together). It is not the most impressive musical outing on All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
What is impressive is "Walk On," perhaps the ultimate personal/political anthem. A song on personal mortality and the importance of love to keep one alive comes alive with Bono's voice to become a political statement. Mixed in with lines like ". . . love is not the easy thing / The only baggage you can bring . . . / Is all that you can't leave behind" are statements rebelling against capitalism like "Home ... hard to know what it is if you've never had one / Home... I can't say where it is but I know I'm going . . ." ("Walk On"). Leaving pain behind, Bono and U2 make a call for the world to try to heal itself and it is surprisingly musical and unsurprisingly compelling, proving that U2 can still write impressive songs.
This should not be a surprise to most listeners, but in addition to still being able to craft compelling lyrics, U2 is able to take a wide array of subjects while maintaining a fairly homogenous sound to their work. As a result, the tracks are inarguably rock and roll and the range from musings on seeing the world for what it is ("When I Look At The World") to considering the impact of our decisions ("Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of"). The songs range from loving life ("Beautiful Day") to railing against organized religion ("Grace"). Thematically, there is a sense of musing in each of the musical poems, but the album has a lot to say over the fourteen songs.
Bono's vocals remain the primary voice for U2 and on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, he presents his smooth, mid-range vocals without stretching too much in any direction other than his comfortable range. He articulates clearly on each song, never producing over his vocals (unlike the experimentalism on Zooropa), keeping an emphasis on his lines. He does manage to show what strength his lungs have with the duration of some of the notes he holds, like on "Beautiful Day." And even on "Elevation," Bono presents some musically legitimate falsetto screeches.
Instrumentally, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is pretty typical guitar/bass/drum work, but it sounds good, so there is little to complain about. Even on songs like "New York" or "Elevation" that did not grab me, the album is packed with melodies that have a tune and are generally catchy. Indeed, anyone listening to pop-rock stations when this album came out can pretty easily recall the repetitive tune to "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of." It is on songs like that that U2 expands beyond their own borders to let in a synthesizer to simulate a more orchestral sound and it works with U2's penchant for anthemic songs.
Anyone who likes rock and roll will find something to enjoy on the socially conscious All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The best track is "Walk On," the weak link is "New York."
For other U2 works, please check out my reviews of:
The Joshua Tree
The Best Of 1980 – 1990 & The Singles
The Best Of 1990 – 2000 & The Singles
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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