U2 is known for being unabashedly earnest, but that hasn't kept the Dubliners from making brilliantly savvy career moves: Rather than stay rooted in the familiar guitar-rock epicry that made it arguably the biggest band in the world, U2 spent the '90s tweaking and refreshing its sound, whether on the playful toss-off Zooropa or 1997's flashily ironic, underrated dance-pop workout Pop. In 2000, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton are smart enough to know that it's a good time to fortify their roots, returning with the warm, relatively irony-free All That You Can't Leave Behind. Produced by the ever-reliable Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the album's experimental touches are far more restrained, with the vaguely funky arrangement of "Elevation" tempered by a starry-eyed sense of drama. (Unfortunately, that doesn't obscure lines like, "You make me feel like I can fly so high"; had Bono added the words "like a dragonfly," it might have passed as an effective postmodern gag.) Elsewhere, the results are similarly mixed. The album-closing "Grace" is buoyed by sweetness and sincerity, but those attributes can't save "Peace On Earth," perhaps because they accompany thick dollops of stone-faced portent. A classic guitar hook makes "Wild Honey" a highlight, but U2 songs don't get much more windy or cluttered than "Stuck In A Moment You Can¹t Get Out Of" and "Kite." Ten albums into its career, U2's emphasis on its basics—chiming guitars, a war-themed lament here and there, the enormous choruses of songs like "Beautiful Day"—is a refreshing reminder of the group's core virtues. But in terms of execution, it splits about 50-50 between soaring hits and dispiriting misses.
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