7. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
“The last of the rock stars / When hip-hop drove the big cars”
U2 had spent the 90s running from their known strengths, and after the lukewarm reception to POP plenty of people were convinced they’d have no choice but to settle into R.E.M.-like semiretirement, playing to their shrinking cult. But with “Beautiful Day” — a euphoric anthem that put The Edge’s stratospheric guitar up front for what felt like the first time in forever — U2 demanded, and received, a third act. Though the album’s musings on aging and mortality attained accidental relevance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, this was U2′s least thematically cohesive set of songs to date. Their brief was simply to ditch the drum machines and prove they could still write hits.
And they did: “Beautiful Day” got played ’til its wheels came off. “Stuck in a Moment” and the understated, Al Green-like “In a Little While” — the album cut Joey Ramone kept requesting from his deathbed, claims Bono — made for convincing blue-eyed soul, and “Elevation” was an irresistibly dumb jock jam*, even if Lenny Kravitz could have written it. “Walk On” and “Kite” do just what they were engineered to do: Soar like the U2 of the Reagan years. Bono’s singing a lot of treacle on those, I’m inclined to forgive because he’s singing so well. The album sputters out after seven songs, which was probably four more than they needed to win forgiveness and renewal.
*Could U2′s mortifying Super Bowl XXXVI halftime appearance been averted if they’d left “Elevation” off the album? Ah, but that way madness lies.
Tune in tomorrow for part two!