U2 was the greatest group of the ’80s because its members – singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen – like perhaps only Bruce Springsteen in the U.S., still believed that rock ‘n’ roll could save the world, and had the talent to make that notion not seem hopelessly naive.
This earnestness and willingness to shoulder the heaviest of responsibilities led to soaring heights of achievement and escalating psychic and artistic demands that eventually led the band to adopt irony as its basic means of expression for a time in the ’90s.
In important ways U2 became an intentional self-parody: a difficult trip on tenuous ice that they were able to pull off for a time (Achtung Baby, parts of Zooropa) through sheer talent. All bands want to be cool, and in the ’80s U2 almost single-handedly made earnestness cool, but it was hard, relentless work: earnestness as a modus operandi leaves one open to charges of self-importance, disingenuousness, or – horror of horrors for a rock band – being seen as goody-goody.
After the gritty, chunky guitars-and-idealism of the ’80s, the ’90s saw the diaphanous chill of electronics-and-irony, which was literally and metaphorically cool, but ultimately not what the band is about. All That You Can’t Leave Behind returns to what the band IS about, and is the sonic and spiritual follow up to the ’87 classic The Joshua Tree, the band’s most idealistic, spiritual and melodically consistent album.
Remnants of the band’s forays into electronics season the album (especially the impressionistic “New York”), but the Edge’s guitar has returned to center stage, where his unique, ringing style belongs, though it never upstages the songs, every one of which is blessed with a memorable tune.
Following the chiming, ecstatic release of the opening track, “Beautiful Day,” the second song, “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” states a seemingly modest but deeply profound, earnest and idealistic notion:
“I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song I can sing in my own company”
They have found it, and then some. U2 is now a mature, confident band that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, but isn’t afraid to keep asking the right questions.