U2 back to brightness

Adam Sweeting


Prising themselves free from their mid-Nineties fixations with irony and Las Vegas glitz, U2 have circled back to what they’ve always done best on All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Universal-Island). That means big tunes, thumping beats and soaring guitars, while Bono pins his heart on his sleeve and sings as if he fears it might be for the last time.

This is U2’s most accessible and emotional recording since 1991’s Achtung Baby.
Not that there are many similarities between the two. Where Achtung reeked of trauma and decay, All That You Can’t Leave Behind reaches out to a wider world and a brighter future. Where the Achtung songs loomed out of a poisonous industrial murk, the new ones keep the instrumentation simple and the colours refreshingly bright.

After their period of epic bombast, U2 have grasped the value of simplicity. It’s easy to imagine the mess they might once have made of Peace on Earth, but here they use its acid lyric about death and suffering (could be Ireland, could be Gaza, could be anywhere) in scathing counterpoint to the tune’s Christmas-jingle feel.

As the disc winds to a conclusion, it becomes more minimal and less overt. New York is an intriguingly bleak little tale about displacement both geographical and emotional, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Grace is a weightless meditation with vaguely Buddhist overtones (“Grace makes beauty out of ugly things”).

Tucked among the production credits, behind regulars Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, is Richard Stannard, erstwhile sonic navigator for East 17 and the Spice Girls. It seems U2 wanted their message to come over loud and clear, and they’re inviting you to join in. From the opening strains of Beautiful Day, it’s a disc crammed with songs you can sing in the bath, in a car or, of course, in a football stadium, their ultimate and ill-deserved fate.

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