Is There Nothing Left?

Walk On

When U2 take the stage for their Elevation tour you are immediately struck by what you don’t see. Gone are the stacks of television screens, the Eastern European cars-as-spotlights, and the outlandish costumes. What you do see, curiously, are the arena house lights. They stay on for the duration of the band’s opening number, which is, as one might suspect from the tour’s title, the rock song “Elevation”.

All of this is, of course, purposeful. For, as is obvious from both the minimalist stage set and the title of their latest album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 intend to give their fans the long-awaited follow-up to 1987’s The Joshua Tree, an overdue homecoming from ten years spent on a detour of experimental excess that much of their ardent rock base found enormously disconcerting.

The fans, as you might expect, are ecstatic, especially if one judges ecstasy by the incessant shrieks and the seemingly choreographed hip-shaking from the crowd that even caught the eye of United States Senator and fellow-concert goer Jesse Helms. To these fans, the success of the stripped-down, fist-pumping arena rock of the Elevation tour proves what they claimed to have known all along — that U2 never should have strayed from America’s embrace of The Joshua Tree‘s rootsy, self-righteous political spiritualism. It is also, as these same fans would gleefully report, the death knell to a decade that U2 appeared to have spent submerged in a racy Euro discotheque, shrouded by sunglasses and bathing in distorted house music, emerging only to snake across stadium stages clad in black, mocking the rock stardom and post-industrial age that they used to deplore with such sound and fury.

For the duration of the concert this is how it appears. We hear only one song from the band’s two previous albums, Pop, and Zooropa. Instead, the quartet spends the bulk of the evening slugging out new hits like “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, juxtaposing them alongside the ’80s anthems they are meant to recall — rabble-rousers like “I Will Follow”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Pride”, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. It seems, more than anything, a celebration of U2 in all their former glory.

But was it really all that glorious?

Into, and out of, the arms of America

The music U2 made in the 1980s simply commanded your attention. Born from punk, but bred with a heavy conscience, U2’s early music just sounded serious through its web of gothic guitar shrills, a stern and insistent snare, and lyrics that, though never as intellectual as many imagined them to be, sought to save us from some universally shared evil — be it nuclear war (“Seconds”), addiction (“Bad”), or sin (“40”). And while a few anthems, such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Like a Song”, or “Two Hearts Beat as One”, achieved notoriety for their attention to “rebellion” or “revolution”, the band shared less of the punk impulse to destroy what exists and more of the righteous urge to heal or rebuild what was broken.

Not surprisingly, each of U2’s early albums left an indelible mark on rock’s history. The prickly politics of 1984’s War became a benchmark of Cold War adolescence, and the sonic mist that enveloped 1985’s The Unforgettable Fire hid a spiritual calm that earned the band a moral and musical depth far beyond what had been offered by their punk predecessors. The live albums from that period, Under a Blood Red Sky and Wide Awake in America, were arguably even better, for they breathed a charisma and a dramatic voice into epics like “Bad”, “A Sort of Homecoming”, and “Gloria” — songs that, over time, would suffer a bit from their dated studio recordings. It was on these albums, and on the accompanying videos, that U2 patented poses for a whole new generation of rock denizens to re-enact in bedrooms, locker rooms, and bars. Indeed, Bono’s flag-bearing march around Red Rocks Amphitheater in Boulder, Colorado, remains one of the most unshakable images of 1980s rock stardom.

All of that charge, however, fizzled with the release of The Joshua Tree in 1987. Ostensibly wanting to conquer commercial, as opposed to college, radio, U2 opened the album with four songs that were shallow approximations of the band’s previous work — a mindless anthem (“Where the Streets Have No Name”) an uninspiring faux-gospel number (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), a pouty ballad (“With or Without You”), and a political harangue that wore thin after a couple of listens (“Bullet the Blue Sky”). The rest of the album, interestingly, was near-perfect, and contains what are still some of the band’s best songs to date (“In God’s Country”, “One Tree Hill”). But the heavy-handedness of the first four tracks so dumbed down the record as to ruin it.

The tour was worse. The band rarely detoured from its pre-programmed set, and Bono’s preachy political diatribes, while well-intentioned in their promotion of global and spiritual awareness, grew more predictable and monotonous as the tour wore on, often overshadowing much of the music that, until then, had empowered audiences on its own. The error was multiplied when U2 included some of Bono’s live pontifications on 1989’s regrettable afterthought, Rattle and Hum. Americans everywhere heard incessantly about the how the God Bono believes in “isn’t short of cash, mister”, and were subjected to the painful (now comical) episode where Bono scolds an audience member for interrupting one of his speeches (the content of the speech, in pointed contrast, is never remembered). It was an agonizing descent into what appeared to be an overdose of narcissism, and, if we are truthful, fans of the 1980s will remember worrying that U2 were about to implode.

Ready to let go of the steering wheel

Two and a half years later, after a self-imposed exile and near dissolution, U2 returned to release Achtung Baby, by far their most daring and durable studio offering to date. Conceived during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the album exposes the hope and suspicions aroused by the sudden reunification of East and West. The first commercial album to reflect on a post-Cold War society, Achtung Baby does so from the parallel perspectives of a liberated political exile and a spurned lover. Bono created characters who greet the future with curious anticipation (“Zoo Station” chronicles the train ride into a new Berlin) but never quite shed the paranoia of what is left behind (“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” reveals the ramblings of a desperate former lover). For most of the album, Bono allows the tensions of a new political and romantic order to play themselves out. But by the 11th track, “Acrobat”, Bono finally empowers the characters to quit worrying and to embrace their fates: “And you can dream / so dream out loud / you know that your time is coming round / so don’t let the bastards grind you down”.

Best of all, however, Achtung Baby was the perfect antidote to the rank public pontifications that plagued The Joshua Tree era. For one thing, Bono was alarmingly introspective and reclusive — lyrically, he sang to the individual listener as opposed to a faceless audience; vocally, he washed himself in distortion; and theatrically he distanced himself in his now-trademark wrap-around shades. For much of the Zoo TV stadium tour, Bono paraded in character as a self-absorbed and clueless superstar called “the Fly”. The playful self-deprecation, intentional or not, was a welcome treat and the new electronically altered music was maddeningly effective — bloated bass beats, corroded guitars, and guttural vocals with which Bono unleashed a range he had only hinted at previously. True, U2 were hardly redefining rock music, but surely with their restless use of technotronics, they were roughing the edges of what was acceptable for the mainstream.

Two albums followed in the wake of Achtung Baby, though neither shone nearly as brightly. Zooropa, the carnivalesque after-party, explored techno gadgetry with the impatience and giddiness of late-night debauchery. The experiment hit both highs (“Lemon”, “Numb”) and lows (“Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”), but it was heartening to see U2 steer further off-course from the hastily contrived Nirvana clones that were subsidizing the growth of “new rock alternative” radio. Indeed, radio rarely embraced either Zooropa or even Pop, the full-length follow-up album that pressed U2’s affinity for backsplitting rhythm even further on dance-rock fusions like “Mofo” and “Discotheque”. And after the initial “Pop Mart” media blitz, both the album and the tour were lost in a wave of pop culture where everyone wanted to be Weezer. In marked contrast to the end of 1980s, where we U2 just would not leave us alone, we spent the end of the 1990s trying awfully hard to find them.

The regress from commercial radio was, in many respects, a backhanded compliment to U2’s musical progression and artistic stubbornness. Commercial radio had little interest in U2 fidgeting with new technology and fusing disco and distortion into the standard rock format. Radio wanted rock songs. And from U2, they wanted known quantities, particularly the pouty ballads and mindless anthems that they succumbed to at the end of the 1980s. But to U2’s credit, they didn’t blink. They gave radio “Discotheque” to digest as they wished. And as heartening as this was, the cool reception from mainstream rock made one wonder, at least from a pop culture perspective, whether U2 mattered anymore.

Is that all?

We all want to see star artists, like star athletes, retire at their peak. For U2, having shaped two decades of music from two different directions, it would be hard to watch them relegated to making albums that were no longer bellwethers of pop culture, wading out their career in clubs or on soundtracks for packaged teen movies — or worse, sharing the bill at a stadium amphitheater with aging and tired rock stars. But it was clear that by the end of the 1990s, the Zoo TV era had been exhausted in the same way The Joshua Tree era had been ten years before. The gnawing question became whether a band of 20 years was prepared to re-create something relevant and possibly fail.

Probably not. And that is why we have received perhaps U2’s most delicate and measured release to date. For All that You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 cut off the distortion, the heavy bass, and the devilish swagger. They let Edge’s guitar ring clean, let Bono wail openly about world peace, and had Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen dutifully resign themselves to a straight-laced rhythm section. This decidedly ’80s approach obviously led to decidedly ’80s sounds in certain places, particularly the glowing guitar riff on “Walk On”, and the toe-tapping shtick of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”.

But the album was not a “rebirth”, nor was it a “return” to The Joshua Tree. In truth, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was really nothing more than a carefully balanced retrospection — an antiseptic orchestration of U2’s most accessible musical ideas over the last 20 years. The rekindled sounds of the ’80s, bright and uncluttered, are performed with the causal, interpersonal tone that carried the band through the ’90s. (Even Bono’s political posture has shifted focus — he now lunches with the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee instead of crank calling former President Bush from the stage.)

Fans may point to literal, pedestrian anthems such as “Stuck in a Moment” or “Wild Honey” as evidence of a Joshua Tree revival, but the truth is that the carefree mood with which those songs are delivered could never have happened on The Joshua Tree, when even songs like “Red Hill Mining Town” sounded like the world was coming to an end (“I’m still waiting”). And it can hardly be said that the band has shunned its Zoo TV fetishes: “Elevation”, easily the best song on the album, and “In a Little While”, arguably the most memorable, are straight out of the Achtung playbook.

But the hard reality is that U2 is over. As good as All That You Can’t Leave Behind is at showcasing the best of the band’s traditions, there is no good place to go from here. They can’t recreate the magic of the 1980s as a full-time occupation — it’s good for a wave of nostalgia but has a life-expectancy that already has expired. They can’t continue the disco-rock grooves of the 1990s, for unfortunately they were exhausted with Pop. And as for the composite “best of” sketch that occurs on All that You Can’t Leave Behind, that is a bona fide one-trick show.

So as the band itself once asked rhetorically on War: “is there nothing left?” Probably not. It’s hard to innovate once, much less twice, over the course of a career. And as hard as it must be to exit on top — to recognize that the enormous goodwill generated from the Elevation tour is more likely a capstone to a career rather than a call for a new beginning — one has to hope that when the tour ends U2 will leave the house lights on forever.