America is undergoing its second outbreak of U2 fatigue. Back in 1987, the Irish quartet could do no wrong on these shores. The blues/gospel/roots inspired album The Joshua Tree, U2’s undisputed critical and commercial masterpiece (10 million copies sold on these shores), cemented Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. in American rock & roll lore. But they soon overstayed their welcome. The film Rattle and Hum and its accompanying soundtrack saw the biggest band in the world getting a bit too big for its britches by, among other things, preaching to us about “NicaraGUA” and trying to steal “Helter Skelter” “back” for the Beatles.
Then, in 1991, faster than we could say “am I buggin’ ya,” the lads reinvented themselves. The boys traded their hearts on their sleeves for leather pants and Superfly sunglasses, and released the sleek, electronica-seasoned pop sensation Achtung Baby. The world’s most earnest band had morphed into glitzy rock stars — and we loved them for it.
They played the dance card again in 1993 on Zooropa, and then took it to its logical conclusion on 1997’s Pop. But the electronic-fueled sound and the swarmy image had worn thin; along with 1980’s Boy and 1981’s October, Pop is the band’s poorest-selling album in the U.S. (one million copies to date). To make matters worse, the band supported the album with the elaborate Pop Mart tour, which mocked American consumerism — sometimes to less-than-capacity stadiums.
The appropriately titled All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which hits our marts on Tuesday, is U2’s redemption. The eleven-song collection finds the band returning to past glory simply by being a band. Propelled by Edge’s guitar — something that has been obscured on recent albums — the album turns up the intensity and turns down the effects. And, as far as Edge is concerned, it’s about time.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is something of a return to basics. What inspired the change?
It felt like time had come around again for us to turn our attention back to what we do as a band that is unique. We’re always trying to abstract the sound of the band in one way or another, whether it’s with the influence of techno and dance music, or hip-hop, or ambient music, or whatever. In this instance, we just kept being drawn back to a really stripped-down sound and feel. I think the vitality of it is what we liked — the sense of life, the sense of the four individual personalities working together. It was exciting to hear.
Did you have to consciously stop yourselves from tinkering with the songs too much?
I suppose at times certain songs had to be drawn back from being too produced or too overly complicated. The studio sessions were really about us playing a lot in a very small room and perfecting the performance and the arrangement more than to try to generate unusual starting points and unusual soundscapes to build songs off of. There are unusual production techniques involved, but it’s always built on a very solid base of a great song played by a great band, I hope.
Was it refreshing to go back to this approach?
In some ways there was more pressure, because there was nowhere to hide. This was all about, “What’s the best song you can write? The best guitar part you can come up with? Is this the best performance?” All the pressure was on us up front. The end of the record was so much fun, because all the work was done. We weren’t trying to create it in the mix. If you’re relying on more experimental studio techniques, often the whole basis of the idea is the use of the recording process itself; you’re not really necessarily working with a fantastic tune. In this case we made sure that nothing went on the record that didn’t stand up on that basis. And so in the early period we were under a lot of pressure — our own pressure to deliver something that we were really proud of. But I think of all the records this one got finished with the least sense of panic, which is normal for us at the end of a record.
“Beautiful Day” is less hype-y than your recent leadoff singles. It’s really cut from the fabric of the album . . .
Yeah, like it or not, the first single is often used as a way of judging the whole record, or certainly people view it as like an introduction or explanation for where the album’s going. For us, it’s often an impossible task to find one song that can do that effectively. I feel “Beautiful Day” is a song that has been able to do that for this record. Maybe the last two records we just didn’t have a song like that.
Talk about the evolution of “Beautiful Day.”
That started out as a real kind of punk rock tune we were working on called “Always” [which wound up as a B-side on the “Beautiful Day” single]. We had a song we were kind of excited about but it wasn’t quite what we wanted, and Bono came up with this “beautiful day” lyric. The key to that was the backing vocals idea Danny [producer Daniel Lanois] and myself came up with, and it just took the chorus into this other place. Some of the tunes on the record just came in one go, but “Beautiful Day” was written in stages.
What song are you particularly proud of?
Well, it changes for me. Right now, “Kite” is one that I’m really proud of. It’s a slow song, which means it probably won’t be a single. I think it’s the four of us at our best: Bono, singing his heart out, incredible melody, great lyrics, and I think the band sounds great.
You are at your second major crossroads popularity-wise. After Rattle and Hum, America cooled on U2 a bit, but then you won us back with Achtung Baby. Can you do it again?
I don’t know. We’re making a big effort to promote this record because we really do believe in it. But in the end, whether America is interested in this particular album or not remains to be seen. I think the atmosphere in Europe is quite different. The governing factor in how your music goes over seems to be what else is happening. In America right now the hip-hop thing is huge still, the synthesis of metal and hip-hop is huge, but the pop is a surprise — it’s so huge. Rock & roll has always been a sort of counterbalance to pop. It’s music that acknowledges that everything is not alright, that there’s a lot of cause to be dissatisfied with where things are at generally. Whereas pop is like, “Everything’s fine. Everything’s cool.” Pop has had so much of the running for so many years, but it’s time maybe for rock & roll to come back, and people might really be interested in what we’re doing. So the timing of this record might be very good. In England our single went in at No. 1 the first week, which really surprised everybody, especially since the competition for the No. 1 slot was Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue doing a duet, which everyone had assumed would be the runaway top single of the week.
After Rattle and Hum, U2 were criticized for being hyper-serious. Now, ironically enough, you might be viewed as not serious enough. Did the band’s glitzier image and the circus-like atmosphere of Pop Mart ever undermine the songs?
Yeah, I know what you’re getting at, and at times it was a difficult thing to get beyond that surface level. I don’t think that we’ve written songs that have been trivial or throwaway, but what we have done is used humor and irony to disguise the more weighty themes of the songs. And sometimes I think people didn’t get past that. They thought the irony and the humor was all there was. I think it comes down to you can only be famous for one thing at one time. So, this record is a more straightforward album. It is what it is. The songs are what they are. I think you get the same sense of what we’re up to no matter what way you look at it. It’s straight from the hip, so I don’t think there’s that same potential for misunderstanding that there might have been on the last album or so.
When will we hear you contribute some more lead vocals?
Well [laughs], we have a really good singer in the band. I love singing but I don’t want to be singing a tune that Bono could be singing better. So it really comes down to something I can put over with what I have better than he can, and that’s not very often I guess [laughs]. Occasionally something comes up and it’s just obvious that I should sing it. I think that might happen again.
As much as we’ve been calling this a “rock & roll” album, there are some particularly playful songs, like “Stuck in a Moment” and “Wild Honey.”
We allowed ourselves to write and record some songs that were just wonderful, melodic pieces on this record, and I would say that “Wild Honey” would be the best example of that. It’s got a certain kind of joy, and easy quality, which is attractive, and I suppose that’s why we went with it for the record — particularly when we have such intense, dramatic songs like “Peace on Earth” and “When I Look at the World,” which are quite tough. So if you’re gonna have that kind of harshness and bitterness it’s nice to be able to balance it with something that is quite easy and melodic. “Wild Honey” is that. “Stuck in a Moment” is quite a personal lyric about some people that we got to know who ended up becoming complete victims and losing their sight of what life is all about, and going completely under. So it’s kind of a heavy theme, quite a heavy song. I suppose when we’re working we’re often looking for contrasts within the material: lyrics that have an intensity to them that go with music that is joyful, or music that’s intense that has a lyric that’s joyful. I think a mixture of feelings is one of the hallmarks of what we do.
I understand there’s another version of that song with Mick Jagger and his daughter singing backup.
Yeah, they came down to the studio one day, and of course we had to ask them to sing together. We did a rough mix of the song with their vocals, but the song kind of took a different direction, and it didn’t seem appropriate.
Was it a difficult decision to leave Mick on the cutting room floor?
No, to be honest, I don’t think he expected it to go on the record. I think it would have been wrong of us to put him on the record, because of the spirit in which he sang was not that kind of a thing. It was more of a laugh.
Radiohead seems to be following your career path a bit. They’ve just released a record that is being touted as “anti-rock,” and Thom Yorke has said he is bored of the rock thing. What is your advice for them?
Well, my advice to them is, “Just do exactly what you’re doing.” Because I really love Kid A. I think there is some real integrity there. As a band you have to follow your own instincts first, and then hope you’re right, and that people are interested enough to follow you where you feel like you should go.
How long do you see U2 continuing?
As long as the band is still as hungry as we are and as long as the music is still with us, we will continue. If people lost interest, or lost heart, or just decided that this wasn’t really what they wanted to do, that would be it. I don’t think we would keep going as a way of getting out of the house or earning a few quid [laughs].
Any desire to make a solo album?
Not serious. Who knows. I wouldn’t say never, but right now I am more excited about being in U2 than trying to develop a solo career.