>Album Review: "All That You Can’t Leave Behind" by U2

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It’s an epidemic: the only music I can write about now is safe, happy, and worst of all, comforting. I just picked up All Shook Down, the last album Paul Westerberg put out with the Replacements moniker, and I’ll be damned if it hasn’t made me feel nice and cozy with its sweet, sober melody. This can’t continue. If I’m shooting to be a halfway-decent music blogger I’ve got to stop writing about all this everything’s-gonna-be-alright shit and start up with some Black Flag or Dillinger Escape Plan and rip up the scene hardcore.

Eh, maybe next time.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind starts up with “Beautiful Day” which might be the best goddamned song U2’s ever recorded. I mean that. Well, ok, maybe not the best song, but there are few U2 songs that really bury themselves under my skin as much as this one does. It’s got bombast to beat the band, but man, it’s measured bombast. It starts with a slow, calculated crawl, with Bono keeping his voice low and steady, and then the band tears into that “It’s a beautiful day” chorus like there’s nothing left to live for. And then, bam, there’s Bono’s “TOUCH ME! TAKE ME TO ANOTHER PLACE!!” yelp with the Edge’s guitar blasting through the door, and man, you’ve taken off. You’re out of the building. “Beautiful Day” is a wonderfully crafted song because it lulls you in, locks the door behind you and shoots you straight into the stratosphere with Bono’s super-powered howl and the band’s layers and layers of rock bombast. There is no denying this goddamned song.

I don’t like any other songs on Leave Behind as much as “Beautiful Day” but that’s neither here nor there. The rest of the songs here follow “Beautiful Day”‘s flow, but while that song was intended for the Great White Beyond, the other 11 here mostly stick around on planet Earth. They’re Big Important Anthems, to be sure, but they’re humble. They’re here to make you feel good and fuzzy and warm, like an FDR Fireside Chat. Sure, you’ve got your nutty-rap-rock-thing “Elevation,” which breaks the flow a bit, but otherwise Leave Behind is a collection of songs that beg the listener to let go and sweeten up a little. Themselves, too; this is an album U2 needed to make, I guess, if people were ever going to like them again. The whole album is pretty calculated – you can tell U2 wanted to be earnest here, tried to be the ultimate good guys in a rock ‘n roll world filled with villains like Fred Durst and Andrew W.K. Of course, they succeeded, and of course they let it get to their heads with that “Gangs of New York” crap.

But I’ll let the music speak for itself – despite U2’s obvious desire to please here, I just like the melodies on this record so damned much that I don’t care. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb be damned – this one’s overloaded with pretty. “Stuck in a Moment,” “Wild Honey,” “When I Look At The World,” “Kite,” “Walk On”: I’m sorry, I gotta just feel good listening to those songs. Nothing new or adventurous – there’s some electronic flourishes here and there, and even some hip-hoppish beats slip in (“New York,” “Elevation,” “In A Little While”) but it’s not jammed down the listener’s throat. This isn’t an album that’s gonna change your perception of rock music, it just wants to give you a big fat hug. Beyond those lovely melodies, I’ll come right out and say I dig the lyrics here too. They’re simple, effective, and not too preachy (with the exception of the all-too-helpful “Walk On” or “Peace On Earth”). Someone once told me that they hated the lyrics to “Stuck In A Moment” ‘cuz they were cheap, but I just don’t hear it. “I’m just trying to find a decent melody / something I can sing / my own company.” That’s so nice! That makes me smile!!

Beyond that, Leave Behind‘s got a weird kinda structure, at least for me. I’ve been a U2 fan longer than I’ve been a Beatles fan (!!!) so it’s kind of surprising – even for myself – that I never heard all of Leave Behind until last summer. I think maybe it’s ’cause the first four songs on the album were all over the radio – I’ve known “Beautiful Day,” “Stuck In A Moment,” “Elevation” and “Walk On” since I was fucking 13, so I didn’t really need to hear them all in sequence, did I? After those hits, though, there’s three more fantastic songs here that I’ve never ever heard before: “Kite,” a neat slow-burning number with some of Bono’s best vocals on the album; “In a Little While,” featuring a surprisingly low-key atmosphere; and “Wild Honey,” a straight-up pop number that might be the outright cutest song U2’s ever recorded save for “The Sweetest Thing.” God, I love those songs. After that, though, the last four kinda dip into Mellowsville; while I dig “When I Look At The World,” I don’t get much from “Peace On Earth,” “New York” or “Grace.” They’re not bad, but they just don’t get me goin’.

Is it OK for me to like this album? I know people have been saying that Atomic Bomb is a carbon-copy of it, but I just don’t hear that. The melodies here just don’t feel as put-on – every song is like a breath, seeping into the subconscious and flowing out with a cool trail of air. It’s all natural, is what I’m trying to say. I’m sure Bono recorded this album for the good of capitalism, to make some sweet dough from throwing “Elevation” into that shitty Tomb Raider movie, but I don’t care. This is one of those albums that just wants you to be OK, to get you some cocoa while you vent about your shitty job, to hold your hand at your mother’s funeral. Who am I to resist?

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>Pissin’ The Night Away: Five More Fun Selections From My Nostalgia Playlist

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It’s just one of those days.

In my unending boredom tonight, I casually looked over my iTunes nostalgia playlist, a sense of pride flowing forth. “Wow, Sean,” I thought to myself. “125 songs. 125 cherished memories. You’ve certainly done a wonderful job in documenting the musical zenith of your youth. Pat yourself on the back!”

It was a wonderful feeling, but of course one that would not last very long. For soon, another voice inside my head would chime in – the voice of a gruff, angry 15-year-old skateboarder shouting “What the fuckin’ tits, dude? Where the fuck is ‘Break Stuff’??”

The 15-year-old was right. I had some downloading to do.

Here are five new songs I stumbled across tonight.

Limp Bizkit: “Nookie”

So here’s the deal. I’m sitting at my desk in 6th grade Social Studies; the teacher hasn’t shown up yet, so everybody’s just shooting the shit. This girl I’ve known since 2nd grade is sitting in front of me – not facing me, of course, ’cause we aren’t talking. All the sudden I hear her singing to herself – “Well I guess it would be nice / if I could touch your boddddyyyyy…” Within seconds, the kid behind me chimes in – “I know that not everybody, has got a body like youuuu…”

Now, this was unusual. For one thing, you know, there’s two 12-year-olds singing to one another unprovoked in Social Studies, which actually wasn’t unusual to me at the time. Honestly, I just didn’t know the fucking song. “Wh… what is that?” I ask the girl sheepishly.

“What the hell?” She looks at me like I’m from fucking Saturn. “It’s Limp Bizkit.”

“Yeah, seriously!” the kid behind me chimes in again. “You gotta know Limp Bizkit!

“Oh… okay.” What did I know? The only music I listened to at the time was the Ragtime soundtrack. I didn’t understand any of this “cool kid” music.

Then I started watching TRL. Then the “Nookie” video came out, with bad-boy Fred Durst swankin’ on down the street with that legendary red backwards Yanks cap, rappin’ about some BITCH who put his heart in a fuckin’ blender (like that Eve 6 song). Then came that chorus about the aforementioned “Nookie” (a term which I was not yet familiar with) and sticking a cookie up your… YEAH! Then came Fred Durst getting harassed and arrested by a bunch of thuggish cops for rockin’ out TOO DAMN HARD (which I’m sure wasn’t staged AT ALL).

And ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be damned if my life wasn’t changed.

In other words, I’ll be damned.

It’s funny, though; downloading the album – aka TOTALLY RAW AND UNCENSORED – version of this song, you notice a few things. For one, the song isn’t really censored all that much, and the legendary “Stick it up your YEAH!” was apparently totally intentional (which makes the line all the more hilarious). Secondly, there’s this little background voice that serves as the answer to many of Durst’s lines: “Should I be feelin’ bad? (NO!) Should I be feelin’ good? (NO!)” “You would think that I’d be movin’ on… (MOVE IT!)” “I can’t believe that I would be deceived (But you WERE!)” This adds a whole new dimension to the song, not unlike John Lennon’s little quips in Paul McCartney-written Beatles songs such as “Getting Better” and “Hello Goodbye.”

Yeah, that’s a fair comparison.

So in conclusion: “Nookie” is better than Sgt. Pepper.

Small note: I can recite almost every lyric to this song. If you put it on, I’ll sing along. Just a warning.

98 Degrees: “The Hardest Thing”

About a second or so before I put this song on (for the first time in like a decade), I realized – through some inexplicable cosmic force – that I remembered almost every single lyric in the song. I started singing them to myself, without realizing what I was doing. It was weird.

But man, when the music kicked in, I got into it. I felt the emotion. This is a ballad, ladies and gentlemen. This is a sad song!!

Here are the opening lyrics, which I will recite here without the aid of a lyric sheet, ’cause… well, y’know:

We both know that I shouldn’t be here, this is wrong
And baby it’s killin’ me, it’s killin’ you
the both of us tryin’ to be strong
I’ve got somewhere else to be, promises to keep
There’s someone else who loves me, and trusting me fast asleep
(okay so this part’s a little hazy)

I’ve made up my mind – there is no turning back
She’s been good to me, and she deserves better than that!!

As a precocious 12-year-old, these lyrics confused me. So the protagonist is with some girl, but he doesn’t WANT to be with her, he wants to be with this other girl who treats him right. So why are you hanging out with your old flame, boys of 98 Degrees? But then the chorus puts things in a different light: “It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do / To turn around and walk away / Pretending I don’t love you.” And furthermore: “You can get on with your life / I’ve got to be cruel to be kind.” “You will never know, ’cause there can be no happy ending.”

Wait, wait, 98 Degrees – so you LOVE this girl? Then why break her heart? Why go off with some random floozy who’s been NICE to you – who you’re OBLIGATED to be with? What forces are working against you, you young late-90’s heart-throbs?? You guys aren’t Fred Durst, I’m sure you can manage to salvage this relationship! DON’T BREAK HER HEART! DON’T RESIGN YOURSELVES TO UNHAPPINESS! EMBRACE WHAT YOU LOVE!! LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR THESE FICKLE BICKERINGS!!!

…err, well. Of course things aren’t that simple.

As far as the music goes, this is your basic late-90’s boy band ballad designed to make girls swoon. But… I’ll be damned if it doesn’t… oh jeez, I’m sorry.

Let’s just move on.

Marcy Playground: “Sex and Candy”

So from what I’ve gathered, the longer the 90’s wore on, the more boring alternative rock became. I mean, yeah, Nirvana and Pearl Jam kicked in guns ablaze back in ’91, but once Hootie and the Blowfish and Matchbox 20 came onto the scene, it suddenly became cool to be blase. By the end of the 90’s we by-the-numbers alternahits from Vertical Horizon, Creed, Third Eye Blind, Stroke 9, Everclear, and so on and so forth. They were the dregs of the alternative rock scene, holding on with fierce tenacity as their era of vaguely-industrial angst-rock faded into the ether with the turn of the millenium, to be replaced by indie-folk and emocore forever.

And of course, there was “Sex and Candy.” “Sex and Candy” didn’t shake things up too much, as you can imagine. Bored vocal, kinda lazy instrumentation, kinda-sorta-catchy chorus that sticks in your head without you even realizing it. “Oh, hey, ‘Sex and Candy’. Uh, yeah. That song’s alright. It’s no ‘The Hardest Thing’ but it’ll do.”

Honestly, though, in my blossoming adolescence, any song with the word “sex” in the title automatically caught my attention. I was a sick little child. But candy? What does candy have to do with sex??

The Offspring: “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)”

“Americana” by the Offspring was the first CD I ever bought. Now, for someone who is obsessed with music, I guess you could call this a landmark moment, but I can’t really make that kind of pronouncement. I mean, it’s not like I went out and bought fucking “Abbey Road” or some shit – “Americana” was just a 6th grade whim, which makes sense ’cause it was basically an album made for 6th graders (see: Korn, Limp Bizkit, Blink-182).

This was the song that did it for me. Dexter Holland – in his shouty, vaguely cynical voice – rips on some poser guy who thinks he’s a rapper and listens to Vanilla Ice. I thought it was funny, mostly ’cause my friends thought it was funny too, so I got the album. Other songs included “The Kids Aren’t Alright” (remember that Who song? Yeah, I didn’t get the reference either) which bitched and moaned about how all teenagers are drug addicts or something, “She’s Got Issues” which bitched and moaned about Dexter’s INSAAAANE girlfriend, and “Why Don’t You Get A Job” which stole its structure from “Obladi Oblada” and bitched and moaned about a lazy white-trash woman who sits on her ass all day (they switch the genders up near the end, but you know, only briefly – just to appease all the feminists out there, I guess).

All in all, it was kind of a shitty album that all my friends loved ’cause there were lots of swears in it. I’ve known many people who have claimed that “Americana” was the Offspring’s “sell-out” album, mining for big pop hits and abandoning their punk roots. But that’s a crock of shit – the Offspring had a HUGE hit back in ’94 with “Come Out And Play,” a song that was nearly identical to “Pretty Fly.” They were sell-outs from the word “go,” and a total product of the 90’s – a homogenized “punk” band with lyrics about Ricki Lake and getting tattoos. Don’t try to make them out to be cool.

My second CD ever was “14:59” by Sugar Ray, an album which I still kinda enjoy listening to. I mean, neither album is quite as good as “98 Degrees and Rising” by 98 Degrees, but what are you gonna do?

Smash Mouth: “All Star”

Ahh jeez. Come on.

I know this song. You know this song. It was in Mystery Men, that movie with the zany alt-superheroes. It was in like 50 car commercials. I think it was in Rat Race. It was all over the fucking place.

And yet, despite its rampant overplay-factor, it’s still a likable song. Not a great song, mind you, but I kinda like it. It’s catchy, it’s amiable, it’s not too annoying. I approve.

Two things: I used to think the lyric went “Hey now, you’re a rock star / Get the show on, get laid.” Now, I had no idea what getting “laid” meant, I had just heard the term used somewhere – and I had no idea that, in all logic, it made perfect sense. I also had no idea what the lyrics meant; at this point of my life, I assumed that any lyrics to any song had some story tucked away inside of them, some narrative that made perfect sense if you paid close attention (a result of growing up with musicals, where every lyric is intended to push the story along). So of course, these lyrics frustrated me: “The ice we skate is getting pretty thin / the water’s getting warm so you might as well swim / the world’s on fire, how ’bout yours / that’s the way I like it and I’ll never get bored.” Ka-whaaa? And that part near the end about the guy asking for change?? I dunno. I don’t follow, Smash Mouth!

All in all, a fun song. No “The Hardest Thing,” but I can’t ask for the moon, baby.

So that’s all for now. I assure you, as long as I am alone on a Sunday night, this will happen again.

>Old Friends

>I don’t actively seek out new bands. Come to think of it, I never really have; in the past I’ve usually relied on friends of mine to recommend new bands to me that I might like. Y’know, I don’t scour the record racks every week looking for the Next Big Thing. I don’t have the time and I don’t care enough.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t like new music. I do! I just don’t look for it – it kinda has to find me. “Neon Bible” was my favorite new release of the past year, but it’s also the only one released by a “new” band that I really listened to over and over. I dug “Boys and Girls in America” and “St. Elsewhere” and all that hip-cool shit (don’t Gnarls have a new album out, too?), but I still feel pretty distanced from indie rock nowadays. None of it rocks enough for me, you could say. None of it grabs my ass and makes me wanna dance around. The ultimatum for popular music circa 2008 is if you don’t wanna listen to “The Crane Wife” on your headphones, sitting alone in your room with the shades down, then you’ve gotta head out, hit the club, and dance to… err, Flo Rida. Or “Superman Dat Hoe.” Or that Kanye song with Daft Punk that’s kinda-sorta-alright. For me, most indie is determinately non-provocative and dance-R&B is predictable and too slow. It’s just not my scene.

So I listen to old friends. For the past couple years I’ve been keeping track of new albums from the Flaming Lips, Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The White Stripes, Stephen Malkmus and Radiohead. None of these albums have been shocking or revelatory, but they’ve been good, digging into the pleasure center of my brain and giving me exactly what I need out of rock music. Dylan’s “Modern Times” and “Love and Theft” surprised the hell out of me, ’cause I thought the old bastard had burned himself out years ago, but besides that I haven’t come across any major surprises – just solid music from bands I love. I just listened to the new R.E.M. record “Accelerate,” and it has made me very happy, especially considering that they’ve been going through some rough patches in the past few years. It’s not anything new, to be sure, but it burrows into my head and doesn’t leave, which is really something. I’ve loved R.E.M. for years, and now it sounds like they’re old friends coming to visit. It’s nice.

Maybe it’s a more troubling trend than I’m giving it credit for – older rock bands who’ve given up on making original music, leaning back on their strengths and essentially giving their fans what they want. “Sky Blue Sky” was Wilco doing good-feelin’ mellow rock. “Magic” was an E Street Band record in full swing. “At War With The Mystics” was goofy psychadelic whoo-hah. “Icky Thump” was bluesy rockin’ fun, no more no less. “In Rainbows” was challenging, to be sure, but didn’t explore anything remarkably new. These albums could lead me to cite an epidemic in the old guard of rock ‘n roll, an easy way to claim that the rock music I love is dead, stuck in a rut of predictability. But why should I care when I enjoy the music so damned much?

My friend Steve and I plan on throwing a Wilhelm-themed party sometime near the end of the semester. Whenever it does happen, we’re gonna make sure that we make the party playlist – I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to do that. My years of attending college parties have led to many, many instances of hating whatever music was playing ’cause it didn’t meet my asshole-ish standards. Of course, Steve and I are gonna load up the list with tons of stupid bullshit white-boy rock – Limp Bizkit, Sum 41, Andrew WK, all the crap we can find. After years of not caring about popular music, even “Nookie” sounds like the warm embrace of an old friend.

God, that’s sad.

By the way, is the new Raconteurs album any good?