I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since U2’s (Singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr and bassist Adam Clayton) monumental LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out. At the time, people tend to forget that U2 had been knocked back on their heels a bit. It was a comeback of sorts for them. I think I’ve always been fond of this record because on a personal level, I had a comeback of my own in those days.
I like to think I was an early adopter on U2. I purchased War (on vinyl) when it came out when I was in college. I taped a copy of The Unforgettable Fire which at first had disappointed me – it was a bit of a stylistic left turn from the straight-up rock of War and I was small minded. I guess I wasn’t ready for “Produced by Brian Eno” when I was 20. I can still remember listening to my brother’s cassette of The Joshua Tree on my Sony Walkman, laying on the floor of my bedroom in the dark, illuminated only by the light streaming in my door from the hallway. Oddly, I thought it was a stronger album than The Unforgettable Fire, but felt it lacked the kind of anthem that the previous LP had, like “Pride (In The Name of Love).” The more I listened to it back then, the more I realized I was wrong. I think every track on side one of the album was released as a single. The Joshua Tree changed everything for U2, it was simply put, a masterpiece. I can still remember looking at their earnest, serious gazes staring at me from the album cover. I think after that album came out they were so big they were probably on postal stamps in some of the smaller countries around the world. Deservedly so.
For the follow-up, while touring in the U.S. they filmed a documentary. They intended to record a live album along with the doc but ended up recording new music. Rattle And Hum was, to my ears a brilliant “hybrid” album – part live, part studio (The B&V List of Essential “Hybrid” LPs – Part Live/Part Studio Albums). The critics however, were a bit more savage in regard to their indecision, live vs studio. There were great songs on that record and they shouldn’t take any shit for it from anyone. It was, to me, the sound of a band finding their roots. They’d formed around Larry’s parents kitchen table when Bono had never sung before and the Edge was learning guitar. They were a blank page. Rattle And Hum seemed to chronicle the band absorbing America and rock and roll all at once. Stung by the criticism of R+H, they did what I now view as a very U2 thing… they retreated for 3 years and completely changed their sound. They released yet another masterpiece, Achtung Baby. They’d included electronica, dance and alternative rock elements to their music. Grunge wasn’t gonna kill U2 they just adapted and got stronger.
The ‘Zoo TV’ tour was my first time seeing U2 in concert. I had a chance to see them in late ’87 in Atlanta on the tour for The Joshua Tree but declined. Arkansas Joel tried to talk me into going down and scalping tickets at the Forum. But, like ‘Good Will Hunting,’ I said no… “I had to see about a girl.” I dated her for a year but like most of my relationships back then it didn’t work out. On the upside, my relationship with Arkansas Joel has lasted 35 years. And to be clear, he never let me forget that bad decision, what are friends for? While in the middle of touring Europe on the ‘Zoo TV’ tour, they decided to keep that tour momentum up and duck into a studio. At first they were just going to record an EP but it ended up turning into a full fledged album, Zooropa. I loved that record but it felt like an EP. It didn’t seem to match the usual epic scope of a Joshua Tree or an Achtung Baby. I don’t know why but everyone seemed to feel that way. Zoopropa while great, just confused people. Because of that the expectations for their next album were huge. We all wanted a big, bad ass, new U2 album. We didn’t want it, we needed it. And, it fit their up/down pattern – Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum to Achtung Baby/Zooropa.
When it took four years, until 1997, to get the follow-up expectations were driven through the roof. When Pop finally dropped, it was a huge disappointment. Even though it took that long to finish, the band had set some aggressive deadlines and its completion was rushed. The first single “Discotheque” didn’t give us a lot of hope. I have to admit, all these years later, stripped of those mammoth expectations Pop is a much better record than anybody gave it credit for being. The ensuing tour, called Pop-Mart, saw U2 playing to stadiums that were not full. I’d seen the ‘Zoo TV’ tour in Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs play and it was packed to the rafters. There were empty seats in the upper deck on Pop-Mart. Starting with Achtung Baby, rather than continue their earnest, serious approach, U2 began to immerse themselves in irony. It worked at first but on Pop no one got the joke. U2 had been in the south of France partying with Michael Hutchence of INXS and supermodels and, as Bono said at the time, they “wanted to capture the party but they only captured the hangover.”
Once again, U2 retreated. While they were recording All That You Can’t Leave Behind, their good friend Michael Hutchence died under strange circumstances in Australia. They had already largely stripped their songs of the irony they’d tried on, but his death affected this album deeply. As U2 typically does, when their back is against the wall, they emerged with one of their greatest albums…
As the 90s waned, the wheels were starting to come off my gypsy lifestyle. I changed jobs in ’96 but my career had basically sputtered to a halt. I didn’t have much money to show for the effort. I started dating a woman in 1997 who was simply wonderful… but unfortunately wasn’t the right person for me. We were locked in this death knell of being together, breaking up and then reuniting… rinse, repeat. Towards the end we were bringing out the worst in each other. Finally, I made the difficult choice to end the affair for good. I had to work on myself. I finally got out of that relationship, which caused a lot of pain, and started a more inward focus. Within a few months I had a better job with more pay. And a few months later… I met the Rock Chick. When I first met her, on our first date, we both enthused about this new U2 song, their first new single, “Beautiful Day.” It was a return to the earlier, rocking sound. There were rumors that they’d almost rejected it because it was “too U2 sounding.” Luckily those guys have a sensible man like Larry Mullens, Jr in the band who put his foot down and insisted on releasing the song.
The Rock Chick and I broke up after a few months. She had a daughter and I was still rather untethered to adulthood. I was pretty gutted but then All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out and as usual U2 helped me get through it. I ran into her one night in one of my favorite watering holes…we had both been looking forward to the new U2 and I had wondered what she thought about it. Naturally, after a few awkward exchanges we started talking about how much we both loved the new record… “Wild Honey,” a rare sunny moment on the album, a driving acoustic number, was a favorite of both of us… One thing led to another and the Rock Chick and I were back together. A new job, a well-propertied woman… things had finally changed for me. We played this U2 album incessantly and it remains a personal favorite to this day.
The first single was spectacular and remains one of their biggest hits. “Beautiful Day” was a great way to announce their return. Bono had joked about ATYCLB that U2 was “reapplying for the job as best band in the world.” “Beautiful Day” was a great resume builder in that regard. “Elevation” was another great rock song that proved the Edge hadn’t forgotten how to play guitar. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was written for Hutchence and is another favorite. “Walk On” was another hit single. The lack of irony, the straightforward way they sang about grief and loss would prove to be universal after the tragic events of 9/11. It was almost as if U2 had felt something sad coming… I saw this tour with the Rock Chick, we were living together by then on November 27th 2001 in Kansas City and it was one of the best shows of theirs I’ve seen.
Now the band is looking back with a box set “20th Anniversary Edition” of the album. The original album is remastered and expanded with a great track that wasn’t on the original LP in the U.S., “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” which has always been one of my favorite U2 deep tracks (U2’s Ten Greatest Non Album Tracks & 5 Best Covers, In Honor of Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary). It was originally released on the soundtrack to a film Bono and the Edge were involved in when recording ATYCLB, entitled ‘The Million Dollar Hotel.’ If you haven’t heard it, you definitely should. Spacey and sexy it’s one of their greatest tracks. Salmon Rushdie wrote the lyrics.
The box also contains a disc of bonus tracks. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not purchased this box set – I already have everything that was on the bonus disc. I joined their fan club somewhere along the way and when I did they sent me a “fan club exclusive” double CD, U2 Medium, Rare and Remastered” that contained six of the tracks contained here. I already owned the original LP, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and six of these tracks. There are some great tracks on the bonus disc. “Levitate” starts things off… it’s a bit of a woozy number but kicks in towards the end. There’s an early version of “Summer Rain” later released on a compilation. “Big Girls Are Best” is an upbeat danceable number. “Stateless” was one of the few tracks I hadn’t heard and it’s a meandering ballad. I love the acoustic version of “Stuck In A Moment” here. “Flower Child” is a great, hippy acoustic love song. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” is a Johnny Cash cover…reimagined as an almost reggae song. Its rather curious.
There is also a complete concert from the 2001 tour from Boston. Again, I bought the DVD when it came out 19 years ago so… while this is a superb concert, I already own it in one form or another. It did remind me of what a force they were on that tour. They had a giant, heart-shaped catwalk that surrounded most of the floor. Towards the end of the show they projected the names of all the souls lost on 9/11 and it was one of the most moving concert experiences of my life. Hearing this concert again I’m reminded how remarkably aggressive and spectacular the Edge’s guitar playing is. U2 continues to grasp for relevancy or current popularity… if the Edge would play guitar like this where they sound like, well, U2… they wouldn’t have to worry anymore. I love the acoustic version of “Stay Faraway” on the live disc. If you don’t already own it, this concert is reason enough to buy this box set.
While this is a beautifully packaged (from what I’ve seen) commemoration of a masterpiece album, it wasn’t worth it for me as I own almost every component of the box set. Well, I don’t own the remix disc but that’s always crap anyway, no matter who the artist. However, if you haven’t heard this concert, it’s worth the price of admission here – much like the Stones’ recent box for Goats Head Soup (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set). If you don’t own the bonus tracks, the ones I mentioned above are all tracks you’ll want in your U2 collection.
Be safe out there… these are turbulent times. I’d love to see all of us pull together as a country and a planet like we did in the wake of 9/11. We are always stronger together, when we’re united… Hang in there, people.. we’re merely “stuck in a moment,” but we will get out of it.