Wednesday, November 20, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 568: U2

After two straight concert reviews it was fun to get back to randomly determining my next review (that’s what I do, in the event that you are new to the blog).

This is a good one from a band I haven’t reviewed in over three years because – random!

Disc 568 is…. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Artist: U2

Year of Release: 2000

What’s up with the Cover?  The band poses in a glary section of the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris.  A suitable cover since the album’s title makes you think of everything you absolutely have to bring with you on a trip or put another way, all that you can’t leave behind.

How I Came To Know It:  Basically I kept hearing songs off of this album and for the most part I liked them, so I took a chance on my first U2 album since 1991’s “Achtung Baby.”

How It Stacks Up:  We have seven U2 albums.  Of those seven I’d put “All You Can’t Leave Behind” third best.

Rating:  4 stars

It is always gratifying when a band can put out a classic album many years after they first break big.  “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is one of those albums.

The album sees the return of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who produced a few other U2 gems like “Unforgettable Fire,” “Joshua Tree” and “Achtung, Baby” – all classics. Where do those killer records rank overall?  Tsk tsk – such impatience.  You’ll have to wait until I review them, my friends.  But I digress…

The point is Eno/Lanois plus U2 equals musical greatness.  Eno and Lanois’ expansive production style perfectly suits the band’s atmospheric predilections.  On “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” they bring in some of the club sound and neo-techno elements the band experimented on with records like “Zooropa” and “Pop” but they make it more melodic and listenable.

In terms of song quality, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” has much to recommend it.  I don’t love all the hits, but the ones I do I love a lot, particularly “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “Walk On.”

Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” could be a theme song for anyone who suffers anxiety at any level.  I get a little myself now and then (it is impossible to be present and aware in the world and not be a little anxious) and this song captures the feeling of wrestling with a problem long after you should put it away.  Hearing Bono sing ‘you’ve got to get yourself together’ is exactly the tonic I need to do exactly that. Also hearing him climb up to that falsetto in the bridge reminds you why he will always be remembered as one of rock and roll’s great vocalist. 

The other hit that appeals is “Walk On” which has a similar theme, although in this case it is about leaving regret behind you and moving on with your life.  The Edge’s guitar is nice and restrained and not overly synthed up on this song as well, giving it some honest emotional resonance.

The album was a radio darling, which you know for me means exactly squat.  I mention it for context only, because although it spawned a lot of hits, not every one of them was a hit for me.

The first track is the big but emotionally empty “Beautiful Day.”  “Beautiful Day” is one of those songs that bands that can write hits in their sleep (like U2) write when they need a hit.  Mission accomplished, but it doesn’t speak to me.  “Elevation” has a killer riff to start it off, but the lyrics are so bad that they distract from all the good things the song accomplishes musically.  Case in point: “A mole/digging in a hole/digging up my soul.”  Hey U2 – just because you can rhyme the words doesn’t mean you should.

Despite these minor missteps, the album has a generally uplifting quality to most of the songs, and a flavour that suits a band that’s been around for a while, seen some triumph and disaster (although mostly triumph) and has learned to take Kipling’s advice and treat those two imposters just the same.

The highlight for me on the record, and its emotional, and thematic centre is “Kite.”  “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” may not be a five star album, but “Kite” is a five star song.  Starting with a string section, it feels important from the very first notes, then slowly builds like an orchestra.  At its core this is a song of parting as good as any in a long tradition of Irish songs of parting.   The image is of a kite, and how it pulls hard against the string, wanting to be free and how sometimes – for the sake of both the kite and yourself – you’ve got to let go.

Behind the kite imagery this song manages to wrap up half a lifetime of experience into four and a half perfectly timed minutes. All the good and bad, all the self-affirmation and regret.  All the things you do or refuse to do that ultimately leads you wherever you are.  And even as you look back and wonder if you could have done it better, Bono offers these words of wisdom:

“Did I waste it?  Not so much I couldn’t taste it.
Life should be fragrant – rooftop to the basement.”

In terms of advice on how to live your life, those two lines sound pretty good to me.

There are some other pretty songs filling up what we old timers call “Side Two” including “In a Little While” and “New York” before the record ends, fittingly, with “Grace.”  U2 is fond of ending their records with what passes for a prayer (“40” from “War” and “MLK” from “The Unforgettable Fire” come to mind).

Grace” holds this tradition up well.  It is a song about both a girl and the concept of grace, stealing into our souls and helping us see the beauty of the world all around us.  For a record that reminds us throughout that things aren’t so bad, I can’t think of a more fitting ending.  As it slowly meanders its way to a fade-out, “Grace” leaves me stuck in a moment that I don’t want to get out of.  But since the Odyssey won’t finish itself, I will reluctantly let go of the string of this particular kite, knowing we will meet again.

Best tracks:   Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of, Walk On, Kite, In a Little While, Grace

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