October 30 – U2 Left Behind ’90s Experimentalism

It was time to put the 20th Century to rest, the U.S. was seeing the Clinton presidency come to its end…and U2 decided to ditch the ’90s as well. Twenty years ago they put out their tenth studio album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, arriving this day in 2000. And while not exactly War redux, it was certainly a return to the basics that made them so popular in the ’80s as opposed to a continuation of the sometimes odd musical experimentation they’d had on the previous trio of albums, Achtung Baby (and mainly) Zooropa and Pop.

Pop took the deconstruction of the rock & roll band format to the nth degree,” guitarist The Edge says, adding they wanted a return to more basic guitar/bass/drums-oriented songs. As well, for the first time in nine years, they went back to the producers they knew well that had delivered the goods for them in the past, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. That pair had guided the band in the studio through their most successful period, from The Unforgettable Fire through Achtung Baby.

The result was an 11 song set that returned to more conventional territory…and to strong praise for the band. While The Edge’s edgy guitars weren’t as blazing as they had been two decades prior, there was no shortage of catchy rock songs exploring a vast array of feelings, from the bold, upbeat lead single, “Beautiful Day” through the frustration of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” to the gentler optimism of “Peace on Earth.” The latter, along with a song entitled “New York” and the cover, apparently showing the band in an airport later had some convinced it was written about the 9/11 attacks…but, seeing as how the record came out almost a year before that, well, that seems improbable!

Critics who’d not necessarily cared for the band’s electronica experiments of the second half of the ’90s generally were impressed. Entertainment Weekly graded it an “A” saying it was “startling” and a “welcome reversal of fortune” for the quartet. Rolling Stone graded it 4-stars and declared it the band’s “third masterpiece” after The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Three years on, they’d rank it among the 200 greatest records of all-time, suggesting it was “full of ecstacy, mourning and release”. Across the sea in the UK, the NME rated it 7 out of 10 and Q posted it as a 4-star release.

Fans agreed. It hit #1 in the UK, the band’s own Ireland, Australia and Canada, where it was their seventh. In the States, it stalled at #3, but still went 4X platinum, contributing to worldwide sales topping 12 million. Strangely, the album’s missing the top spot in the U.S. was probably based on lukewarm response to the singles. “Beautiful Day” only got to #21, and other released missed the top 40 altogether, whereas in Canada, four singles made it to #1: “Beautiful Day”, “Walk On”, “Elevation” (a #1 in Ireland too) and “Stuck in a Moment…” Two of those songs got U2 into the record books, and books about records. “Beautiful Day” won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 2001, and “Walk On” took the same award in ’02, making it the first album to ever launch two “records of the year”. Seems it was a good thing that conventional rock sound was one of the things U2 couldn’t leave behind!

In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the album, U2 are released several new editions of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2020, including heavy vinyl LP versions and CD box sets with photos from Anton Corbijn and a concert DVD from the subsequent tour.


25 thoughts on “October 30 – U2 Left Behind ’90s Experimentalism

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    I really liked Achtung Baby…it was the last album I liked until this one. I can’t blame them for trying to change but it was jarring… they didn’t do it gradually with those two albums. Beautiful Day is one of my favorites from them…obbverse is completely right.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. the album was a return to form, so to speak. It was I guess kind of another transition for them, away from the 90s electronica and back towards rock but a less edgy (no pun intended but…) than their 80s sounds.


  2. It’s one of my most listened-to U2 albums. It’s plainly, yet extraordinarily, beautiful. To me the whole album leads up to a song you didn’t mention, the final track, “Grace.” I agree that the production on it is exquisite. Would love to have it in vinyl but I don’t have a turntable and speaker system that would do it justice.

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    1. It is a good one, start to finish. I actually listened to it on Saturday for the first time in some time, but ironically ‘Grace’ was I guess the one song I didn’t hear because I had to do something in another room! But it’s a fine tune too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love getting all this information. After years as a fan, I never knew Brian Eno was involved in the production of any U2 song. That man is prolific. I love “A Beautiful Day” and think it should have gone #1 in my native US. The song is used to charming effect at the end in the family movie “Nim’s Island.”

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    1. thank you! Yes, Eno has done a whole lot, including the first two albums with Roxy Music (when he was a founding member), then a lot of solo work , some work with Talking Heads and all that production work, quite often with Lanois. ‘Nim’s Island’ doesn’t ring a bell but I’ll keep it in mind if I see it come up on a list on one of those TV services.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Roxy Music is among the best of the best. I’ve seen them live and they’re wonderful. I have only heard a little of Brian Eno’s solo work. I like and recall “Taking Tiger Mountain.” I always appreciate a music lesson!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. it’s nice to have these posts appreciated! Ironically, Roxy Music was the first ‘real’ concert of a name band I ever saw, back in ’83, which was at the time their farewell tour (of course they’ve gotten back together a few times since).


  4. I think this may be the last U2 I bought on CD. I did snag a copy of Achtung Baby on vinyl earlier this year which is my fav of there’s in the U2 catalog of Music.
    This one had some good stuff on it especially Elevation which is a very solid track.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. While I think I will always like the early U2 best, with “The Joshua Tree” being my favorite, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was way better than “Pop” and Zooropa”, based on what I’ve heard from the two latter albums. I will add I generally respect artists who are pushing themselves to explore new ground, even if that means the occasional stinker!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Joshua Tree is one of my favorites also. Strangely I haven’t listened to their first 4 that much but have listened the grooves off of the next 4, skipped Pop, and then back to groove-off for this one. I need to listen to Pop again to see what I’m not listening to 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think all of them, even ‘Pop’ had some really good tracks, but the percentage of ‘hits’ compared to ‘misses’ wasn’t good on that one. I’ve not listened to it for some time mind you. Funny thing is I’m sort of self-disciplined (?) in not listening to old favorite albums TOO often because I don’t want to do the ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ thing to my beloved music (which is to say not play it so damn often I get sick of it.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Side 1 of ‘Unforgettable Fire’ is my favorite U2, bar none. Side 2 was ok but, yep, a little ‘forgettable’. ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’ probably in my top 3 live albums…ever


    2. I agree on that – as good as say, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ were, I think people would long ago have gotten tired of Neil Young if he kept putting out recycled versions of them for 50 years and as much as I like , say ‘So. Central Rain’ by REM, I think three or four albums of that jangle rock was ample and was glad to see them go in different directions by 1990. I can’t quite understand AC-DC’s ongoing popularity given that they buck that system and never seem to change it up much.

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