It's inevitable that, after a decade of experimenting, U2 would return to its rock and roll roots on its 10th album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. The teen pop and disposable hip-hop marketplace all but renders such artistic flights of fancy as commercially unviable acts of self-indulgence (not that U2 has ever been guided by anything but aesthetic integrity). Radiohead's recent number-one debut notwithstanding, rock and roll albums have had a tough go of it lately.
All That You Can't Leave Behind, unlike U2's '90s catalog -- the beginning-of-the-decade saga-stripping Achtung Baby (which doesn't sound all that ultramodern today), its quickie electro-follow-up Zooropa (which still sorta does), and the techno-trotting Pop -- comes with no identifying labels. It simply sounds like classic U2. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno polish the surroundings with a combination of mystical/mythical rattle and hum and arena-rock grandiosity. The Edge's guitar rings with epic simplicity, and Bono sings like a savior again. The very best of these songs no longer tweak the U2 formula -- this is the most straightforward U2 album since they became rock stars. And if they don't sound like they want to save the world here, take comfort in knowing that no postmodern agenda is being forced either. "Beautiful Day" builds climactic, anthemic momentum, and the atmospheric "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is beautifully haunting. They're eloquent tracks on an eloquent album. Nothing more elaborate is implied or implemented. The title comes from a line in the soaring "Walk On": "The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can't leave behind." With this majestic album, U2 leaves behind the past decade's excesses and travels into the new century with only the essentials.