For Better or Worse, It Defined U2’s Latter-Day Career.
Released 20 years ago, All That You Can’t Leave Behind marked a return to form for U2, and it became one of the band’s most important records. After its previous album Pop, released in 1997, proved polarizing, fans were thrilled to see the band embracing its roots. More importantly, the album was a smashing success.
It could be argued that All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the right album at the right time. Although it was successful at its release, the attacks of 9/11 lent the songs an extra level of relevance. After the band’s Superbowl performance, the album really took off. For many people, the band was exactly what they needed. But now, 20 years later, stripped of its “return to form” narrative and its post 9/11 significance, how does the album hold up? And what is its place in the band’s body of work?
The 90s was a very interesting time in U2’s career. 1987’s The Joshua Tree became one of the biggest albums of all time and undoubtedly a career-defining moment. However, its follow-up Rattle and Hum — a live/studio hybrid — released in 1989 left fans underwhelmed. Many felt that the band was deliberately trying to claim a place in rock history they hadn’t yet earned.
That’s why the recording process for their follow up album was filled with tension. Eventually, the band pulled through and recorded one of the most beloved and commercially successful albums, Achtung Baby. The album marked a stark departure from their early work and was hailed as a reinvention for U2. It sold over 18 million copies worldwide, and it regularly appears on lists of the greatest albums of all time.
The commercial success was very validating for the band. They described the album as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” That album had become an albatross of sorts for the band. But Achtung Baby was the key that set them free from their past. Emboldened by its success, U2 felt free to explore new sounds, confident that fans would follow. This led to their most experimental era that a lot of people consider their most exciting period. However, even more, fans believed it a decade when the band lost its way.
Their follow-up Zooropa was well received, but it didn’t have any real hits. The album sold over 7 million copies worldwide. That’s a number that most bands would kill for, but it was still less than half of what Achtung Baby sold. Many embraced the band’s willingness to experiment throughout the decade. Others saw it as self-indulgent and began to lose patience. That growing frustration became unavoidable when their next album, Pop, became their worst-selling album in more than 15 years.
Pop is, without a doubt, their most polarizing album. And that fact has not gone unnoticed by the band. They have been quietly trying to sweep it under the rug. Its songs have all but vanished from concert setlists as if they were trying to erase it from history. There’s no doubt that Pop’s commercial failure shook the band. It effectively put an end to their decade of experimentation. The band had a choice to make; keep moving forward or walk things back to appease fans who felt they lost their way.
What came next was a career reset called All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released in 2000. During the album’s promotion, Bono jokingly claimed that they were “reapplying for the job of the biggest band in the world.” It was a line that made for a nice sound bite, but it was also very telling.
Regardless of what people thought of Pop, no one would accuse the band of playing it safe. Three years later, they were doing just that. Don’t get me wrong, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a fine album; it even has a couple of great songs. But a big part of its appeal was seeing u2 dust off their old clothes to find that they still fit. However, stripped of its nostalgia factor and post 9/11 resonance, it becomes clear that it’s not very memorable.
The album begins on a promising but ultimately misleading note, with “Beautiful Day,” the album’s first single and trademark song. Its opening notes seem to signify that the band isn’t wholly casting aside its tendency for sonic experimentation in its bid to “return to form.” However, that is quickly tossed aside and the song, like the album, reveals itself to be very straightforward. The big ideas and musical ambition that defined the band’s previous decade are almost entirely gone.
However, you can overlook how predictable the song is because it works so well. No rule says a song needs to be complicated to be good. In fact, the simplicity of “Beautiful Day” is one of its main strengths. The contagious chorus and familiar guitar chimes from The Edge pair up so well that you can’t help but let it come over you as you sing along with Bono. Focusing on life’s small moments of beauty isn’t a profound idea, but it’s a nice reminder that we all, sometimes, need. It’s a very high and early peak, and the album’s quality quickly falls from there, reaching what could be its nadir just a couple of songs later. (The album has various low points vying for that dubious title)
The band’s obsession with stadium-filling anthems and heart-string tugging choruses filled with platitudes becomes most apparent in the very next song, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” It was released as the album’s second single, and it mostly works. Its gospel and soul aspects suggest it could have been a B-side from The Joshua Tree or Rattle and Hum era. Unfortunately, its hollow lyrics almost completely bury its appeal. Bono wrote the song as a one-sided argument he wished he had with his friend, Michael Hutchence — lead singer of INXS — before he committed suicide. But the only reason I know that is because he said it in interviews, promoting the song and album. Nothing about the lyrics feel specific; they sound like they could have been ripped from a generic self-help book.
However, they get even worse on the very next song, “Elevation.” That song could be seen as a lyrical predecessor to songs like “Vertigo” and “Get on Your Boots,” where Bono seems to have taken a mad-lib approach to songwriting. He seems more interested in giving fans something to drunkenly sing along to in stadiums than making sense, much less saying something meaningful. It also hinted at the shallow, stadium, rock band U2 became. Another way the album impacted the band’s career is that it introduced us to a version of U2 that is musically boring. Even its best songs feel like they could have been written 20 years earlier. But that’s to be expected when a band scours its back catalog to write their new album.
Following one of the album’s low points, we get two powerful songs, “Walk On” and “Kite,” back to back. These songs, along with “Beautiful Day,” represent the album’s peak. “Walk On” was written about Aung San Suu Kyi but feels so universal you’d be forgiven for thinking Bono was speaking directly to you. Even corny lines about singing birds in open cages can’t ruin it. “Kite” perfectly builds on the momentum and gives the album a beautiful anthemic moment filled with melancholic strings and memorable guitar riffs. The song mixes despair and loss with hope topped off with an excellent vocal performance from Bono.
Unfortunately, that’s about all of the album’s great points. It peaks pretty early and quickly runs out of steam. There is almost no reason to go beyond the fifth track. Songs like “In a little While,” “Wild Honey,” and “When I look at the world” are pleasant enough. You enjoy them while you listen to them, but they evaporate from your memory almost as soon as they end. They offer lovely melodies, platitudes, and not much else.
However, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit. The album was exactly what people wanted from U2 at the time. Its themes and the familiarity of the songs provided listeners comfort, especially after 9/11. But the much-lauded “return to form” now seems like a calculated move by a band afraid to see its relevancy slipping away. It’s almost laughable that, at the time, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was heralded as a masterpiece. On their real masterpieces, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, they were a bold band unafraid to take chances. On All That You Can’t Leave Behind, they scrambled to remain relevant by pillaging their own work, trying to find something close to inspiration. And that desperate need to stay relevant has defined the band ever since.
There was a time when U2 was adventurous and kept fans guessing. They weren’t afraid to take chances, and for a while, that paid off. Achtung Baby became an undeniable classic that still sounds as arrestingly beautiful as it first did 29 years ago. The album has become such a defining moment in the band’s career that it’s easy to forget what a drastic turn it was at the time.
That album’s success inspired U2 to follow their instincts no matter where that led them. However, the failure of Pop had the exact opposite effect. Their brash confidence was gone, replaced by overwhelming insecurity. Their desire to explore new territory was replaced by a need to recreate their past to please fans.
And the overwhelming success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind — it sold over four million copies in the US alone — validated their new (old) direction. Since then, the band has been on a mission of overcorrection, trying to win back audiences. In a way, they have become the world’s greatest U2 tribute band. Their albums now feel like they were cooked up using a U2 recipe book. They add a pinch of The Unforgettable Fire, a hint of The Joshua Tree, and top it all off with a dash of Achtung Baby to make an entirely adequate U2 stew.
They are still capable of making genuinely good songs, and sometimes they do. But in their attempts to give everyone what they want, they often choose universal platitudes over genuine insight or real emotion. Their songs used to have the capacity to speak to the listener directly. These days they settle for hollow gestures that address vague masses. Even the songs that are catchy and enjoyable are unlikely to stand the test of time. If you were trying to introduce a friend to U2 — who for some reason never heard the band — you wouldn’t choose anything from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. (Or anything after it)
I don’t think anyone is expecting another reinvention from U2 at this stage of their career, but sometimes it feels like they’re just going through the motions. They seem comfortable playing a facsimile of themselves. They are more a brand than a band, and every song feels like a calculated bid to appeal to the masses. That’s a shame because they used to be an exciting, passionate band willing to take risks. In the 80s, they climbed to the top of the mountain and spent the following decade subverting expectations and pushing themselves. But Pop turned out to be as far as they pushed. It was when they had to choose what was more important to them, their love of exploration, or their need to be loved.
With All that you can’t leave behind, the answer became clear. For better or worse, that album is the moment U2 truly became a legacy act. Their career has always been marked by change. They took each era as far as they could before venturing into new directions. Sometimes, that meant they lost some fans, but they also attracted new ones as they reinvented themselves.
But All That You Can’t Leave Behind was their first new era that wasn’t marked by reinvention or a new sound. Instead, it was defined by regression; it was the sound of a band retreating into its past. Even though the album had popular songs, I don’t believe it earned them any new, loyal fans. It didn’t introduce them to a new generation of listeners.
Bands as big as U2 always inspire passionate debate about which of their albums is the best. Some fans will fervently argue that the band never surpassed their music from the early 80s. Others will avidly claim that The Joshua Tree is U2’s undeniable creative zenith; they might even tell you the band lost their way after that album. However, others consider Achtung Baby the cream of the crop. But All That You Can’t Leave Behind is the moment the band stopped inspiring much of anything.