Nine years after reinventing their messianic arena rock with irony and electronics, U2 hope to start from scratch one more time with their soul-infused, pop-savvy new album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” due next week.
“We wanted to begin again, and our whole thing was not to rely on the past,” lead singer Bono said Tuesday.
Feeling that they had gotten lost in the world of electronic dance music by the time of their most-recent album, 1997’s Pop, U2 initially hoped to make a no-holds-barred rock record this time around — their first since they retooled their sound on 1991’s “Achtung Baby.”
“[We wanted to] see what a rock band can do in the beginning of the 21st century — could we make a valid noise? And I suppose what we came back with was this idea that, well, maybe not,” Bono (born Paul Hewson) said. “In
fact, the only thing that would make a rock band valid right now would be if that rock band could write songs that would transcend the time they were made in” [RealAudio].
Accordingly, the new album’s songs, including the first single, “Beautiful Day,” are more notable for their radio-ready hooks than any rock bombast, and include what Bono said are some of his most carefully crafted lyrics.
U2 also turned again to drum machines, samples and other enhancements on groove-oriented new songs such as the industrial-guitar-driven track “Elevation,” but tried to ensure that those sounds never overwhelmed their own playing.
At the same time, the band, who reunited with longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for the project, aimed to preserve a relatively raw recording style that harked back to early ’60s pop and R&B.
“We went into the record like it was Tamla-Motown,” the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen, said last month. “It was an exciting record
But to the annoyance of the band, many of those who’ve heard advance copies of the album seem to be missing its soul and pop leanings, Bono said.
“People are saying it’s a rock album, it’s a return to roots, even though the opening bars of ’Beautiful Day’ [include] a drum machine and a string loop,” he said. “Most of the album is like a soul record, and it’s a new and fresh territory for us. … We’ve never done anything remotely like it” [RealAudio].
On songs such as “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “In a Little While,” U2 turned to a gospel-inflected R&B sound, driven by gently syncopated drums and The Edge’s melodic rhythm guitar in the vein of late soul pioneer Curtis Mayfield.
In another change from the U2’s past few albums, Bono’s vocals on the new songs are free of filters
and other alterations, and are pushed up high in the mix throughout.
His voice sounds different, too, most noticeably at the lower end of his range. On such songs as the harmony-rich, loping love song “Wild Honey” and the slow-building anthem “Kite,” Bono’s vocals are hoarse, gritty and soulful in the manner of fellow Irish rocker Van Morrison, while leaping up easily into pure falsetto.
“I had a lot of problems with my voice over the last few years. I kept losing it,” Bono said. “I never thought of myself as a singer. People like Björk or Polly Harvey would say, ’You’re a singer, you should make a singing record,’ [so] I wanted to get to a place where I could really sing.”
As the bandmembers collectively created their new sound, they rediscovered their enthusiasm for playing together, according to The Edge (born David Evans).
“I’m very, very excited about the work,” he said in an online chat earlier this year. “I think it’s some of the best things we’ve
done in many, many years.”
The band, which plans to tour U.S. arenas early next year, is scheduled to perform on the USA Networks TV show “Farmclub.com” and MTV’s “TRL” over the next week.