When we last left U2, at the climax of 1997's polarizing "Pop" album, Bono was busy needling a Certain Someone. The titular command of the final song, "Wake Up Dead Man," was rather impudently directed at Christ, as if the singer were literally and figuratively trying to get a rise out of Him. "Jesus, I'm waiting here, boss/I know you're looking out for us/But maybe your hands aren't free," he taunted, lamenting some unexplained tragedy. Was he mocking the supposed omnipotence of the Almighty? Or just trying out some tough love on Him?

If you listened closely at that moment, you could hear the band's last few remaining unalienated evangelical Christian fans quietly slipping out the door.

U2's new album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," finds Bono beseeching Jesus again, and "not unbitterly," as England's Q magazine put it. But this time, it's with considerably less sarcasm, befitting the considerably more earnest tone of the whole record. "Jesus could you take the time/To throw a drowning man a line?" he asks in the song "Peace on Earth." "Tell the ones who hear no sound/Whose sons are living in the ground/'Bout peace on earth..."

This is Bono as the Irish Job, speaking on behalf of the survivors of a deadly 1998 bombing in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, where a car bomb set by an IRA splinter group killed 29. The song won't resonate much with American audiences, though many of Bono's countrymen will shed tears as he name-checks five victims. But when Bono says Jesus' promise of peace is "sticking in my throat," spiritually attuned listeners may think back to the U2 oldie "Bullet the Blue Sky," with its line about "Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome." That biblical image set the tone for the singer's feisty relationship with God, with whom he seems to have a friendly, slightly adversarial, on-again/off-again relationship.

After "Peace on Earth," there's not much in the way of wrasslin' with God on the remainder of "...Leave Behind." This is the most buoyant and upbeat album U2 has made since 1989's roots-based potpourri "Rattle & Hum," if not since

1982's fervently religious "October," if not ever. "Peace on Earth" comes, not incidentally, almost as a token heavy moment amid the album's good spirits. After the mediocre sales of the dark, God-haunted "Pop," the new album has several potential singles that bear the old U2 sound.

The scattered spiritual references that do pop up on the current disc are almost uniformly positive, not doubtful. And while U2 remains determinedly post-evangelical in outlook, the return to old-school form is refreshing. Those early Christian fans that gave 'em up for dead may even feel the band has been born again.

From the opening track, "Beautiful Day," in which the Edge dismisses a few introductory bars of ambient/electronica keyboard gurgles with some roaring power chords, it's evident we're entering into the giddiest territory U2 has traversed since "Gloria." Basically an ode to manic depression, "Beautiful Day" takes the point of view of a guy who's just lost everything, apparently freeing him to find unexpected beauty and even euphoria in the world around him, natural or man-made: "See the Bedouin fires at night/See the oil fields at first light/See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out." It might not be hyperbole to suggest this as a Prozac substitute.
On the very next tune, we seem to hear from this ecstatic depressive's therapist, who warmly counsels someone who's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." Warm, climactic horns, the first on a U2 record since "Angel of Harlem," turn this into a potent, poppy gospel-soul ballad. The album's other R&B-leaning number, "In a Little While"--with a nimble guitar figure you'd swear was stolen from Steve Cropper--is a love song bearing the promise of homecoming from a possibly prodigal husband. If you're enough of a Beatles fan to know how Paul McCartney spent days purposely ruining his voice to get a special kind of cracked quality for "Oh Darling," you may suspect that Bono did the same thing in order to sound so beautifully ravaged here.The uplifting "Elevation," the obvious choice for a second single, has the sexiness of "Mysterious Ways," while "Walk On" represents the more grand and ethereal U2, with the Edge's guitars harking back to the ringing tones on "Joshua Tree." Bono--again in counseling mode--tries to ease the troubles of someone "packing a suitcase for a place none of us has seen/A place that has to be believed to be seen," although, unlike, "Where the Streets Have No Name," his emphasis is more on earthly perseverance than great reward.

The album takes its second dip into "Pop"-era darkness with "New York," a brooding, dynamic rocker that autobiographically alludes to a "midlife crisis" and possible marital strife in Bono's transatlantic life. But the song also perfectly captures the bittersweet tension and elation of life in the big city. But the mood doesn't stay dark for long; the moral ambiguity of "New York" is followed by the unambiguously sweet capper "Grace," which, in the tradition of "Gloria," Bono describes as "the name for a girl [and] also the thought that changed the world."

There's a danger of overpraising "All That You Can't Leave Behind." In returning to all the classic elements of U2's success, the album feels like a step back from their more challenging '90s work, especially the undeservedly drubbed "Pop." The group might have spent more time resolving the doubts raised in that work, which more than anything I've ever heard sums up a worldview the singer Sam Phillips once described as "Christian agnosticism."The place to look for that resolution (or the lack of it) here is the album's best track, "When I Look at the World." Bono expresses his honest envy for someone else who's able to see things through glasses of a rosier hue, quite probably a friend whose faith is less conflicted than his own. "I'm in the waiting room/Can't see for the smoke/I think of you and your holy book/While the rest of us choke," he sings. "Tell me, tell me, what do you see?/Tell me, tell me, what's wrong with me." There's certainly no taunting tone here, just pure spiritual lust of the sort last heard circa "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." And so it shouldn't be surprising if a lot of reassured fans say: There's nothing wrong, Bono, nothing wrong at all.

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