We could have been friends, but there wasn’t much to me in those days. Bits and pieces, strings of unconnected thoughts, underneath a chaos of fragmented notions. As bad as I seem, I promise I was worse than I am. In all my crustached, lip-smacking glory, refraction of heaven-bent light through my constant excitable spittle, wearing my Dragon Ball Z T-shirt, with notions of the future we were all training our hearts for—in the midst of knowing I was a fallow field of human evolution—I had a locker next to hers, and I wanted so badly to talk to her about this album: All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
When I asked if she’d heard it, though, she held with me the kind of hyper-focused eye contact people make when they realize the person they’re talking to has come a little unhinged. She’s unlucky enough to be closing the adjacent locker—positioned to make a quick escape—and inside a moment’s passing, the thought occurs to her. That’s when she starts to think U2 doesn’t just annoy her. She starts to think of that shit-stain megalomaniacal prick of a singer, running around in his translucent sunglasses, or wearing a gold suit and pretending to be the devil.
She was right to think, hopeless, when she looked at me and saw I was careening into an adulthood where I will still (often and secretly) think of that maniac in the colored glasses whenever I can’t get my locker open. An adulthood in which I will still think, When exactly did U2 stop being cool, and how did I miss it so thoroughly? Why was U2 still cool to me? I’m not the only one still wondering: “When did U2 become uncool” is still a frequently-searched question on Google, which makes me feel oddly comforted.
If I had the courage and the time machine to go back to that moment, in our old school, right before she slammed the door shut and turned the combination lock with a quick twist of her thumb and index finger, I’d ask if she remembered the millennium. It feels so thoroughly quaint to talk about now. Back then, though, it was a big deal. The run-up to 2000 seemed to start somewhere in 1997, and it lasted forever. All anyone could talk about was the future. We all felt the stillness of time, looming up suddenly the way an onrushing train seems to slow across the leaden folds of a panicked brain.
If I could go back in time, I’d ask if she remembered the moment of relief she felt at midnight when it all switched over. The devil, of course, wasn’t in anyone’s computers. It wasn’t in the clocks, or the machines stashed down in the bowels of the world’s banking houses. But we weren’t to know for sure, then, were we? The devil is in the details, and such details are always with us.
For U2, the nineties were bookended by Achtung Baby in 1991 and All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000. The creation of Achtung Baby—which was essentially a re-creation of U2 itself, following accusations of self-righteousness, bombast, and tiresome sincerity—took three years and nearly destroyed the band. In writing Achtung Baby, U2 was determined to avoid making the “Big Statements” critics had grown tired of, without doing away big material: the band explored spiritual doubt, personal failings, and tensions of religious and sexual devotion. In the Rolling Stone review of Achtung Baby, Elysa Gardner writes, “Squarely acknowledging his own potential for hypocrisy and inadequacy, and addressing basic human weaknesses rather than the failings of society at large, Bono sounds humbler and more vulnerable than in the past.”
Between Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, there was Zooropa and Pop, two albums in which the band experimented with their sound as well as with irony, parody, and megalomania. Held up with the rest of their albums, I think these two are a little boring and overdone. But their stylized performances during the resulting world tours were fascinating. Before there was Trump—back in the gaudy nineties, when we didn’t think it was necessary to abandon all decorum to pursue spectacle—there was the Pop Tour, with Bono prancing around on stage, his powdered face all full of makeup, playing the devil.
What should the devil look like, anyhow: agitating, playful, and grim? Smug, calamitous, and shy? Unsteady in his gaze and in his walk, or stony-eyed—moss-bitten, even? Manic Bono found him in MacPhisto—furious, giddy and delighted. In performances in Italy, Bono-as-MacPhisto talked about how he missed Mussolini, and would leave messages for il Duce’s granddaughter, telling her what a great job the old man had done—and that he would have been very proud of her.
Thousands in the audience laughed, unsure whether from anxiety or the release of feelings unspoken. These moments became a hallmark of the church U2 never meant to form. To beat the devil, mock him, and he runs away. To mock the devil, all you’ve got to do is become a pop star. When this was a kernel of an idea, it was charming. Promising. But it always had to come to an end.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind was released on a precipice: in 2000, the year the world was supposed to end but didn’t, and one year before the September 11th terrorist attacks that made us feel that if the world hadn’t altogether ended, it had certainly changed forever. Imagine, injected between these two moments in time, an album with lyrics like:
And if the night runs over
And if the day won't last
And if our way should falter
Along the stony pass
It's just a moment, this time will pass
As Joshua Rothman writes in his 2014 New Yorker article “The Church of U2,” classic U2 “expresses a particular combination of faith and disquiet, exaltation and desperation that is too spiritual for rock but too strange for church.” For U2, Achtung Baby might be Ecclesiastes (“What are we going to do? / Now it’s all been said / No new ideas in the house / And every book has been read”), and All That You Can’t Leave Behind is straight-up Gospel (“Because Grace makes beauty / Out of ugly things / Grace finds beauty in everything / Grace finds goodness in everything”).
Post-Pop U2 emerged reborn and fully formed in those reeling first years of the millennium. With All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band arrived at a place just beyond the yearning and doubt expressed in previous albums. In this way, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a kind of culmination of the decades-long spiritual exploration of a rock band that took the devil seriously enough to bring him out on stage. These days, Bono needed to get in and out of Satan’s shoes quicker than before—his lips curling up into that evil grin, and then relaxing into grace.
At the time, All That You Can’t Leave Behind launched U2 back in the spotlight. U2 was back, and they were boss, and more than anything they were ready for the moment they found themselves in: what better band to play the first show in Madison Square Garden following 9/11, than a band that had been formed in the crucible of the Troubles of Northern Ireland, a band that could, in songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” sing about terrorism and, somehow, make people want to dance.
Since then, of course, U2’s story has changed again. They came back, but then they were all too present: dancing silhouettes in Apple commercials, on their own black and red iPods, and then on everyone’s Music Libraries, whether you wanted them or not. By the time U2 made How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono was everywhere, singing “Your love is teaching me how to kneel.” In Songs of Innocence, he sang, “You no longer got a hold on me / I’m out of Lucifer’s hands.”
Maybe the band’s embrace of commercialism lined up too nicely with their increasingly solidified Christian identity. In retrospect, certainty might be a harder sell than all that questioning. Maybe faith isn’t as cool as doubt, after all. But for me and all us weirdos standing dumbfounded in the lonely gust of wind that rushes through a high school hallway, U2’s crystallized faith wasn’t enough to shake our own.
High school—Bono would have shrugged it off. In a little while you’ll be blown by every breeze. Weightless as a notion. Flighty as a turkey vulture, drifting off across the ridge on the updraft, hungry for the smells of all the rotting shit the high schoolers tossed out of their backpacks as they walked to class. When the bell rang we could all walk out of the lunchroom together—me and Bono and the Edge, with Bono dancing up the amphitheater steps and gleefully pointing at the other weirdos. Edge’s steady gaze gives nothing away, or only a mild curiosity. The moment aches on, and Edge just shakes his head. In a little while, you’ll be fine.
—Aaron Fallon & Martha Park