15 Years Ago: U2 Remember Who They Are With ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’
U2 scheduled the PopMart tour to begin on April 25, 1997 in Whitney, Nev. That seems innocuous, but when the tour was booked, U2 were still in the studio working on their 1997 album Pop – a disappointment by U2 standards: Although it debuted at No. 1 in 27 countries, sales quickly plummeted and the album remains among the worst selling in the band’s catalog.
Rushing an album is almost always a mistake, but the stakes were even higher this time because the band were in unfamiliar territory, working on an album without longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for the first time since 1988’s Rattle and Hum—although Eno did play some keyboards on that record. They were in unfamiliar territory, experimenting with dance and electronic music with new producers Flood, Howie B and Steve Osborne, so it wasn't time for unnecessary pressure.
While the frantic finish of Pop didn’t have a significant impact on the tour for which it was compromised (PopMart was the second highest-grossing tour of 199) it brought about doubts regarding U2’s studio work. U2 were playing characters of over-indulgent rock stars who had totally sold out. But the wink-wink joke was lost on many, who thought that perhaps the stoic superstars let their fame get to them. U2 realized their reputation was in need of a boost, as Bono famously said that following Pop, his band had the task of “reapplying for the job... [of] the best band in the world.”
When U2 was most arguably the world’s most dominant musical force — between the release of The Joshua Tree in 1987 and Achtung Baby in 1991 — a few key factors were in play. The band had a stronger compromise between pushing boundaries and appealing to popular interests. Eno and Lanois were a big part of making sure U2 didn’t get lost in their own ambitions, so they brought the duo back on board and got to work.
The result was All That You Can’t Leave Behind – a strong application for the position of best band in the world. “New York” modernizes the dark, brooding rock energy U2 hadn’t really showcased since The Joshua Tree’s “Exit,” while “Wild Honey” is uncharacteristically lighthearted and carefree, like Jack Johnson minus the island vibes and plus a enchantingly gravelly vocal from Bono.
But All That You Can’t Leave Behind hasn’t moved over 12 million copies because of a few indulgences: the singles are absolute monsters and the world fell in love with them.
“Beautiful Day” was the soaring anthem that a band not entirely sure of themselves anymore needed, but it was different from their previous arena-filling epics. While many of U2’s songs are about the struggles of love or some sort of humanitarian crisis, “Beautiful Day” is a reminder that sometimes things are alright – a reminder that even if it’s not obvious, stepping back to “see the world in green and blue” can put it all in perspective.
The remaining singles — “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Elevation” and “Walk On” — were all similarly accessible and proved that the band was sure of themselves again, making huge-sounding music that had more to discover upon closer inspection.
But that doesn’t mean U2 left all the pain behind. While “Kite” was originally written with Bono’s daughters in mind, the song took on new meaning after his emotionally distant father passed away after a battle with cancer. The chorus: “Who's to say where the wind will take you / Who's to know what it is will break you / I don't know which way the wind will blow / Who's to know when the time has come around / Don't wanna see you cry / I know that this is not goodbye”— could easily be interpreted as being about the struggle of coping with his father’s demise, of not connecting with him in the way he wanted to while he was still alive. Guitarist the Edge realized this while the song was being written and later said, “[Bono] couldn't see it, but I could.”
On the same song, the band seems to realize and admit the shortcomings of Pop and its surrounding tour. The closing lyrics: “The last of the rock stars / When hip hop drove the big cars / In the time when new media / Was the big idea / That was the big idea.”
In hindsight, U2 realized they were trying to be the biggest rock band when rock bands as an institution were on their way out, when other genres were emerging as the new rebellion. While the sensory overload of PopMart was perhaps U2 not quite understanding how to cope with that realization — and in turn, fans not really understanding them anymore — All That You Can’t Leave Behind is them remembering that direct and honest songwriting is timeless. And U2 do that best when the only people they're trying to be is themselves, without an ounce of irony.