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"Where rock ‘n’ roll becomes part of pop music I tend to lose interest." — Adam

Divinely and Romantically, Embracing a Higher Love

- December 07, 2000

by Jon Pareles

U2 is stripping away its facades. On Tuesday night, when it played at Irving Plaza for a nationwide radio broadcast, U2 was just a four-man band on a plain club stage. The concert was, pragmatically, part of a promotional effort for the band's new album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (Interscope). But it was also a signal that U2 had decided to reclaim an identity that it struggled against for a decade: unguarded, anthemic and openly spiritual.

U2 spent most of the 1990's trying to transform itself and stay up to date. On albums it fought its own penchant for grandeur, enveloping the music with electronic noise and dance-club rhythms and letting some lyrics turn oblique. Onstage it embraced the artifice of razzle-dazzle stadium productions. The tension between U2's reflexes and its ambitions sparked extraordinary work, particularly the 1991 album "Achtung Baby" and the Zoo TV tour that followed it.

But after U2's 1997 album, "Pop" (Island), and its tour met a mixed reception -- in part because they were too somber for the title -- the band remade itself once again. Holding onto only a little electronic embellishment, it has returned to its 1980's sound, with the rhythm section of Larry Mullen Jr. on drums and Adam Clayton on bass proudly marching ahead while the Edge's guitar peals like cathedral bells.

Again and again during the set, Bono sang with one hand upraised, a preacher's gesture. He was giving his benediction in a tradition shared by soul music and Sufi devotional poetry, as the songs in the set -- both new ones like "Elevation" and older ones like "Desire" and "Bad" -- sought grace and fulfillment. Whether it was through the power of a deity or the embrace of a lover, the songs called for nothing less than transcendence, a willing surrender to something greater than earthbound concerns. The songs confess to weakness and doubt, believing that love -- divine or romantic -- can conquer all.

U2's music promises the certainty that the lyrics crave. It relies on the three-chord basics of punk, blues, folk-rock and Bo Diddley beats; it also depends on the Edge's own wide-open guitar style, picking just a few notes to conjure resonant sonic expanses. Bono's voice often starts out low and humble, then ascends like the rock version of a classic Irish tenor as choruses proclaim the possibility of release.

Between songs, Bono spoke about U2's longevity -- he has spent more than half his life in the band -- and compared the band to the priesthood and the mob. "You won't get out of it while you're alive," he said. The set harked back to U2's beginnings in the 1970's, with a Ramones tribute and an old U2 song, "11 O'Clock Tick Tock." It added other people's songs -- "Sexual Healing," "Ruby Tuesday" -- to the codas of its own tunes, and it attached new songs to old ones, segueing "One" into the new "Walk On." The band was no longer trying to escape rock's memory or its past.

The music defied the wounded, petty, vengeful tone of most current rock; the songs would rather reach past momentary problems than wallow in them. And if that made U2 vulnerable to charges of being goody-goody types, not hip and ironic, it was a chance the band was willing to take. U2's encore, the Who's cynical "Won't Get Fooled Again," hinted at self-protection, even if Bono lingered over the line "get on my knees and pray." But by then it was too late: U2 had long since given up on acting cool.

© New York Times, 2000. All rights reserved.

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