By Mark Guarino
A rock band full of itself is as interesting as radiator hiss. U2, the band from Dublin starring such lavishly-named characters as Bono Vox (“Great Voice”) and The Edge, was cursed early with greatness. Combining punk rock urgency with a dramatic sense of social justice, all four bandmembers had yet to reach age 30 when they released back-to-back classics “War,” “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree.”
But when that last album ushered the band into stadiums, U2 lost its momentum and followed the same path most bands dwindle down once they reach the top with such force. They rewrote old songs (“Rattle and Hum”), re-engineered their sound to be a completely new band (“Achtung Baby”), quickly assembled a tour toss-off (“Zooropa”) and ended the ‘90s with the gimmicky “Pop,” a soiled attempt to satire consumerism but whose real joke was it offered no good songs for sale.
The real irony of that irony-pumped album was not they hauled around a giant-sized lemon on tour and played under foreboding McDonald’s arches. It was the reality that U2 had become cynics in the name of fashion and image. When they came together late into their teens, punk rock and New Wave were casting about angry and doom-filled forecasts for a society fallen under conservative social and political values, only ten years after the ‘60s. The edge U2 had was they funneled that energy into optimistic politico anthems that even borrowed heavily from Christian imagery.
That’s like the stone age compared to recent throwaway soundtrack fodder like “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” or the awful dance club experiment, “Discotheque.” We all like our rock stars as flashy, larger-than-life jerks, but when Bono cast himself as a character named The Fly and trod around in thick, wraparound sunglasses and shiny vinyl suits, it was evidence that maybe we don’t.
It could be said letting their Euro trash selves strut out of the closet had the potential to be interesting, but the lack of good songs was proof that wasn’t so. What U2 became was the equivalent of Alice Cooper here in the States: crusty cartoons lagging in shtick.
Which brings us to next Tuesday when U2 brushes off the glitter to debut its tenth album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (3.5 stars, Island/Def Jam). For a band whose mid-life crisis lasted ten years, the album is an expected crossroads.
There are not-so-subtle moves to push back the clock. On board are Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the producing team that shaped their signature sound. Both know the band’s strengths well. Doing away with the late career dreck of drum machines and full tilt synthesizers, both focus on rock band essentials. “Beautiful Day” is not so much a first single, but a bright flag waving to fans to come back. It’s a return to their strengths: bright, optimistic lyrics, a blasting chorus, shimmering guitar chords and the snaky rhythms of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen.
It’s also an album that finds Bono singing “I’m just trying to find a decent melody,” and he does well most of the time. Borrowing an obscure Van Morrison song title and its mystical wonder to boot, “Wild Honey” veers directly opposite to “Pop.” It’s an acoustic strum affair, with rootsy warmth. “Stuck in a Moment” has the feel of old-time gospel music, topped with horns. If this was the old U2, an 80-piece gospel choir would have been tapped for effect, but Bono’s voice is more than enough.
Which this album delivers tenfold. Bono has not sounded grander nor more relaxed, a difficult pairing to pull off at once. He fills the many soul ballads (“Kite,” “In a Little While”) with falsetto flourishes, but also a stinging rasp we have not heard since the anthem crusades off “War.”
Pomposity has been a frequent crutch for the band, from photo shoots to long-winded concert speeches. But that’s toned down to a point where it barely exists. Even a song suspiciously titled “Peace On Earth” takes a humbler approach, sticking it to Jesus for holding back good earthly vibrations. “Peace on earth/hear it every Christmas time/but hope and history won’t rhyme/so what’s it worth?,” Bono sings.
After that, the album breaks down to blandness, preventing greater possibilities. “When I Look at the World” and “Grace” are pure atmosphere while “New York” looks through the Old Blue Eyes standard with the naysaying eyes of Lou Reed.
U2 could have left those behind. But at least they’re packing with greater clarity.