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In Their Debt: The members of U2 put their fame where their causes are and have lobbied for debt relief for poor countries.

Cause Celebrities

On its new album, 'All That You Can't Leave Behind,' U2 looks for a way to match hope and history

By Gina Arnold

U2 HAS A NEW RECORD OUT. The single was released in September, but instead of spending the last few months promoting the band's latest product by playing special concerts and shaking the hands of American radio honchos, singer Bono has spent much of his time in New York City and Washington attempting to convince various congressmen to pass an initiative that would authorize a $435 million payment to the International Monetary Fund.

In the course of his duties as a representative of Jubilee 2000, Bono has met not with Howard Stern and Carson Daly but with U.S. Treasurer Lawrence Summers, the Pope and President Clinton. He has gone to Prague to protest to the IMF directly. And he personally presented a petition signed by 21.2 million people to U.N. President Kofi Annan, asking that the debts of poor nations be entirely canceled.

Alas, it cannot be said that international debt reduction is a sexy subject. It somehow lacks the thrill of more romantic concerns, like freeing Tibet from China or helping tortured political prisoners through Amnesty International.

Debt reduction involves loads of boring facts and figures like this one: Last year, the Philippines paid $5.1 billion dollars in debt service (that is, interest) to its creditors, far more than it can afford to spend on health care and education. In Bolivia, where the debt load is even more out of proportion to the Gross National Product, 60 percent of the population don't live in sanitary conditions.

Given the undoubted dryness of the topic, Bono's dedication to this particular cause is admirable, of course, but it invariably raises the question of whether pop stars ought to get involved in such serious matters. After all, there is something inherently absurd about the sight of a Bono or a Wyclef Jean hobnobbing with world leaders.

U2, however, has always maintained that its role as world entertainers should be augmented with a canny bit of moral arbitrating. And whatever you think of the practice, the evidence is that using their star power works.

In September, when Bono arrived on these shores, the Clinton administration's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative was frowned on by both the House and the Senate. In November, after they'd all shaken hands with Bono and no doubt been promised backstage passes to the band's 2001 U.S. tour, the initiative was passed.

OF COURSE, there might not be a direct correlation. But it's worth noting, as the band's latest LP, All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope Records), seems to have been at least partially inspired by Bono's work on this cause. Although no song specifically mentions the words "debt relief" (thank goodness!), the record is a thoughtful celebration of humanity, a treatise about humility, generosity and the humdrum nature of everyday life.

This represents a big change from U2's last three LPs, which have all been concept albums about consumerism, alienation and the New Europe. On All That You Can't Leave Behind, the group's latest philosophy is stated on the single "Beautiful Day": "It's a beautiful day--don't let it slip away."

U2 has always striven to reinvent itself with each album, although not always successfully, as evidenced by its last effort, 1997's disappointing electronic field day, Pop. At the same time, for at least the last decade, one of its biggest thematic concerns has been the rise of pop exploitation.

Song upon song has talked about the soullessness of the corporate world and the mass-market nature of rock in general (an example: "Discoteque," from the last LP). And during tour after tour, the band has attempted to deconstruct the fell forces of consumerism right in front of those very consumers' eyes.

On the wonderful ZooTV tour, for example, the band played on a stage banked with thousands of TV screens, all tuned to different stations, while singer Bono, dressed as Elvis, emulated and mocked all the market forces that were attempting to control him. On 1997's even more ambitious PopMart tour, the band was dwarfed by special effects that (deliberately) turned them into silver-plated automatons, even emerging from inside a giant chrome lemon.

Neither tour's raison d'être was remotely stupid. But unfortunately, the point that U2 has been trying to make with these extravagant pageants--that pop music is a dangerous opiate of the people, or something in that vein--is one that can only make thoughtful listeners more and more weary of taking part in the band's artistic vision.

U2 wasn't being cynical, but it wasn't exactly being hope-laden or inspirational, either--and those are probably the two sensations that most U2 fans most wanted from the band. They were certainly the two sensations that the band made its name with, all those years ago, on albums like Boy and Under a Blood Red Sky, and now they're back, on songs like "Beautiful Day," "Walk On" and "Peace on Earth."

"Peace on Earth," a prettily sung ballad, has the type of lyrics that, in other mouths than Bono's, could sound pious and didactic. Bono himself has never been afraid of either adjective, but somehow he's earned the right to sing things like "Jesus, this song you wrote, the words are sticking in my throat/Peace on earth, you hear it every Christmastime/But hope and history won't rhyme, so what's it worth?"

ANOTHER pleasant surprise is "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of," a redemptive hymnlike number with a classic sound to its melody. The album isn't flawless, of course. "New York" is a bit of a U2 cliché, replete with the Edge's trademark octave-bending guitar work and Bono's high-pitched keen, and "Elevation" is also paint-by-numbers U2.

Overall, however, the album is thankfully lacking in the overwrought production values that have come to characterize previous U2 albums. This is the U2 of Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, the U2 that people sing along to and take heart in, the U2 that has enough moral conviction to pull off a monumentally egotistical gesture like confronting U.N. President Kofi Annan personally with a request to forgive poor nations their debts.

That egotism used to be more evident in U2's work. What makes this album great is just its simplicity. All That You Can't Leave Behind comes across as a nice, gentle, tuneful record, a song cycle that eschews bombast for melody. The bottom line is, it is pleasant to listen to--and that's a rediscovery of sorts, since prior to its release, I could have sworn that I'd never be interested in U2 again.

The band has never exactly done anything to offend me, but at a certain point in all groups' life spans, it's not even a question of like or dislike. Twenty-two years is a long time to live with a band, and if, like me, you remember their very first appearance here, it's somehow even longer.

By now, U2's voices are so familiar, their profiles so stony, their songs so detached from everyday experience, that it was almost impossible to believe they'd ever speak to me again. This just makes the fact that All That You Can't Leave Behind is a moving and enjoyable record all the more remarkable. It's as if the group finally fell to Earth, and when it got here found that mere mortals make better rock stars than angels, politicians or saints.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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