Is This Desire?

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Spin Magazine, December 2000 issue

Is This Desire?

On All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 finally find what they're looking for

By Ann Powers

Throwing your hands up in the air can be an act of faith. Stick 'em up - there's no resisting the way life constantly robs you of control. But open those arms wider, and defeat becomes elation. "Stretch out your hands toward the sanctuary," the psalmist instructed pilgrims seeking the Promised Land. Don't be surprised when submission turns to strength.

U2 know plenty about spiritual abandon. From their early work as flag-waving Christians soldiers through the ecstatic desert wanderings of the mid-'80s, to the fall to dirty earth that started in 1991 with Achtung Baby, the Irishmen specialized in the plunge, riding rock's gravitational pull to states of unchecked emotion. With a force that sometimes seemed ridiculous, each album was a dunk in the river, and loving the band meant giving in - not to God but to the problematic idea of meaningful rock.

Yet U2 have never explored their fetish for surrender with such relaxed eloquence as on All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope). Nor has the band ever worried less about proving its genius. After Pop, 1997's uncomfortable tiptoe into techno, they've realized that the rash pursuit of the moment works only for Madonna. Self-respect demands U2 ignore Kid Rock and eliminate the need for Creed.

Fact is, even after Bono stuffed piety down his vinyl pants, people continued to use rock as a source of spirit-raising. U2 light the unfashionable fire better than anybody else, and with age have become more adept at contemplation. Bono's preaching now has an air of weathered serenity. The Edge rarely careens around as if his guitar is a flame-thrower, instead stressing sharp fingerwork. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, back as producers (with Steve Lillywhite and others helping), use effects - churchy organ, backward violin, whale sounds - but keep the colors between the lines. The songs are still full of deep thoughts, but now they come from a quieter place.

Call it the happy aftermath of a midlife crisis. U2 is relaxing, reasserting some beliefs critics love to shove back in their face - most importantly, that uplifting art is not necessarily dumb. The albums opening one-two-three punch irresistibly makes this point. "Beautiful Day" is a hip-shakingly messianic exhortation of faith found through adversity, while "Stuck in a Moment" takes hope higher in a gospel arrangement that fulfills the Harlem dreams the band's been chasing since Rattle and Hum. Then comes "Elevation," a flat-out sex song seductively posed in an electronica bed. But it's really about love as salvation, with Edge showing his mysterious ways, the rhythm section fluffing its funky feathers, and Bono testifying like he's dreaming of Aretha and feeling like a natural man.

A dip in energy would be understandable after this rush, but U2, being U2, wanna take you higher, as "Walk On" and "Kite" return to the desert of The Joshua Tree. Piano, strings, and background voices expand to fill Lanois and Eno's cathedral-size mixes, and Bono's proclamations swell along with the sound. Every sentence is a proverb of wind and water, but the band offers its inspiration in a modest way, so it doesn't grate.

After these peaks, the record detours into eddies U2 have explored before. The mellow "In a Little While" turns "Satellite of Love" into an Al Green song, with Bono using his new and at times bothersome soul shout, and the real interest coming in the interplay between Clayton's fuzz-touched bass and Edge's Velvety guitar. "Wild Honey" nods at the Beach Boys, and several songs revisit the darker musings of Pop, letting the album drift a bit toward inertia. This detour leads nowhere, especially on the embarrassing "New York," a (hopefully) final bid by Bono to inhabit Frank Sinatra's moldering persona.

But the delicate coda, "Grace," puts us back on solid sacred ground. The song is a parable about a woman saintly enough to be a Lars von Trier heroine. Such an exercise in virtue will put off sophisticates - I mean, where are the supermodels? But as Edge and Clayton spool a slow dance, sparked by tiny cloudbursts from Eno's keyboards, celebrating faith, hope, and love doesn't seem that bad. In fact, it's exactly what U2, giving in to itself, is meant to do.

Copyright © 2000 Spin. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on December 1, 2000 5:22 AM.

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