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U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Discussion in 'Article Discussion' started by Melody Bot, Oct 29, 2020.

  1. Melody Bot

    Your friendly little forum bot. Staff Member

    This article has been imported from for discussion. All of the forum rules still apply.

    All That You Can’t Leave Behind is not the best U2 album. The Joshua Tree is greater and grander. Achtung Baby is more innovative and more daring. War has more to say. I can see reasonable arguments for preferring most of the U2 catalog over this record—and frankly, many U2 fans do. Even the band’s non-Achtung ‘90s albums—the experimental, occasionally brilliant, occasionally baffling pair of Zooropa and Pop—tend to garner more praise from the average U2 fan than their 2000 comeback. And yet, despite all the criticisms thrown at All That You Can’t Leave Behind—that it’s too safe; that it effectively ends U2’s legacy as a chance-taking band; that it’s as top-heavy as any 2000s record give or take a Hot Fuss—it’s also, by far, the U2 album I reach for most. The Joshua Tree is my go-to favorite, and Achtung is the one I love thinking about most, but All That You Can’t Leave Behind has an advantage over both: something about it just feels like home.

    When I hear All That You Can’t Leave Behind, I think of eighth grade. For most people, eighth grade is synonymous with peak adolescent awkwardness. But I have a lot of nostalgia for my eighth-grade year—not because I wasn’t an awkward pre-pubescent mess (I was), but because it was the year I really fell in love with music. U2 weren’t the headlining act in that awakening. Jimmy Eat World lit the match, Green Day stoked the flames, and Butch Walker doused the fire in gasoline. But U2 definitely played a role. That Christmas, when I unwrapped my first iPod under the tree, the then-brand-new How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (another Christmas morning treat) was the first album I ever loaded onto it. And when I had $100 in Amazon cash to burn through post-holidays, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was one of the dozen or so CDs I added to my collection.

    I may not have heard All That You Can’t Leave Behind until January 2005, but I knew enough about it to know that it had a legacy tied deeply to the early 2000s. This record came out in October 2000, but I don’t think it truly struck the zeitgeist until almost a year later. The propulsive “Beautiful Day” was a ginormous hit during the summer of 2001—a true, well-deserved “re-coronation” for a band that touted All That You Can’t Leave Behind as its way of “re-applying” for the job of being the biggest band in the world. But when the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001, All That You Can’t Leave Behind took on a new character. People were yearning for songs that felt hopeful, for songs that seemed to speak to hard times and to overcoming those hard times. The 11 songs U2 had stacked onto their comeback record a year earlier absolutely fit the bill.

    Listening to All That You Can’t Leave Behind all these years later, it’s eerie how closely the lyrics seem to reflect what happened on that fateful September Tuesday in 2001. “See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colors came out,” Bono sings on “Beautiful Day,” a reminder that sunshine comes after the storm. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was written as an imagined argument between two friends, one of whom is thinking about committing suicide. (It’s Bono’s tribute to INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who took his own life in 1997.) But the lyrics—particularly the closing refrain of “And if your way should falter/Along this stony pass/It’s just a moment/This time will pass” resonated in a distinctly different way after 9/11. The same is true of “Peace on Earth,” which functions as an impassioned prayer to end war and violence—something that felt incredibly wrenching and prescient in the aftermath of that deadly day. There’s even a song called “New York,” which is a tribute to all the noise and chaos of the Big Apple. And when Bono sings the third verse of “When I Look at the World” (“I’m in the waiting room/I can’t see for the smoke/I think of you and your holy book/While the rest of us choke”) it’s difficult not to envision the song and its narrator, in the midst of a crushing crisis of faith, reckoning with God in a tower about to collapse into rubble.

    Were it not for the internet and the way it has changed how we remember things, All That You Can’t Leave Behind would probably be recalled today as a post-9/11 album—a record that, like Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, was about taking stock of America and the world at large after a history-altering tragedy. That this record felt so relevant in the days after 9/11, though—and that it still does, almost 20 years later—ultimately speaks more to the universality that U2 have always been so good at channeling through their music. Even when Bono is singing something that is so clearly personal—“Kite,” for instance, is a magnificent reflection about parents and children, written as Bono’s father was dying and his daughters were growing up—you could swear he’s singing about you.

    That’s how I always felt about “Walk On,” the song on All That You Can’t Leave Behind that means the most to me. If you asked Bono, he’d tell you that “Walk On” was written for Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese activist. But I’ve always clung to the song as an ode to big changes, and to facing down the things in life that scare you most. “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been,” Bono sings at the start of the second verse. It’s a line I’ve fixated on over and over again throughout my life, at every graduation, before every move, during every moment where I found myself trying to muster the courage to take a leap of faith into the great unknown.

    That’s why this album makes me think, first and foremost, of eighth grade. Not only was that the year when I first found this record, and the year when I fell in love with music for real, but it also marked my life’s first true, earthshaking coming-of-age moment. I’d spent eight years at the same school, from first grade to eighth, growing up alongside the same group of friends and under the guidance of the same group of teachers. Eighth grade meant the end of that journey: my first graduation, my first leap into the unknown, and then, high school. It sounds almost silly and trivial to talk about those things now, looking back as an adult. Grade school or middle school graduations only really seem important when you’re living them. But I certainly remember sitting in my old school’s makeshift auditorium during my eighth-grade graduation, watching photos of me and my classmates flicker past as part of a video slideshow. And, of course, part of that slideshow was soundtracked by Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” the song that has probably soundtracked every grade school or middle school graduation since 1998. But as the only person in my eighth-grade class who really gave a damn about music, I’d also campaigned to make sure our big eighth grade video ended with a different song.

    “And love is not the easy thing/The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can’t leave behind.” Those are the first words that crackle through the speakers at the start of “Walk On,” and hearing them ring through my old school as I literally watched the previous eight years flash before my eyes was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. The years after that, between then and now, largely flew by. I grew up, and I had lots more endings and graduations and moments where I had to close chapters to begin new ones. For every one of those, every big “time to move on” moment in my life, I returned to “Walk On.” There are a lot of songs out there that make me feel happy, sad, nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet, regretful, and a million other emotions. “Walk On” is unique: it’s one of the only songs I can think of that makes me feel brave.

    This past spring, just shy of 15 years since my eighth-grade graduation, I went back to my old school. I’d been invited back as a guest author, to read to the students a few books that I’d written and tell them about my journey from where I was then to where I am now. It had been a literal lifetime since I’d attended that school as a student. More years had passed since than I’d had to my name when I “graduated” in 2005. But so much still felt the same: my teachers were still there, to welcome me with open arms and reminisce about the old days; and the school—while it looked different, the product of numerous renovations and improvements since I’d left—still felt distinctly like home. It felt appropriate that day to go back to “Walk On,” to let the song that had encapsulated my departure from the school play a role in my homecoming. And listening to it, as all these memories and emotions swirled around me, reminded me of just how big a role music can play in your life when it hits at the right time.

    Over the past 20 years, All That You Can’t Leave Behind has become one of the rare albums that always seems to be there at the right time. It was there after 9/11, when its hymns of resilience and spiritual strength resonated with a nation and a world that was reeling. It was there at a crucial coming-of-age moment for me, when I don’t think a single song on the planet could have meant more than “Walk On.” It’s been there for cross-country plane rides and long road trips, for massive stadium concerts and for intimate Christmases when songs like “Peace on Earth” and “Grace” always seemed to convey the message of the holidays better than any Christmas carol could. And it’s been there for me this year, when, just a week after my triumphant return to my old school, the world descended into a period of darkness, uncertainty, and fear unlike anything I’ve ever known. Some songs transcend time and intent to become something more than they were built to be—to become the things we reach for when everything gets knocked off its axis. In 2002, when U2 performed the then-15-year-old “Where the Streets Have No Name” at the Superbowl Halftime Show, in a goosebumps-inducing tribute to the victims of 9/11, it was clear that “Streets” was one of those songs. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is now five years older than The Joshua Tree was at the time, and it’s just as clear to me what it is: a classic that will live forever, if only because of how comforting it sounds when everything else is falling apart.


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  2. ZooZooChaCha

    Trusted Supporter

    Funny story - so when this came out I was in 7th grade, I asked my aunt to get me Blink 182 Enema of the State for Xmas. However, when she went to the cd store, she remembered it as me asking for the new U2 album - which is how I came into possession of this album. I was one of those people who was horrified by the idea of being disappointed by a gift, so I of course gave it a listen, and surprise, actually got into U2.
    Brent, RoKKeR, Orla and 4 others like this.
  3. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    I guess both band names end in the number 2?
    ZooZooChaCha and Brent like this.
  4. jpmalone4

    Stay Lucky Supporter

    First CD I ever bought with my own pocket money, must have been 11 or so
    palebluedot and Craig Manning like this.
  5. RoKKeR

    The Fly

    Fantastic write up as always Craig! There is something about this album that puts it in an entirely unique position in it being intrinsically connected to the early 2000s and of course, 9/11. The right album, the right band for the time.

    Wasn’t old enough to go to shows at the time, but my dad always tells me they were one of the first bands to get back on the road after 9/11 and he was able to go to a show. Said it was one of the most cathartic and healing things he’s ever experienced... truly special stuff that of course culminated in the 2002 super bowl performance.

    Anyways, rambling here, but great piece on a great and unique album. Sleeper hit is When I Look At the World and live versions of New York. (seriously, a song called New York on the album that would become linked to the tragedy in New York... it’s crazy to think about)
    Craig Manning likes this.
  6. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    The timing on it really is kind of fascinating to think about. There's a fair argument to be made that they would not have had as big a run in the 2000s as they did if this album had come out like a year earlier.

    I've heard incredible things about those shows, the Super Bowl Half Time show (my favorite ever, apologies to Prince and his remarkable show) being the capper. I'm a little confused as to why they didn't bring one of the post 9/11 New York shows out of the vault for the reissue. Excited to listen to the show they did include regardless, though.

    The second half is underrated. "When I Look at the World" is gorgeous, and "New York" has some really interesting musical stuff going on. I'm not sure I've ever heard a live version.
  7. Kevstev


    What a lovely, reflective review, Craig. Great work.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  8. DooDooBird


    This brings back teenage memories for sure. My sister and I used to watch MTV every morning and “Stuck In a Moment” was a song we bonded on for some reason. Love that tune and video.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  9. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Thank you!
  10. Thomas Baker

    Newbie Supporter

    @Craig Manning,

    You hit the nail on the head with this review.

    While it’s impossible to choose All That You Can’t Leave Behind as U2’s best —it encapsulates an era which makes me return to it on the regular. There was something intangible about this album —the timing, the return to form —that is hard to put into words.

    (Although, you did so beautifully.)

    During this time, I scrounged up as much money as I could —and was also blessed to attend 9 shows during the Elevation tour.

    And the string of post 9/11 shows are still the best live music, no, actually, spiritual awakening I’ve ever been to.

    You had to be there watching Bono from mere feet away inside the heart-shaped pit as he welcomed first responder’s, EMT’s, NYPD and firefighters during Walk On.

    Goddamn, those memories are seared into my soul.

    While I’ve attended 47 U2 shows —and they’re as consistent of a live act as it gets —the Elevation era had an intimacy, a rawness, a collective energy unlike any other.

    Which is precisely why I ordered the box set.
    RoKKeR and Craig Manning like this.
  11. Thomas Baker

    Newbie Supporter

    P.S. In A Little While is a gem.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  12. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Ugh, you're making me jealous! I would have loved to see those shows. Only seem them twice at this point: once on the 360 tour and once for the Joshua Tree anniversary tour. Both were remarkable, but I can only imagine how emotional the post-9/11 shows were.
    RoKKeR likes this.
  13. DaydreamNation Nov 15, 2020
    (Last edited: Nov 15, 2020)

    what's in here won't disappear Supporter

    Discovering the reissue just now and realizing that this record is 20 is probably the oldest an album anniversary has ever made me feel. Great write-up Craig and I'm enjoying the live set that's part of the reissue right now

    edit: The only thing I'll add about this record is that its singles were the only overlap in 2001-02 between my "cool" dad's record/cd collection and my friend next door's series of NOW That's What I Call Music compilations. And for some reason that had a profound effect on young me's pop music consciousness haha

    Might be sacrilege, but for my money this is the third-best U2 record at worst
    Craig Manning likes this.
  14. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Yeah, this album being 20 (and being considerably older than The Joshua Tree was when I first heard that) definitely made me feel old.

    Ah, the NOW collections. I wonder if anyone still buys those? I’m surprised they are still going in the era of streaming. They used to be casual music listener 101. I remember tons of kids having CD collections made up of little more than NOW albums.

    It’s definitely a top 3 U2 album for me, after Joshua and Achtung. I know that’s not a popular opinion in the fanbase, but I play it so much more than, like, War or The Unforgettable Fire.
    DaydreamNation likes this.
  15. DaydreamNation

    what's in here won't disappear Supporter

    Yeah I think we have the same top 3, although there are days when War could challenge for the #3 spot for me. Unforgettable Fire has really never clicked with me very much for whatever reason which is weird
  16. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    War has never quite hit the "love" tier for me. It's a very good album that doesn't draw me in quite as much as their post-Joshua Tree stuff does. Fire is interesting in that I absolutely adore about half of it and don't care for the other half much at all. Some all-time great songs on there, though.
    DaydreamNation likes this.