2020-10-01
Reprinted with permission from Relevant Books.

"Beautiful Day" is like an ecstatic proclamation that Peter and James might have sung just after Mary had come back to the disciples' hiding place with resurrection news. The biblical image used may be the dove going out from the ark to bring back the leaf that informed Noah that the old world had ended and a new one could begin. But even that depicts the whole celebratory mood of dead man waking up and a whole new Kingdom being birthed. The album and the Elevation tour would see a new resurrection shuffle of a mood in the U2 camp.

At the end of the song, Bono lists the things that can be left behind: "All that you fashion/ All that you make/ All that you build/ All that you break/ All that you measure/ All that you steal/ All this you can leave behind." They are man-made things, but he adds to the list all the wrong things or mistakes that the Gospel deals with. Jesus came and died and was raised to life to offer a new start, leaving the regretful things and guilt behind and heading on afresh.

The song and the Gospel have the same conclusions: "Love is not the easy thing/ The only baggage you can bring." Jesus, when asked what the most important commandment was, told the enquirer, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself." Whether you're heading for justice on earth or a fuller realization of the Kingdom of God in the next life, everything else can be left behind.

The soulful, Motown-sounding "Stuck in a Moment," which may become a U2 classic, was written about the suicide of Michael Hutchence, an event that hit Bono hard. He claims that the song is an angry conversation between him and his dead friend." Yet the title itself is another moment when the transcendent belief at the core of U2, and indeed this album, suggests that there is more to this whole charade than the material world or the clock that seems to hem us in like walls to our left and right. It is so easy to get stuck in the moment of our troubled and hassled and painful and angry lives.

But there is the hope of escape. If we could lift ourselves out of the moment and see all our moments from a panorama above us, then this moment in which we are trapped would hold new perspective. Ecclesiastes deals with this concept as well. There is nothing new under the sun, and if there is nothing above the sun, then this is all "meaningless, utterly meaningless" (Eccles. 1:2, 9). But if there is something above the sun, then a different perspective comes to bear. That faith perspective, a belief in an eternal God, gives hope and strength in the moment to keep on keeping on, and the conclusion of the song almost becomes a brother of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For": "And if the night runs over/ And if the day won't last/ And if your way should falter/ It's just a moment/ It will pass."

"Elevation," which follows "Stuck in a Moment," is the song that would have sat most comfortably alongside the Pop material. From being stuck in that moment, it prays for elevation that would give a higher perspective: "Love lift me out of these blues/ Won't you tell me something true/ I believe in you." Becoming the title of the tour to follow, "Elevation," like many songs on the tour, would take on a spiritual gospel feel. The "you" clearly becomes God. Elevation is about revelation and in the power of the live show touches close to transfiguration, a mystical experience that Jesus shared with a few of his disciples on a mountainside.

"Kite" seems to be Bono the magpie at work again, picking up scraps of thoughts and ideas and weaving them into another song of a hundred angles. From flying kites on Killiney Hill with his daughters, Eve and Jordan, to thinking about all that this world might throw at you like an unseen wind, this is a meditation on dying and pondering on whether we live life to its fullest. During a gig in Manchester, England, in August 2001, Bono dedicated the song to his father, who was dying of cancer and had just a few days to live. "I wrote this for my kids, but now I feel like he wrote it for me."

There is an overriding thought from John 3:8, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that the wind blows wherever it pleases; no one sees where it comes from or where it is going. Jesus was referring to the believer in that conversation, but that's the root of Bono's idea. Like a kite blowing about in the spirit unseen. This might be a moment when he is meditating on who his children will become in this unpredictable world and asking himself what they think of their father up until recently dressing up in make-up and horns in front of thousands of people every night.

"In a Little While" is about journeying home, and in this home, the singer will no longer be "blown by every breeze." There is autobiographical information in it. Bono seems to look back at his love with Ali and that line that harks back to the early days of U2 when it lived this tension between Lypton Village, the world of rock music and the Shalom fellowship: "Friday night running to Sunday on my knees." On the Elevation tour, after the death of punk rocker Joey Ramone, the song took a new turn. Apparently, Ramone was listening to this song at the end of his battle with cancer. Bono prefaced the song by telling the crowd: "He turned this song about a hangover into a gospel song. That's how cool Joey Ramone is."

"When I Look at the World" is one man's desire to have a mind like Jesus. It is full of U2 honesty in that it speaks with Jesus about the difficulties of acting like Jesus in every situation. The song starts out as an affirmation of how Jesus changes the singer's life, then it addresses the struggle: "So I try to be like you/ Try to feel it like you do/ But without you it's no use/ I can't see what you see/ When I look at the world." It is about trying-and struggling-to see the events of "Peace on Earth" from the other side of his dialogue with God.

"Grace" is an epic end to All That You Can't Leave Behind. It is an atmospheric ballad in the tradition of "One" or "With or Without You," but is more like "40" or "MLK." The ethereal mood is topped with the most beautiful poetry that evokes the grace of that word's other definition: "Grace/ She carries the world on her hips/ No champagne flute on her lips/ No twirls or skips between her fingertips/ She carries a world in perfect condition."

In a world where the eastern religions get a great deal more acceptance on the scale of cool than Christianity usually receives, Bono pulls a subtle little punch for the Christian belief in salvation by singing: "She travels outside of karma/ She travels outside of karma." There is something about grace that makes even those who believe in it find it hard to believe in. You can hear the words and take hold of the understanding that here is an upside down world order where the first are last and the last are first and where acceptance is unmerited. In a world where the first are first, and the only way to be affirmed is to be the most intelligent or best-looking or most successful, it is hard to get reconditioned to the conditioning of grace. A flower doesn't bloom in one hour of sunlight, and a believer's soul needs constant exposure to the rays of grace day after day, year after year, before it moves from an intellectual assent to a truth that our lives bask in and live by.

The fact that the members of U2 were all about to hit forty in the year of their ninth album's release must also have led to some soul-searching. You can drift through your thirties without noticing that middle age is a whole lot closer than youth. That you are being adored by fifty thousand young rock fans every night, dressed up in all the latest fashions, and rocking and rolling can hold back such an awareness. But the band members' seeing themselves twenty years older than those at the top of the charts must have had its impact on where they should go next. Could they compete? Grace may have become a friend worth getting to know at this stage.

As they took to the stages of the world on the Elevation tour to promote All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 was experiencing the unmerited favor of God. The band had not shown such a spiritual openness or intensity for many years. As it ended the show with "Walk On," Bono would shout, "Unto the Almighty, thank you! Unto the Almighty we thank you!" before leading the crowd in choruses of "Hallelujah!" When Rolling Stone caught up with Bono in Atlanta, he was open about what he thought was going on: "God is in the room, more than Elvis. It feels like there's a blessing on the band right now. People are saying they are feeling shivers-well, the band is as well. And I don't know what it is, but it feels like God walking through the room, and it feels like a blessing, and in the end, music is a kind of sacrament; it's not just about airplay or chart positions."

more from beliefnet and our partners