As with The Exile, I think All That You Can't Leave Behind did make sense for the band, but in hindsight the album raised the question, "now what?" Or, if we're going to quote from a b-side, it's not "Where Did It All Go Wrong?" It's the single lyric from "Endless Deep."Where do we go from here?
They had gone from thesis to antithesis and finally to synthesis; from post-punk and Americana to industrial and techno and finally to mature pop. Their tracks ranged from abstract tone poems to very tightly crafted songs, from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of sorrow, and from stadium rockers to the most intimate bedroom music.
I'm not sure there was much more new ground to cover for a band that was always trying to innovate and look forward -- and what ground there was, even less was realistically within their reach if one accounts for the permanent strands within the band's personality, the musical abilities of each band member, the commercial ambitions of the band, and perhaps especially the changing scene in music.
In terms of globally televised, single-concert accomplishments, I'm not sure one could imagine any greater summit than the first post-9/11 Super Bowl halftime show, certainly not for a rock band of U2's age when Bono already recognized that he was "last of the rock stars." Red Rocks and Live Aid and POPMart Sarajevo and then that Super Bowl show: where do we go from here?
In 1993, Billy Joel released his last rock album, but he had performed a few times since then. No one would have known for certain that he would do this at the time, but he's been extensively touring on his back catalog since 2006.
With All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 was in much the same position as Billy Joel when he released River of Dreams.
Billy Joel: 12 studio albums over 23 years, 1971-1993
U2: 10 studio albums over 21 years, 1980-2000
Maybe the Piano Man blazed a trail that U2 should have considered.
In my mind, here is where the alternate timeline would diverge from ours.
February 27th, 2002.
Consider the last three months for the band.
- December 2, they wrap the top tour of 2001, grossing $143 million and playing to more than 2 million people.
- January 22, they release the Target-exclusive EP, U2 7, a kind of bookend to their first EP, U2 Three.
- February 3, they have their tremendously moving post-9/11 performance during the Super Bowl halftime, watched by some 85 million Americans; the crowd-pleasing highlights are "Streets" and "Beautiful Day," the very popular singles and opening tracks from both their 15-year-old blockbuster and their most recent album.
Whether they had any inkling before hand, the night of February 22nd was shaping up to be a stellar night, the second consecutive rousing success for U2 at the Grammys. Between the two years, they would win double their number of Grammy wins, scoring 7 awards out of a then-total of 14 -- and not only would their album win a Grammy, but literally every single off that album would win.
- Record of the Year, 2001: Beautiful Day
- Song of the Year, 2001: Beautiful Day
- Best Rock Performance, Duo/Group, 2001: Beautiful Day
- Record of the Year, 2002: Walk On
- Best Pop Performance, Duo/Group, 2002: Stuck in a Moment
- Best Rock Performance, Duo/Group, 2002: Elevation
- Best Rock Album, 2002: All That You Can't Leave Behind
Record of the Year is one of the "big four," and if I'm correct, it's the last award announced. Having already won three for a night Grammys for a night that would otherwise belong to Alicia Keys, the band could have been prepared for that last award, and they might
have had some "inside information."
Perhaps they discussed the idea at some length before, in the days between the Super Bowl and the Grammys, but regardless, the band decides to accept the award with an announcement that stops the presses.
Maybe Bono says something about dreaming it all again -- or maybe, "We dreamed out loud, and we've accomplished more than we could have ever dreamed."
Maybe he brings up the line about reapplying for the world's best band: "We reapplied for the job, and we've done all that one band could do."
Maybe he simply says, "I'm someone who always seems to have something to say, but you've left me speechless -- and as a band, we've said all that we can say."
"You certainly haven't seen the last of Larry, Adam, Edge, and myself -- and you might not have seen the last of U2, but we should take a bow. Good night, and God bless you."
After that, the band that is named U2 releases the occasional new music -- a song for a soundtrack, like "Ordinary Love;" or a reworked song for a rerelease, like "Blow Your House Down" -- but never more than a four-song EP.
In 2005, the band releases a book and accompanying compilation, U2 By U2, which takes a look at the band's entire history as an active, ongoing concern.
Between 2007 and 2011, the band also releases re-mastered, deluxe editions of most of their older albums.
The band members work on their own projects -- Broadway musicals for Bono and Edge, acting for Larry -- and the four work together in various projects under other names. One such project is Passengers where the original Passengers (U2 & Eno) rope in Daniel Lanois to release a single album originally planned as two EP's: titled Daylight & Darkness, the 2009 album doesn't make too many waves on the charts beyond its one single, the atmospheric "Fez - Being Born."
And the band emerges about once a decade for a massive, wildly popular stadium tour on the strength of their old work. Between 2009 and 2011, they have the 360 Tour. Along with an earlier Passengers track, "Your Blue Room," the occasional Daylight & Darkness track appears, but especially later legs of the tour focus on Achtung Baby to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary.
Then, in 2017, the band announces a stadium tour explicitly celebrating The Joshua Tree's 30th anniversary.
With the Passengers work and other side projects, U2 fans continue to follow the band members' forays into art, sometimes the esoteric and sometimes very accessible pop art.
Inspired by doing the original theme for "The Batman" cartoon, Edge writes an album of instrumental music. Bono writes poetry and records an album of pop standards (it's never acknowledged, but fans all recognize the inside joke, that he sings as Macphisto). Larry gets a small but important role in an HBO noir series. Adam joins Anthony Bourdain on one of his travelogue shows.
And there remains no doubt that U2 was the greatest rock band at least of its era, and perhaps for all time.
Boy. October. War. Unforgettable Fire. Joshua Tree. Rattle & Hum. Achtung Baby. Zooropa. Pop. All That You Can't Leave Behind.
The discography remains untouchable and untouched.