Review : Honest Prayer, Beautiful Grace
All That You Can't Leave Behind
The 1990s were a long and bumpy time for many U2 fans who first loved the band for its clear Christianity on October (1981) or its pacifist anthems on War (1983). After reaching a certain lyrical and musical pinnacle with The Joshua Tree (1987), the band embarked on an extended, confusing project in destroying "the U2 myth," whatever that was.
For its PopMart world tour in 1997, the band toured with props such as a giant lemon and olive, a 100-foot golden arch, and a $7 million giant video screen—all while conducting live satellite interviews with the suffering peoples of the former Yugoslavia. The line between irony and absurdity can be thin indeed. Lead singer Bono, who once held forth so readily about how driving cars into swimming pools was not true rock rebellion, was all but driving cars into swimming pools.
Worse, U2 slathered its 1990s music in an exhausting swirl of techno and electronica. Only Bono's occasional lyrical gems ("Ultraviolet" on Achtung Baby, "Stay" on Zooropa, "Wake Up Dead Man" on Pop) saved U2 from permanent residency in the gaseous swamps of self-indulgence.
On All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 willingly picks up the weighty baggage of its fans' Joshua Tree—era expectations, but also mixes in a tasteful measure of 1990s irony and electronica.
A few songs are standouts. Just as "Pride (in the Name of Love)" paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., "Walk On" praises another champion of human rights: Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the rulers of Burma have held under house arrest since 1989. U2's guitarist, the Edge, plays one of his achingly beautiful solos, then adds some of the spare piano fills that defined U2's sound for many years.
Bono's lyrics capture the irony of a woman being imprisoned in her own house (and the alienation felt by many people in less drastic circumstances): "Home … hard to know what it is if you've never had one/Home … I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home/That's where the hurt is."
"Wild Honey" is a lighthearted love song with jangly guitars and pining harmonies reminiscent of the early Beatles.
"Peace on Earth" is the most demanding song, an angry confession of a pacifist who has witnessed one too many wars: "I'm sick of all this/Hanging around/Sick of sorrow/Sick of pain/Sick of hearing again and again/That there's gonna be/Peace on Earth." While the song probably will never land on a holiday collection like The Coolest Christmas, it joins a noble lineage of Christmas- inspired protest songs.
Another bold song, "When I Look at the World," follows "Peace on Earth." From a Christian perspective, this song makes sense as an honest prayer from the edge of despair: "So I try to be like you/Try to feel it like you do/But without you it's no use/I can't see what you see/When I look at the world." The Edge delivers another sonic guitar solo, complimented by Brian Eno's sorrowful synthesizer chords. The lyrics, written by Bono and the Edge, end on a humble note, which Bono delivers in a childlike singsong: "Tell me, tell me, what do you see?/Tell me, tell me, what's wrong with me?"
Finally, "Grace" has a near-lullaby quality, and a small dove icon on the lyrics suggests that it's a meditation on one of God's greatest gifts: "What once was hurt/What once was friction/What left a mark/No longer stings/Because Grace makes beauty/Out of ugly things."
Presuming that U2 will feel no need to deconstruct the reputation it gains from this solid recording, a once-great band suddenly is great all over again, and will be for many years into this new millennium.
Douglas LeBlanc, an associate editor of Christianity Today, asked his wife to a U2 concert for their first date.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
If you're looking for U2 info, U2links.com is the place to start because it lists links for official sites, anti-U2 sites, and even links to bands that cover U2 songs.
U2.com is the bands official site for news, videoclips, tour dates, and the U2 timeline.
Fans who play should visit the U2 guitar archive for lyrics, chords, tabs, and even background drum tracks for some of the songs.
For the best overview of the band's history and development, read Wall of Sound's "U2."
All That You Can't Leave Behind is available from Amazon.com and other music retailers.