A long time ago (about a decade and a half, actually), in a land far, far away (Los Angeles), I was watching U2 play "One" on the video monitors at the Tower Records branch where I worked. In the middle of the song, which the band performed as part of the gargantuan Live Aid charity extravaganza for famine relief, the store's assistant manager joined me, and after soaking in Bono's routine for a moment, he said, "You know why that guy's a Christian? Because he thinks he's Jesus Christ."
That phrase neatly sums up U2's persona. Even though Bono famously crooned "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," his tone and mannerisms have long argued just the opposite. In the beginning -- say, on the group's first three albums -- he displayed so much youthful, storm-the-barricades enthusiasm that his messianic streak seemed charmingly naive, not noxiously egotistical. But with The Unforgettable Fire and, especially, Joshua Tree, the singer eagerly took on the mantle of a musical Moses ready, willing and able to lead his flock from the wilderness to the promised land. In the '90s, he finally realized how restrictive this role had grown, and albums such as Zooropa and Pop, as well as Original Soundtrack 1, a U2/Brian Eno collaboration credited to Passengers, can be read as attempts on his part to create some elbow room for himself. But he'd grown too fond of having his ring kissed and his feet washed to fully divorce himself from his earlier guise. During the 1997 Pop Mart concerts, Bono and his fellows (the Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton) juxtaposed songs in which they celebrated their own superficiality with numbers that vibrated with the usual self-importance, leaving fans to wonder whether U2 had been sneering at them all along.
From its poignantly explicit title to every note of music on the disc, All That You Can't Leave Behind is a negation of such thematic gamesmanship -- a declaration that the real U2 is sincere and good-hearted, not highfalutin and postmodern. The opening track, "Beautiful Day," willfully ignores all that is bad in the world in order to focus on the Hallmark-card loveliness of life, and that's followed directly by "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," in which Bono blatantly forsakes the show-biz trappings he previously embraced ("The nights you filled with fireworks/They left you with nothing") even as he shares his newfound wisdom like an Irish Oprah ("You've got to get yourself together"). The rest of the material is dominated by too-weighty love songs such as "In a Little While" and "Wild Honey," and musical prayers that mistake mock humility for profundity. "Peace on Earth" ("Jesus, could you take the time/To throw a drowning man a line?") and "When I Look at the World" ("I try to be like you") are both addressed directly to the Son seated at the right hand of the Father, as if Bono's got the Big Guy on speed dial. Betcha God is sometimes tempted to let the call go to voice mail.
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Musically, the compositions are mighty conservative, consciously evoking the sound of the combo's biggest hits on all but a couple of ditties; the boys even trot out producer Steve Lillywhite, who helmed Boy, their 1980 debut, and last worked with them on 1991's Achtung Baby. (Eno and U2 vet Daniel Lanois get the main production credit.) Moreover, the tracks that go in slightly different directions are filled with repudiations of the approach U2 has now abandoned. The too Lou Reed-like "New York" portrays the city as an obstacle Bono must overcome on his path to righteousness, while the mildly electro "Kite" attempts to appear above Total Request Live-type pimping with the lines "The last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars/In the time when new media/Was the big idea."
In truth, Behind's big idea is to reconnect U2 with loyalists who had all but given up on the band, and it seems to be working: The album was released just in time for Christmas giving, and thanks to its reassuring nature and overt familiarity, it remains near the top of the sales charts. But despite its abundance of maxims to live by, the disc is every bit as much about marketing as Pop was. This time, though, no one's admitting it.