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All That You Can't Leave Behind - Click to view!Author's Note: Because of the importance of the lyrical "story", and also because of time and space constraints, I have not spent a lot of time on the musical aspect of this CD. It is something that I had wanted to do, but I am unable to fulfill my wishes. I beg your forgiveness for not dealing with that issue, but I hope and pray that you find the review helpful nonetheless.

A CD is very much like a book. It has a story to tell and a message to communicate. This is true of all CDs and books, even if the author/musician makes no such claims. Music has one feature that literature lacks, however, and that is the ability to cause the artist's pictures and melodies to be fixed in one's mind. Once a song is memorized, the listener will begin to contemplate its meaning, struggling over metaphors and agreeing with anthemic and inspiring statements. At this point the purpose of the artist has been accomplished: the artist's words, thoughts, and beliefs are being examined and applied by the listener. The listener may not agree with the artist, but he is saying that the artist's thoughts are worthy of thought.

All That You Can't Leave Behind, the latest release from U2, is a masterful example of how to achieve that purpose. Hearkening back to The Joshua Tree days, producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are brought back to orchestrate an enjoyable pop/rock mix. The two producers consistently create a near-flawless background for Bono's passionate vocals and lyrics, and from the opening track, "Beautiful Day", to the closer "Grace", there is never a moment where the music ceases to flow in a pleasing manner.

The CD begins with "Beautiful Day", although the opening lines describe what most of us would consider an ugly day:

"The heart is a bloom, shoots up through the stony ground
But there's no room, no space to rent in this town
You're out of luck and the reason that you had to care,
The traffic is stuck and you're not moving anywhere.
You thought you'd found a friend to take you out of this place
Someone you could lend a hand in return for grace."

Thus begins the story told in All That You Can't Leave Behind: the story of a pilgrim searching for peace. After the depressing nature of the opening lyrics, the chorus explodes, proclaiming that life is beautiful, though it may not be pleasing. The second track, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of", returns to the depressing nature of life, and comes to the conclusion that there are times when it is necessary to collect yourself to continue down life's bumpy road. As the journey progresses, this pilgrim of sorts cries out for "Elevation" from his earthly troubles; that elevation, however, does not come. Instead he is reminded in "Walk On" to keep on walking because what he is and what he believes cannot be destroyed by his earthly enemies. "Kite" ends the series of songs on travelling with musings on the future ("Who's to say where the wind will take you / Who's to say what it is will break you?"), concluding with a confidence that life is not yet gone ("I know that this is not goodbye").

A short interlude from life's troubles, "In a Little While" and "Wild Honey" bring proclamations of love that is untainted by fleshly lusts and troubles. Both songs reminisce their youthful love and then contemplate where their love has arrived now. The peace that these songs bring is only a memory, however, and the questions forcefully return in "Peace on Earth". Rending the heart of the listener with their cries, both Bono and the pilgrim plead for true peace to vanquish the man-made pretensions. Asking Jesus to "take the time to throw a drowning man a line", the pilgrim seems to have the answer in his grasp. He continues the search, however, looking for assurance as he cries out in frustration in "When You Look at the World", wondering why he can't see the light that his (presumably) Christian friends see. "New York" brings him one step closer to assurance, but the hustle and bustle of city life disrupt his personal life and hints of familial troubles indicate that he is closer still to giving up. Finally, in "Grace", he remembers that "Grace makes beauty out of ugly things", and though the path is sure to be rocky ahead, grace will carry him through.

And so ends the story of U2's pilgrim; at least, thus far. They may not have intended to write their songs this way, but they have still proclaimed a Christian message, or at least a message which points to Christianity. However, only time will tell if U2 and this pilgrim rely on the grace they're speaking of. While we wait to learn more, we can enjoy a beautifully crafted rock album that speaks of the struggles that many of us go through, and in the end directs you to the one place where you can find rest.
- Jason Ewert
June 2001
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