When U2 released its first album of the new millennium, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," it was almost as big a culture shock for the U2 traveler as "Achtung Baby" had been a decade earlier. Somewhere between the last concert of the Popmart tour in March 1998 in Johannesburg and the middle of 2000, the technology took leave and U2 stood, once more, as naked as the proverbial jaybird-bass, drums, three chords and the truth. In the "Achtung Baby" video, Bono mischievously looked at the camera and said, "I learned how to lie." Here the members of U2 were learning how to tell the truth again, revealing themselves again, dreaming it up all over again-again! They were going back to find the future. "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was no repeat of past glories; it was a rediscovery of U2 in the primary colors of their sound and their spirit of honesty and vulnerability.
After an album called "Pop", they finally had found pop. Now all the harshness of the preceding trilogy was gone, and what remained was the purity of the song without clutter--just the most gorgeous melodies, dashes of great playing and Bono's voice giving its best performance ever. Every track was a potential hit single, fully exposed in all its beauty. Beauty was one adjective rarely used in a U2 review in the nineties. But beautiful this was. One review even described Larry's drumming as "gorgeous." Along with the technology, the shades and horns had also been thrown out with the trash.
Writer David Dark has said that on the first listen to U2 albums, people are always concerned that they have lost their faith, and then as they listen and allow the songs to play around in their minds and heart and soul, they wish they were as Christian as U2. "All That You Can't Leave Behind" did not need any time to resonate with the soul. This was as upfront about faith as the band had been in 20 years.
It was quite a reinvention. What were the reasons? There may have been many. The cynic may have touched on something if he said one of them was commercial. Though "Pop" and Popmart probably would have been hailed as a success had they happened to any other band, U2 experienced a disappointment commercially at the end of the nineties. The band may have had a need to regain the bigger audience. The guys of U2 would never settle for being The Rolling Stones, touring greatest hits packages long after their artistic zenith. It was important that they remained relevant, accepted for their new work as much as their past. A more immediate sound may have been an important consideration as a new album project got under way.
There is a story, truth or myth, that during the Popmart tour, U2 found a dingy little room in which to rehearse, and without much gear available, the band members made do with what amps they had and practiced the best they could. In the middle of this makeshift rehearsal, their cool, cutting-edge, dance groove sampler Howie B happened in upon them. After listening for a few moments, he asked them, in not too Presbyterian language, what on earth was that amazing noise they were creating.
The techno boy had been blown away by the stark naked drums, bass and guitar of a rock `n' roll band. Apparently, from that gig on, during the tour Howie B drew back the number of technological loops and sounds he was adding to the brew. Perhaps this was a turning point.
Author Salman Rushdie recalls a lunch at Bono's home in Killiney, south Dublin, when Wim Wenders "announced that artists must no longer use irony. Plain speaking, he argued, was necessary now. Communication should be direct, and anything that might create confusion should be eschewed." U2 responded by taking the irony even further on "Pop", but then they realized Wenders had a point and they should follow their cinematic friend's advice into the next phase.
Though not recording, this was a seriously busy "down time" for U2. As well as the soundtrack and movie "Million Dollar Hotel," they took part in The Belfast Agreement Campaign, helped launch an Amnesty International petition in support of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, inducted Bruce Springsteen into the Rock `n' Roll Hall of Fame, had three babies and released The Best of 1980-1990 compilation, whose "Sweetest Thing" single was a huge hit. Bono sang on Kirk Franklin's "Lean on Me" and Wyclef Jean's "New Day," which benefited NetAid charity.
The meeting with the pope was part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign that delayed U2's next album. The spirit of Jubilee 2000 could have contributed to the depth and openness of the soul in the band's next recordings and performances. Even as the members masqueraded in their hedonistic persona of the nineties, they continued to publicize Amnesty and support many other causes such as War Child, which had the focus of its attention on Sarajevo. That war-torn city's name was the title of arguably the best song on the "Passengers" album, in which all four band members were involved, along with their producer, Brian Eno, as a more involved collaborator. They even played a gig there in 1997. Even though Bono's voice was in tatters, the gig was broadcast on BBC Radio One.
As the end of the millennium neared, many organizations were exploiting the landmark event and possibility of the biggest party in history. From champagne companies to local government, money was being spent or earned in all kinds of reckless ways. That justice organizations would attempt to use the date to achieve worthwhile results would help redeem a New Year's Eve that would end up as singer/songwriter Aimee Mann once described the Fourth of July: "a waste of gunpowder and sky." Bono wanted to exploit the calendar for the good of humanity, not just the pleasure drives of a hedonistic west.
The guys of U2 are rock stars and live in a rock star stratosphere. They enjoy that world. Perhaps they even indulge in that world in a way that might be judged as a little excessive. Yet they never lose sight of what's important. They never strive for it or put it in the wrong end of the ladder of their priorities. Sure, on millennium night, these four Dublin guys partied with the best of them, but their individual enjoyment was never more important than the world issues that have been so much a part of their legend.
Jubilee 2000 was an interfaith effort that began in the offices of Christian Aid and soon became an all-encompassing campaign. At last, a Christian organization pioneered the cause and, as happens too rarely, showed that if something is essentially Christian, even those who might not hold to a Christian worldview or belief can benefit from the teachings of Jesus, which should be for the betterment of everyone. The idea of Jubilee is found in Leviticus 25, in the Old Testament, where God commands that every fifty years there should be a special year for liberty and restoration. People who had slid down the economic scales for whatever reason got a fresh start, a theme that is central to the whole message of the Bible--grace.
Bono would later say that you can't write lyrics about debt relief, but then point to the song "Grace," which closes "All That You Can't Leave Behind:" "It's about the right to begin again, the right to be free of your past. That's grace. So, yes, you can write lyrics about debt relief." In this phrase, Bono overlays the crux of Christ's Gospel to the soul, which is souls being saved by the grace of God alone and having an opportunity for a new birth, with the crux of Christ's Gospel to the body and justice in the bringing about of a heaven on earth.