U2 had a lot to prove when they started work on 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The electronic experimentation of 1997’s Pop turned off many longtime fans, and the album failed to generate any genuine hits. The PopMart stadium tour may have been a technical triumph, but there were huge sections of unsold tickets in several North American markets and many critics couldn’t resist labeling the whole affair “FlopMart.”
This was also a time when TRL-friendly acts like Eminem, Blink-182, Korn, and Britney Spears dominated the Top 40 charts. These artists had little in common musically, but they all appealed to teenagers, and the notion that a rock band that formed during the Ford administration could find a foothold in this era seemed almost ludicrous.
That all changed in October 2000 when “Beautiful Day” hit and U2 followed it up weeks later with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Produced by their longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the album was packed with tracks like “Walk On,” “Elevation,” and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” that focused more on songcraft and hooks than sonic experimentation. It sold by the millions, racked up multiple Grammy awards, and sent U2 into the 2000s with incredible momentum.
The band is celebrating the 20th anniversary of All That You Can’t Leave Behind with a 51-track super-deluxe box set — out October 30th, the same day the album was released in 2000 — packed with B sides, studio outtakes, remixes, and a complete concert taped at a Boston stop on their 2001 world tour.
The Edge phoned up Rolling Stone from his home in California to look back at All That You Can’t Leave Behind and give a quick update on the status of the next U2 album.
How are things going? Have you fully adjusted to lockdown life by this point?
Yeah. Right now, I’m in that phase of semi-hibernation. In term of my work, I’ve set myself the task of writing some new musical ideas. I’m not really expected to be anywhere. That means the lockdown hasn’t impacted me much, really. It’s been frustrating not being able to see certain people. The fact you have to eat at home gets a little old sometimes, but other than that, I have to say, I’ve had quite a good time and a creative time.
I have a lot of empathy for those people that rely on getting out [for their work]. If we had been touring or had touring plans right now, it would be different. It just so happens this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing now.
The timing has really been fortunate for you guys. Your most recent tour ended weeks before touring became impossible. You guys really got in just under the wire.
I knew our management were good; I just didn’t know they were that good.
I want to go back and talk about All That You Can’t Leave Behind. What was the band’s collective mental state at the end of the PopMart tour in early 1998? I truly love that album and tour, but obviously it didn’t all go quite as you planned.
I think we felt a lot of relief at having, rationally, made the decision to go for broke with the PopMart production and make it even bigger than the Zoo TV production, which was, by far, our biggest-ever undertaking live. Finally, at the end of the tour, we could look each other in the eye and say, “We have pulled off what we intended.”
We were pretty under-rehearsed going into the first few shows. Not for the first time in our career, we had to really figure it all out in front of the audience. There’s something very sobering about having to show up onstage and every night you’re aware of the fact that there are things that could have been better executed, more perfectly described and rendered. By the end, I think, that whole process brought us a very satisfactory show. The video of the show was something I was really proud of.
And so there was a sense of relief more than anything, but also we had our mind on the end of the millennium. That, to us, was a very significant moment in time that we felt we had to mark. In some ways, it was a natural moment to reboot and to reassess everything that we were trying to do as a band.
I think about late 1998 when you did the The Best of 1980–1990 record and suddenly you have this radio hit with “‘The Sweetest Thing” almost out of nowhere. That seemed to prove that people were ready to embrace U2 again if the song was right.
Yeah. We also learned that one of the most important things was capturing people’s imaginations. One thing about rock & roll is that it has to constantly offer surprises and new thoughts. That [song] was a reassuring thing.
Although PopMart seemed to be biting off more than we could chew and over-extended us in a way that could possibly come back to haunt us, in fact, the opposite was the case. People were really curious about what we were doing. There was a bit of a good chaos, chaos caused by people really trying to maintain a certain level of balance for themselves and their audience.
You miss occasionally if you really aim high. And looking back at Pop, we probably didn’t have the one song that really connected with people. That’s probably because the songwriting really took a backseat to the experimentation. Some people loved the experimentation, but we were aware of the fact that in the future we needed to deliver on the songwriting side of things.
And so coming into All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it was very much on our minds that this was a new millennium. The title tells you everything. All That You Can’t Leave Behind … you could also parse it as only the things you can’t leave behind, only the things that were essential. After all the opinions of the day had drifted away, what would be left behind by this work? We realized it’s just the songs themselves.
In the early days of recording, did you have any breakthrough moments where you realized you were on to something great while making that record?
“Stuck in a Moment” came through quite early. That was a piece of music I’d started working on during the PopMart tour. That was something Bono and I worked up before Brian [Eno] and Danny [Lanois] arrived. It was good to have that in the bag. And there was another song called “Kite” that we had worked up as a band. That was sounding really good.
Most of the material came together in the studio as we were developing the work. Brian and Danny are masters of recording and that form of production where the studio is a songwriting tool. It’s in the recording process that you unlock song ideas, often coming out of pieces of music that start out as interesting texturally and sonically.
What’s fun about that is you never end up in a conventional place. The problem with conventional songwriting often is that you’re in a rut of cliché images that are just well-trodden. When you start with sonics, you immediately bypass the more predictable routes and you can get quickly to something real new and fresh. That was kind of our staring point.
On the Pop album, we had taken the idea of deconstructing things as far as we could. And in the process, we went further than the [finished] album. At a certain point during the Pop album recording sessions, we started to understand that we were losing certain key aspects of what a rock & roll band is supposed to be, so we brought that back a little bit.
On All That You Can’t Leave Behind, we absolutely wanted to showcase the chemistry of a band. But in so doing, we bumped into the opposite problem occasionally, which is that rock & roll bands tend to sound same-y. With guitar, bass, and drums there’s only so many sonic opportunities, so it was fantastic to have Brian and Danny with us. Brian’s sense of sonics and his mastery of texture and, particularly, synthesizers was really a crucial foil for us to play off. It kept things sounding really unique even though it’s very much a band record.
Brian and Daniel are two very different sorts of personalities with different approaches to recording. Can you tell me how they work together to get the best out of the band?
Eno is not a consummate musician, so when it came to a recording session, his strength was guiding the process and making sure that something was happening that was really new and groundbreaking. He put it into a codified version with his Oblique Strategies cards. He never used them with us, but he used them with a lot of artists. These were sort of tarot cards that were designed to take the session in a new direction if it sounded like anyone was dialing it in or just sounded stale or predictable.
I think out of that experience and realization came an acute understanding of creativity in a studio setting and how musicians work together. Brian’s an expert at provoking and guiding the creative spirit in the sessions that we had. Often that would mean he might come in early and start working on something that he would present to us as a kind of opening gambit and then we would all join in. Pretty soon, everyone would be finding their place in a new piece of music.
Can you think of an example where that led to a song?
The song “New York,” which I love. That was a little drum loop that he found of Larry’s. He started looping it and he came up with this little keyboard part. We all got the studio around 8 a.m. and, one by one, just started playing along with this loop and keyboard part. The song grew out of that. That’s a great example of how Brian creates these scenarios where you suddenly have to get out of your comfort zone and just dive into something new.
Danny is somebody who feels music in such a deep way that he inspires people, I think, to make music that has that sort of visceral quality. It’s what he thrives on, not just as a producer, but a fan of music. So Danny’s antenna is very acutely tuned to music that has that potential. That’s where we live, but it’s always great to have someone like Dan around to highlight and hone in on those aspects of the song or piece of music that has that power. He’s also a great musician and he’s happy to pick up a guitar or a shaker or play pedal steel or do some backing vocals. We did a lot on that record.
This reminds me of making “Beautiful Day” with Dan. We finally cracked the chorus of “Beautiful Day” for Bono. He’s pretty much got his melody idea and his lyric in place. But as I’m leaving the studio and I’m hearing the chorus, it’s a little bare. I just pick up the microphone and I start singing a high backing vocal. Being the minimalist that I am, I was trying to find the minimum number of notes I could use to set this chorus up.
Dan heard something, grabbed a second microphone and he starts singing something over what I’m singing, but he’s doing this really intricate, cascading thing. So the combination of these two voices ends up making this really beautiful counterpoint to Bono’s lead vocal.
That was the final key element that the song needed. That is typical of our way of working with Brian and Danny. They really become fifth and sixth members of the band for the recording sessions. It’s kind of an organic process that’s really about maintaining and stimulating inspiration in each other. That’s the bottom line, the thing we’re all trying to do.
I was just listening to the record again and I was struck by the darkness of many of the lyrics. The guy in “Beautiful Day” is having a pretty lousy day. The “Stuck in a Moment” character is thinking about killing himself, and the guy in “New York” is cheating on his wife as his whole world falls apart. That makes the brightness in “Wild Honey” really stand out by comparison.
I know. At the time, “Wild Honey” seemed like such a contradiction to everything else. We almost didn’t put it on the album because it sounded so bright, so shiny, so sweet. But what it has, is a kind of innocence and a kind of naiveté, which is very important when it’s followed by “Peace on Earth,” which is probably one of the bleakest songs that U2 have ever written [laughs]. I have to take some blame because lyrically I started that one.
We never had a problem with albums that encompass what might seem almost like contradictory positions. It’s like, somewhere between the extremes of the contradictions, somewhere between these areas, is the thing you’re aiming for. You can’t really express it in one song, but if you express it as the tension between these two opposing ideas, it’s easier to get it there. I think that is why “Wild Honey” turned out to be really important.
The time period you made this in is really interesting. You start the record in the Nineties. You put it out literally days before the Bush/Gore recount began. Then you go on tour, and before the last leg, 9/11 happens. The world kept shifting under your feet in such dramatic ways.
A lot of that stuff happened after the release of that album, but certainly during the tour. We ended up doing the Super Bowl post 9/11. With our show designers, we came up with this idea of putting up the litany of names of those that had perished on 9/11. That became a very important moment.
And in New York, we had these really cathartic shows where we had some of the first responders come onstage to talk about their brothers-in-arms they lost on 9/11. It was really, really intensely emotional. I was reminded of the power of music to be a way of helping people express and connect with emotions and deal with them and process them. I felt very humbled and moved to be of service in that way.
It was certainly a roller-coaster ride for us. The work stood up to that pressure test, which was a nice feeling. You write a song, as we did with six guys in the room often, and then you take it out to the world. After it’s released, it takes on a life of its own. You never know how a song will be used, what value it’ll have once it’s out. It’s mind-blowing to see how some of these songs became so much of the moment and how they connected with people in such a powerful way.
I’ll wrap in a second, but the 25th anniversary of Pop is just two years away. Any chance of a Pop box set?
[Laughs] Good question. Um … We’re enjoying this moment of reassessing some of the older albums. I wouldn’t rule it out. I haven’t heard of a plan to do so, but this process has been so fun and the result has been such a success. We might do more of these. We’ll see.
I think this particular album was a creative high-tide mark for us because of what built up before we went into the studio. Some of the outtakes from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, I’m so blown away by them. You tend to forget those songs. They’re not in your live set. They’re not played on radio. But going back and hearing some of them you realize, “Wow, that almost made the album. Maybe that should have made the album!”
It’s nice to approach some of the work like a fan because I’d almost forgotten how some of the pieces were written and what our beginning point was. I’m coming to them with a completely open mind. That’s fun, so who knows?
Final question: What’s the status of the next record?
As you know, I’m always working on ideas for U2 songs. I have a huge bag of ideas. Some of them are very developed. Some are sort of half-finished. We don’t have any plans right now, but right now I’m just enjoying writing just because it’s a great moment to get back to creative things when there’s not much else you can do.
It’s like a blank canvas and I love this phase where you really don’t have to worry too much about where it’s going. You really just go with the imagination. So, lots of great ideas going around, but I’m not sure what it will become or when it might start to take on its own identity as an album.