In what way did they become a four piece band again on ATYCLB? The liner notes show the musical involvement of far more than four people in the production of the album. And I don’t see how replacing the vibrant colours of Pop for the monochrome textures of ATYCLB represents a ‘stripping down’ of their sound. They also played more songs from Pop on the PopMart tour than they played from ATYCLB on the Elevation tour.
It’s curious how Bono’s storytelling resulted in two of the very best U2 songs in over a decade in Cedars of Lebanon and Moment of Surrender.
U2 marketed themselves as "four musicians in one room" or "11 songs we can take on the road" for the ATYCLB era. The major sounds of the songs were playable live, from the quintessential riff of Beautiful Day to the crunchy guitars of Elevation. The "bare bones" or essence of the U2 songs were once again capable of being reproduced live.
During POP, the loud bass that is essential to Mofo was pre-recorded. Mofo was also had double track drumming in the album - not being reproduced live. Gone had this high pitched backing sound similar to a sharp airplane but never played live by The Edge, where he instead chose to play chords. Staring At The Sun became all acoustic. If God Will Send His Angels became a 30 second rant before being eliminated from the setlist. Miami was not the band but just the backing drum loop machine for most of the song up until Edge's "bombastic" guitars came in. Velvet Dress was nothing like the studio version, and the same can be said for Discotheque which was stripped down. In short, POP could not really be played live.
With ATYCLB, U2 went hard against the tide of computer generated music and drum machines. While they still employed this "studio magic tricks" to their songs, for this album the focus was on the band. This was an era when "hip hop drove the big cars" and the "new media" which was mp3's. This was an era when hand-played music by four musicians in a real band was threatened to become extinct. U2 fought against what was popular that day, took the fight straight to the boy bands and manufactured pop of that time - and came out with the daring and gutsy ATYCLB.
From trying so hard to make music that was to be accepted by the general public during the POP era by adding all these Prodigy/Chemical Brothers studio applications to their songs which detracted from the 4-piece band essence, U2 decided to not live a "fake" life of POP and just be who they really are in ATYCLB. Sometimes the most difficult reinvention is to be yourself - to dig down deep into your soul and find out who you are. That is similar to what happened in the Achtung Baby era, when U2 were facing internal strife that they had to dig deep within themselves and bear their soul.
POP was just a miscalculated abuse of position. It was more like: "hey we just made the biggest tour in rock history with Zoo TV and we are rich now, why not let's go bigger witha bigger screen?" It was like: "we are U2, we can do no wrong, let's just rehash some of our leftover songs and add some trip-hop, jungle, techno elements to it, the public will love it because we are U2, besides this is the hot music of this era." POP was recorded with the intention to sell a gazillion copies. But history has shown, U2 greatly miscalculated with that album. I say rehash of leftover songs because Velvet Dress and Wake up Dead Man have been around since the Zooropa era.
POP tried so hard to gain public acceptance and commercial success but they failed miserably. POP owns the record among all the U2 albums to have the most singles released from it. If POP were truly an "alternative" or "artistic" tour de force, would U2 have gone desperate release virtually every song off the album as a single? The end result was commercial failure, and just because U2 failed in achieving their goal - the POP fans are quick to rewrite history and say U2 were pushing the envelope. The only thing U2 did was push the play button on their old working songs, rehash them, and add some music elements that were prevalent and trendy during that time.
ATYCLB had U2 saying "let us be U2." It had Edge saying on the riff of Beautiful Day during the recording sessions: "F*** off, I don't care if it sounds too U2-ish, I am U2!". Normally, in art and music, success is achieved when you just become true to yourself and not try to be something you're not. Even in the tour, they did not just say they will go bigger and naturally progress from their previous tour. They built it from scratch with an arena setting and dream it all up over again.
That is why I am an ATYCLB-lover. U2 pushed the limits of what U2 is about, and set the path straight again.