Many great artists reach this point. It arrives a decade or two or three into their career. They’ve made their classic albums. They’ve risen from scrappy origins to become world-conquering icons. They’ve challenged their fanbase, bobbed and weaved and ventured out to sea. And eventually things start to fold back around. It’s the end of youth, the end of hunger; an artist might still be searching for something, but they’re less desperate about it. There comes a time when an artist is too big to fail, but also too big to grow. Stick around long enough, and you stop transforming. You become an idea of yourself.
The Rolling Stones did it with Tattoo You. Jay-Z did it with The Black Album. Even artists who have had comparatively strong latter-day output arrive here, like Bruce Springsteen with The Rising. If you look upon these albums in a more positive light, they are homecomings, as if an artist has gone there and back again and settled into some core aspect of themselves. Or, more negatively, they mark the onset of late-era coasting, when an artist still puts out albums but has drifted too far from their initial spark. Maybe they’re busy with their other businesses or diplomacy or moonlighting in Hollywood or simply just living the lives the world’s richest people live off somewhere else, not entirely aware of the rest of society.
No matter how you look at it, that’s the point U2 reached when they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 20 years ago tomorrow. It’s the demarcation. Literally: Boy, U2’s debut, turned 40 just a couple weeks ago, which makes All That You Can’t Leave Behind the beginning of an epilogue that now defines half of U2’s existence. (This also marks another strange overlap of U2 anniversaries akin to The Joshua Tree and Pop coming out almost exactly 10 years apart.) Everything before leads to the end destination in the year 2000, and everything after is somehow an extension of or response to the past.
The quote that defines All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and the version of U2 it begat, has often been repeated: They were “reapplying for the job … of the best band in the world.” Just before this album, U2 had suffered the most significant disappointment of their career, when the complicated, underrated, and misunderstood Pop and its accompanying PopMart Tour didn’t reach the critical and commercial peaks of their past. The band internalized this response, feeling as if they had taken both the stylistic and thematic experiments of their ’90s too far, not just to the extreme but to a point of collapse, a point from which they had no choice but to rediscover themselves once more.
The narrative the band has settled on since suggests a decade spent in the wilderness, not evolving but losing touch with what it was that made U2 tick. The validity of that take has weakened in the last 20 years, as U2 have floundered trying to remain everything to everybody at the same time as they crept into their fifth decade as a band. But it’s still everything about how All That You Can’t Leave Behind came to be. Whether you regard it cynically — U2 wanting their pop hits back after Pop failed to hit — or more warmly, as if U2 were done with sarcasm and wanted to give people hope as they’d proven they could before, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was designed for dominance, an album trying to throw its arms around the world all over again.
To that end, U2 reconvened with the producer team behind their past highs of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and set forth trying to play as a band in the room, writing songs built up from the foundational elements of guitar, bass, and drums. The six men labored over All That You Can’t Leave Behind through the waning days of the ’90s, and when it arrived it was hailed as the course correction U2 were so intent on achieving.
But at the same time, All That You Can’t Leave Behind did not sound quite like anything U2 had done before. It was a return to form spiritually, not exactly aesthetically. It still presented a U2 savvy enough about what was new, crafting a modern 21st century rock iteration of what this band could be; synths and contemporary production tricks remained, but sat tastefully in the backdrop rather than driving the songs off into more adventurous territory.
Throughout, there is some endemic U2-ness to the whole affair. It has the soaring, transporting melodies of The Joshua Tree without retreading the dusty ground of that album’s celestial American sprawl. It has of-the-moment sonic flourishes akin to Acthung Baby in its day, but none of that previous reinvention’s darkness and little of its complexity. This is how a band becomes an idea of themselves even as they are, in theory, breaking new ground. All That You Can’t Leave Behind could not have existed earlier in U2’s career, and yet it seemed somehow an archetype of U2 we had always known but never heard. Everything about it was bright, bold, state-of-the-art. And palatable enough to embrace crowds of thousands.
There was no better encapsulation of this than “Beautiful Day,” the album’s opener and lead single. Gone was the snarky U2 of “Discotheque,” the haunted digital haze of “Zooropa,” the shock of the Edge’s mechanistic “Zoo Station” riff chopping down The Joshua Tree. Instead, the song was a sunrise on a new era and new outlook, the sort of overwhelming swell that meant nothing and everything at once — it was “Where The Streets Have No Name,” bottled up with the slickness and sheen of the turn of the century. And of course there was Bono — who had spent the second half of the ’90s moodily crooning then ragged — roaring back to life, his voice in the chorus full of joy and streaking towards the sky. The band didn’t need the actual audio of the plane taking off above them in the song’s video. “Beautiful Day” was one huge whoosh all on its own.
From there, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was hook after hook after hook. The album was ridiculously front-loaded with singles. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was an empathetic tribute to Bono’s recently deceased friend, INXS’ Michael Hutchence, responding to a suicide with a phrase capacious enough that everyone could relate. “Elevation” was the surging, groovy electro-rocker built for tour openers and action movie tie-ins.
After that came the album’s final single, “Walk On,” which paired with “Kite” marked the epitome of what this new era of U2 could be. Both are the platonic ideal of U2 becoming U2 again. Bono offered broad platitudes that — even when specific, such as “Kite” mulling on fatherhood — could provide meaning to listeners wherever they needed it. Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton were back as the rhythmic anchor. Edge’s guitars chimed. These were immediately recognizable as U2 songs. They established a formula U2 would subsequently mine over and over over the next two decades, to diminishing returns. They’ve since rarely grazed up against the casual beauty of “Kite” or the simultaneous uplift of the chorus in “Walk On” followed by the wistful, oblique recap of its “All that you fashion…” refrain.
The first half of All That You Can’t Leave Behind is probably how most of us remember it in the context of U2’s career: bulletproof and gleaming pop songs for a new millennium. The soulful “In A Little While” marks the mid-album pivot; it later became a hymn, as Bono would like to say, when Joey Ramone listened to it on his deathbed. The second half then bounces around a bit — from the endearingly small-stakes summer breeze of “Wild Honey” to the shimmer of “When I Look At The World,” a less nocturnal descendent of Zooropa — and it has its imperfections.
“Grace” is a passable but less-than-striking closer in a catalog full of resounding conclusions; “Peace On Earth” introduced us to the latter-day U2 where broad began to equal vague, signaling substance but not quite saying anything. “New York” is one of the album’s could’ve-been singles, a rousing ode to another piece of iconic American imagery. But like many U2 songs on this album and beyond, it was hamstrung by Bono’s increasingly clumsy (if, in this instance, correct!) lyrics like, “In New York summers get hot … hot as a hairdryer in your face.” If you’re less amenable to U2 reclaiming their imperial pop stature, the stumbles and wide-eyed moments across All That You Can’t Leave Behind might register as jump-the-shark incidents in hindsight.
But here’s the thing about the album, and all of that “reapplying for the job” business: It worked. All That You Can’t Leave Behind and its attendant Elevation tour, which mirrored the album’s more stripped-back songwriting by returning U2 to “intimate” arena-sized venues after their high-concept lemon spaceship stadium shows, were critical and commercial successes. Zooropa and Pop represented conflict within the band and yielded befuddlement for some outside of it. In response, everything about this new era was clear and direct. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a reintroduction for fans aging alongside the band. It was also an entrypoint for a whole new generation, listeners who got to know U2 for the first time as they were becoming this echo of themselves.
I know I heard The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby hits a million times when I was a child; they were in the atmosphere, so much so that it was hard to hear those songs fresh in context when I eventually got into U2 and listened to those albums in full. But the first time I remember there being a new U2 album was All That You Can’t Leave Behind, when there was a whole new crop of ubiquitous U2 singles that also felt very much of our time. It was, after all, the first U2 album in almost a decade to have that kind of mainstream impact.
There are probably many ways in which All That You Can’t Leave Behind still stands tall above its successors, but one of them was that even as U2 moved towards hanging on to relevance, they were still somewhat in touch with their surroundings. Twenty years later, I think of All That You Can’t Leave Behind the same way I think of Ray Of Light or Play. I think of these inescapable songs that had this new technological radiance. At the same time that some artists were bugged out about what was around the corner, these albums now conjure a quickly extinguished sense of turn-of-the-millennium optimism following the halcyon days of the ’90s. I heard All That You Can’t Leave Behind in the backseat of a then-newly-popular vehicle called an SUV; I saw Matrix sunglasses and primitive CGI and middle-aged rockstars dressed in black in airport lobbies. The future was here.
This, of course, didn’t last long. The following September, terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, changing the course of this young century. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a relic from a world that would change drastically less than a year later; a lot of its central imagery even romanticized airports, somehow. But it also wound up — again, in a parallel to Springsteen’s The Rising, which arrived in 2002 — providing the soundtrack and balm for a wounded and confused country. “Beautiful Day” indeed provided the hope people had once gone to U2’s music for. “Peace On Earth” and “Walk On” took on new meanings.
In early 2002, U2 were selected to play the Super Bowl halftime show, where they performed “Beautiful Day” and then “MLK” and “Where The Streets Have No Name” with the names of those killed in 9/11 projected behind them. It’s the kind of big, universal moment you need an artist like U2 for, and the kind they’ve been well-suited for along the years. Even if your perception of those gestures can change depending where and when you’re standing, they — and All That You Can’t Leave Behind — were what we needed then. When you look back now, and know everything that came next — useless wars in the Middle East, a Great Recession, a Trump presidency, the erosion of fact, and the general sense of a generation getting knocked sideways — it’s easy to be wistful for that moment All That You Can’t Leave Behind once symbolized. When rejuvenation and positivity seemed to course, ever so briefly, through the radio.
As a U2 fan, it’s also easy to yearn for that moment in the band’s career. Once U2 re-secured their mantle as the biggest band in the world, everything became risk management. In 2004, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb gave the band their last big hit in the form of “Vertigo,” while the album mostly hewed close to a slightly more rock-oriented mutation of the All That You Can’t Leave Behind sound. In 2009, No Line On The Horizon promised Acthung Baby-level left turns, but only half-committed; its subsequent failure to produce another “Beautiful Day” or “Vertigo” pushed U2, naturally, back in the direction of maintaining the corporate monolith. So what we get then is Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience.
It’s hard to walk away from the last 20 years and not perceive U2 as a business, as four very rich men mounting record-breaking tours and employing who knows how many people. Accordingly, their most recent work is thought-over to the point of feeling focus-grouped, full of misled attempts to port U2’s brand of universality to a music ecosystem that is still in some transitional, shuddering flux. You needed no greater evidence of U2 losing touch than the ill-fated iPhone stunt of Songs Of Innocence. You needed no greater evidence of their wavering sense of ingenuity than them going back to the start with a song called “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” and plugging in a bunch of paint-by-number whoa-ohs from their glory days. You needed no greater evidence of their mangled shots at another pop hit than them hiring Ryan Tedder to ruin “Every Breaking Wave” with a forced and ineffective attempt at a rafters-reaching chorus. As a diehard, you might be able to find songs to appreciate on each of U2’s semi-recent albums. But at the same time, a process begun 20 years ago has curdled. You become an idea of yourself, and you act it out again and again, until it becomes parody.
All of this goes directly back to All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and all of this in turn complicates the album’s legacy. Knowing what followed, there are warning signs littered through the songs of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It makes the question of whether it’s one of U2’s masterpieces all that more complicated. In the sense that All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a progression and refinement, was a crystallization but also an exploration, and in terms of pure sales numbers, yes, it remains a pillar alongside The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. It’s one of the albums their career revolves around, and it’s an album where they still sounded tapped into something greater than themselves. After spending the ‘90s wrestling with the concept of pop, they became pop with ease; ever since, they’ve strived to remain so, when you could’ve once imagined U2 drifting off into unforeseen places in their elder years.
Sometimes the moment when an artist settles into their archetypal selves aligns with another trope of pop history — the last great album. On the level of artistic and commercial achievement, it now seems inevitable All That You Can’t Leave Behind will stand as such for U2. That gives the album a poignance, a twinge. You can wonder what could’ve been instead, at the same time as remembering the exhilaration and solace this album provided at various points in its early existence.
It’s funny to think about U2 ever being a band tied to the same ground we walk. That seems, somehow, counterintuitive to everything they were about, the larger-than-life wonder they could conjure in legible terms. Maybe that’s what’s been lost since All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The strain of humanism running through U2’s music even at its most bombastic, or warped, or ethereal, or grandiose. On All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 had been humbled, if only for a moment. They had come back down to Earth. But when they got there, they knew their job was to pull us back up towards the stratosphere with them. Whether they had previously done that by taking us to weird and enigmatic places, or whether they had previously done that with melodies millions of people remember, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the last moment where everything just worked. It’s always a little heartbreaking to return to the moment where a great artist, one that does mean so much to so many, begins to lose their way. But when you back to All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 20 years later, and you remember what it felt like then, you begin to remember what’s possible in the world.