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All That You Can't Leave Behind
U2
Interscope Records

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 ...

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