[Ed. note: This is the 58th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
I'm not a religious person but sometimes a song -- or a single performance -- will make me want to believe. Not in an abstract, "religious experience" kind of way. No, I'm talking, "throw out the old worldview and embrace a new set of truths."
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, George Clooney and producer Joel Gallen quickly organized a benefit concert to raise money for the victims of the attacks and their families. Airing Sept. 21, 2001, America: A Tribute To Heroes featured performances by a broad range of artists while actors and other notables offered short, spoken messages. It was, of course, a solemn affair, with no applause and no commercial interruptions.
U2 appeared early in the broadcast, joining the event from a soundstage in London, where it was already well past midnight. Looking bleary-eyed and perhaps a bit shell-shocked, they opened with a verse of "Peace On Earth" and then launched into a blistering performance of "Walk On," with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart providing additional guitar and backing vocals.
The performance ached with a sense of loss, but something happened with the "leave it behind" coda and the "Hallelujah" chorus. In this YouTube video, at about the 4:33 mark Bono smiles ever so slightly, as if some kind of weight has been lifted. A moment later he sings a new, improvised line against the stirring choruses of "Hallelujah" from Edge and Stewart, joined now by Natalie Imbruglia, Morleigh Steinberg and another singer. "I'll see you when I get home," he cries, shaking off all the sorrow and anguish of the rest of the song.
I won't say "Bono allowed a nation finally to mourn" or anything so fatuous, but for me that single line offered a degree of comfort, some small amount of solace in the face of all that heartache. Maybe the journey didn't end with that senseless tragedy. Maybe those who had been torn apart -- husbands and wives, mothers and sons -- would in fact find one another in some other, better place. For the first time perhaps ever, I honestly hoped this were true.
All That You Can't Leave Behind was transformed in the year following its release in October 2000. While it was never an especially cheery record, the deep melancholy was initially confined to songs like "Stuck In A Moment" and "Peace On Earth." As the months went by, though, and the Elevation tour rolled on, events recast it as an album-long meditation on mortality.
"In A Little While" -- with the lines "In a little while/This hurt will hurt no more" -- was reportedly the last song Joey Ramone heard before he died in April 2001, turning "a song about a hangover into a gospel song," Bono said. "Kite," a song about letting go, took on added poignancy as the singer dedicated it to his father, who succumbed to cancer in August. And then, after the Sept. 11 attacks: the rewritten lyrics to "New York" and, of course, "Walk On."
U2 often set their albums in specific locales, with visual and musical cues from the locales reflecting the themes found in the songs. The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum took us to the deserts of the American Southwest, and later to the juke joints and jazz clubs that gave birth to a uniquely American music. Achtung Baby occupied Berlin during the death throes of the Cold War. Zooropa existed in a sort of cyberworld. Pop, in a dance club that spills into the street in the early morning hours.
At first I thought All That You Can't Leave Behind had no such sense of place, and truth be told was a bit irked by this. But after watching its transformation I decided I had been wrong. Consider the cover image, with the band waiting at a departure gate in Charles de Gaulle Airport; the warm production; the title of the album itself. And then listen to the songs, especially with the renewed focus on themes of mortality.
In the end, I think, the record is very much about going home.
© @U2/Boas, 2011.