October 31st 2000 was a beautiful day for U2 fans. After three years of waiting they got to hear “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (ATYCLB), the landmark tenth studio album of the Irish super group. With more than twenty years of performing around the world, they are no stranger to travel, a fact which comes through loud and clear in the imagery of this new recording. On the cover stands the four members of U2, Bono (Paul Hewson), Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and The Edge (Dave Evans), in the concourse of Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport. With bags at their sides and passports in hand, they are ready for a journey. Where to? The music within gives some good clues.
This CD is a continuation of U2’s venture into the territory of faith in a way that few “secular” or contemporary Christian artists dare or are permitted. Bono once described himself as having a form of Tourette’s syndrome where he would always mention God in places where it was taboo. As if to confirm that, Bono recently confessed in Rolling Stone Magazine that the J33-3 on the cover of the album is a scripture reference. The verse is Jeremiah 33:3 and says “Call to me and I will answer you.” “It’s known as God’s phone number” says Bono. U2 have always seen it as a challenge to try and live “wide awake” to two realities, that of a broken, damaged world and that of a God who is known as Love incarnate. Their music often represents the creative working out of living in those two seemingly distant realities and on ATYCLB it is the latter that shines through.
The band was looking for an “invocation” to open the CD, and “Beautiful Day” is just that. Quiet lyrics with a somewhat eighties new wave beat, unlike anything U2 ever released in that decade, pull the listener in. Only when the wallop of a chorus hits with full guitar, drums and vocals does one discover U2. The space shuttle icon found beside the lyrics in the CD booklet is appropriate for U2 begin their journey here with a real lift-off. All the passion and spirit one might recall from the eighties U2 are found afresh. This is no repeat of an earlier sound or ideal though. “We advance towards simplicity” said Bono on the U2 fansite Interference.com. What they have been reaching for is the stripped down sound of just the four band members jamming in a room, a sound lead singer Bono has dubbed “titanium soul”.
If “titanium soul” seems too obscure then try the Psalms. U2’s early days saw them close their concerts with a song called “40” inspired by the Psalm of the same name. Bono once called the Psalms an “early form of the blues” and recently even wrote an introduction to Scottish publisher Canongate’s pocket KJV edition of them. This inspiration comes through strongly in ATYCLB, as the album runs through with the familiar pattern of a Psalm. After the exultation of “Beautiful Day”, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” closes in on the low place one finds oneself in, and ends like a blessing or a prayer. “Elevation”, with its whooping and joyful chorus, continues the rocket boost of passion, calling for Love to lift “me out of these blues”. From there, like King David on a rough day, there are songs expressing frustration and deep questions about the state of the world. As with the ending of a Psalm though, renewal seems to come with the closing song. It all bears taking a closer look through.
Moved by the state of the world, Bono has spent 1999 and 2000 extremely active in promoting Jubilee 2000’s campaign to forgive Third World debts. Similar convictions have seen U2 promote Amnesty International’s work on global human rights issues. It comes as no surprise then that Amnesty’s logo is found beside the lyrics to “Walk On”. Dedicated to Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the song is the cornerstone of the album. Ripe with travel imagery and rich in soul, it tells the listener “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been. A place that has to be believed to be seen.” Pressing on with faith is key here. The song’s closing lyrics tell the listener to leave behind “all that you make, all that you build”, a clear echo of Pink Floyd’s song “Eclipse”from their album “The Dark Side of the Moon”. Instead of the futility and alienation felt in Pink Floyd’s music, “Walk On” delivers a sense of release and freedom from letting go and clinging to “The only thing that you can bring…all that you can’t leave behind.” This “only thing” is something which “they can’t steal”, “sell” or “buy”. U2 are “locked on” to the soul and going deeper.
Where is deeper in the soul? “Kite” reveals that for U2 it is a vulnerable place, where one is very aware of how frail life is. Bono sings “Who’s to say where the wind will take you? Who’s to say what it is will break you?” Like Psalm 39:4, “Kite” reveals a consciousness of how life is fleeting and its days numbered. “In A Little While” taps deeper into this awareness with lyrics that are drenched with longing for release to life’s pain. The lyrics promise that soon “this hurt will hurt no more” and that something sweeter will come. “Wild Honey” seems to confirm this. Sounding like a Beatles chart-topper, it is a playful love song that resonates with something eternal. Bono asks his lover “Did I know you, Did I know you even then? Before the clocks kept time. Before the world was made.”
Until now the songs are soaring with passion and faith. “Peace On Earth” brings sharp a descent back to earth, and the realities of a world filled with pain. Written the day after the 1998 Omagh bombing that killed 29 people and left 370 injured, it echoes the Psalms’ familiar frustration at life’s ongoing trials. Bono is “sick of sorrow..of pain…of hearing…that there’s gonna be Peace on Earth”. In the midst of his despair though he reaches out, singing “Jesus could you take the time, to throw a drowning man a line”. Somehow there may be still be hope, but at this point he just can’t see it here on earth.
“When I Look At The World” continues the descent with deeper questioning. Bono asks someone “What is it that you see?” when they look at the world. It isn’t clear who is being addressed though. Do the lines “Can’t see for the smoke, I think of you and your holy book, while the rest of us choke” refer to the listener, God, the Pope even, or perhaps the church in general? Or maybe the song is meant to connect on all of those levels. “New York” completes the trilogy of songs of descent with a touchdown in a city “hot as a hairdryer in your face”. In the midst of this harsh place though, there is a voice to be heard “a-whispering, Come away child”. It seems that there is still somewhere to go from here.
What is incredible is how deeply U2 imbue a sense of Spirit and faith in these songs with only minimal mention of God. While “Pop” contained more such references than any prior U2 CD, ATYCLB has only a single mention of Jesus in one song’s chorus. Despite this, most songs carry a joyful, passionate spirit of trust. If Bono was longing for his cup to be filled, as he sang in “Achtung Baby’s” “Acrobat”, here it is running over. The deepest longing and toughest questions are still present, but they are well directed, and like a familiar Psalm faith is renewed. When Bono sings in “Beautiful Day” of lending a hand “in return for grace” he is offering you his. When he cries out “Touch me. Take me to that other place” you might just go with him. With an awareness of your own frailty, you just might sing along to the chorus of “Peace On Earth” like it was your own: “Jesus can you take the time, to throw a drowning man a line.”
While U2 made touchdown in New York, it is the album’s final number that sees them finding their home. The icon of a dove descending, the classic image of the Holy Spirit, is especially appropriate placed beside these lyrics, for “Grace” gives wonderful expression to a profoundly Christian concept. If you took Bono’s hand, this is where you would be led, to the “thought that changed the world”, a person who “covers the stain, removes the shame” and “carries a pearl in perfect condition.” Like Psalm 23:5, “Grace” is U2’s “table” in the presence of a dark and damaged world. They aren’t afraid to sing about it, and even seem to invite you to it. If you do go, just be prepared. Have “the only thing that you can bring” safely packed. For this is one journey you will not want to miss.