Yes, U2 Can Go Home Again

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The Chicago Sun Times, October 31, 2000

Yes, U2 Can Go Home Again

by Jim DeRogatis

In the now five-decade history of rock 'n' roll, rare are the artists who have been able to sustain a creative peak on their new recordings over time.

Think of the bands and artists who have lasted more than 20 years: Bob Dylan. Pink Floyd. Bruce Springsteen. The Rolling Stones. And, though it's still considered a relative newcomer by many in the baby boom generation, the little band from Dublin that could -- U2.

Drawn by an ad posted on a bulletin board by drummer Larry Mullen, the members of U2 came together at Mount Temple High School in 1978. They released their first album Boy two years later. Eight more studio efforts followed, along with several dramatic reinventions -- from the roots-rock of 1988's Rattle and Hum, to the much-vaunted postmodern irony of 1991's Achtung Baby.

Through it all, the quartet of Mullen, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and singer Bono has remained intact. The Beatles may have invented rock's classic "all for one, one for all" myth. But U2 as a band has now outlived the Fab Four by 12 years.

Not that there haven't been bumps in the road. The group's last album, 1996's Pop, a tired, flaccid affair, found U2 flirting unsuccessfully with techno. It drained all of the fun out of the lyrical sarcasm and musical experimentation that seemed so refreshing on Achtung Baby and Zooropa. And when the band held a press conference at a Kmart to announce its "Popmart" tour, it seemed to bid credibility adieu.

How then to salvage the franchise? Why, go back to the basics, of course. (Re: the Beatles circa "The White Album.")

"We were laying [the single `Beautiful Day'] down in the studio, and the Edge just cut loose a riff that could only be described as classic, early-days U2," Bono tells Billboard magazine. "I froze and said, 'Oh, no, we can't use that. It sounds too much like a quintessential U2 riff!"

Edge apparently shot Bono the dirty look to end all dirty looks.

"It said, '[Buzz] off, we are U2, and this is how I play guitar,' " Bono recalls. "And I got it. I understood that it was time for us to reclaim who we are. It set the tone of the album."

Indeed it did. "Beautiful Day" provides a lilting, melodic opening for All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope), which arrives in stores today. Like the 10 songs that follow, it's instantly recognizable as U2--partly retro (it could have been recorded in 1982), and partly timeless (it doesn't sound like much else on rock radio circa the new millennium).

Dave Richards, program director of Q101, says the alternative-rock powerhouse is playing the single in heavy rotation because his listeners love it -- even though a huge number of them weren't born when U2 started its career. In fact, the group remains the only survivor on Q101's play list from the pre-alternative '80s; the Cure and R.E.M. have fallen off the demographic cliff.

"They are going back to the '80s sound, but for some reason, people really want U2 to win," Richards says. "They're the fan favorite. Whereas our audience has given up on R.E.M."

How does U2 continue to sound vital where others of its era fall short? Much of the success is due to a wise choice of producers. After working with Howie B. on Pop, the band has returned to Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the artistic instigators behind its biggest commercial and artistic successes, The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby.

Eno once told me that his role with U2 was to listen to its new tracks and force the band to erase anything that sounded too much like U2. In this way, he nudged the group to grow and evolve. But there was clearly a different modus operandi at work on All That You Can't Leave Behind.

Bono himself nails the reason for the album's success in "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" when he sings, "There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard/I'm just trying to find a decent melody/A song that I can sing in my own company."

While U2 offers no new ideas, tunes such as "Elevation," "Walk On," "Grace" and "New York" are positively lousy with big, catchy choruses and memorable Edge guitar riffs. While the band returns to the chorus-drenched sounds of "old U2," Bono skips the earnest preaching that got to be such a drag. Instead of the anthemic "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or "Bullet the Blue Sky," the lyrics tend toward the model of "One"; in their romantic impressionism, they are both more universal and much easier to ignore.

In terms of artistic ambition, this is all a bit of a cop-out, and going back to the well is a trick a band can only pull off once. But at the moment, U2 has given us a disc that is guaranteed to appeal to anyone who has ever cared about this veteran band.

Rating: ***

Copyright © 2000 Chicago Sun Times. All rights reserved.

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