A-OK

All That You Can't Leave Behindbegins with "Beautiful Day," a rocker in their oversaturated '90s style but with Edge's guitar sound restored, effective because instead of lingering over gimmickry it just bullies ahead. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of" is churchly bliss, Bono testifying over his beloved Philly soul; "Elevation," nothing but shimmy-shammy, big-beat chords and falsetto hoots. "Walk On" is an inspirational message that's never belabored; same for "Kite," which has this looped string bit keeping cool while Bono lets go about "who's to say where the wind will take you." "In a Little While" and "Wild Honey" are calmer, savoring vintage pop-rock like old friends. Though it's downhill from there, with "Peace on Earth" and "New York" too much to take and "When I Look at the World" and "Grace" not quite striking, seven fantastic songs in a row wins my vote.

Call it their R.E.M. album, monster rock filtered through a sophisticate's restraint. Or look back further, to the 1970s vocal Brian Eno albums that preceded his ambient work and surpass it in quality if not influence. Even an outtake from that era, like his "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," combines the futurism and reverence U2 are trading on. It's not that they've regressed, or conceded an error: Keyboards still dominate this mix, Bono still hasn't found what he's looking for, and the zero-gravity sound separations invented for Achtung Babystill keep the genre touches floating. But as with Harvey, who on some level has finally made the Patti Smith album everyone always expected of her (inevitable joke: "Horsesin My Dreams"), the lesson is that there's plenty gold left in them there rock-and-roll hills. Veins galore.

That doesn't invalidate Kid A, obviously; it's better than Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, launched to the same gushing praise last year. But it amazes me how every time some burnt-out rocker goes experimental, the results are accorded automatic deference. And not just from critics: Check through some of the staggering 843 comments to date, many lengthy, that Amazon has received on Kid A—electorate divided, but the majority of the opinion that if Radiohead have another OK Computerstored up for release next spring, well, fine, but Kid Ais more important. Really? Never the biggest U2 or arena rock fan, I find all my sympathies with the residue of pop aspiration Bono so righteously titled All That Can't Be Left Behind. It'll be interesting to see how many others do too, whether today's collective lemon sucking passes at the first hint of sweeter fruits.

Hey hey she's the Monkees (for a moment).
photo: Maria Mochnasz
Hey hey she's the Monkees (for a moment).

Details

U2
All That You Can't Leave Behind
Interscope
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PJ Harvey
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea
Island
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"You act like you never had love/And you want me to go without," Mr. B once sang, on an overblown number full of generalities that became as much a standard as anything written in the 1990s. It's not a bad thing that rock no longer exerts hegemony. U2 are no longer required to carry themselves as saviors or anti-Christs to make a great album. PJ Harvey needn't travel hell and high water to bring you her love. They just have to remember what turned them on about this stuff in the first place. Can you?

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