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U2 leaves the present behind

Longtime fans will find what they're looking for on new CD

The sigh of relief you hear is from U2 fans pleased to see the band returning to genuine, heart-driven songs rather than continuing to explore the choppy, techno-obsessed production experiments that have alienated a lot of the faithful in recent years.

Kudos to the Dublin band for its new album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," which comes out Tuesday. It's a humble work by U2 standards but a proper one, given that the band had to reclaim its emotional, spiritual side rather than drift again into the sometimes tediously cerebral tangents of its trendy 1990s output.

The new album doesn't rock as much as expected or flaunt the provocative, grand political statements for which U2 is known. All it has is great songs that tie together beautifully - a welcome change from the disjointed nature of U2 discs such as 1993's "Zooropa" and 1997's "Pop," which was followed by the oddly satirical "PopMart" tour (arguably the group's last fling in stadiums, since it's planning to switch back to an arena tour in the spring).

The new album finds singer-lyricist Bono returning to his role as spiritual pilgrim. In the softly ambient "Grace," he sings, "Grace - it's the name for a girl/ It's also a xrthought that changed the world." In "Peace on Earth," he layers the tender antiwar ballad with the verse "Heaven on earth, we need it now . . . Jesus, could you take the time to throw a drowning man a line." That leads to a piercing thought about a woman who has lost her son to violence: "No one cries like a mother cries for peace on earth/ She never got to say goodbye, to see the color in his eyes/ Now he's in the dirt."

Bono has said he took much more time on the lyrics, as opposed to a past impulse to dash them off in the studio. The extra care makes for some of the most thoughtful, personal, and tender U2 songs in memory.

This is apparent in "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," which sounds like John Lennon merged with classic Philly soul. Croons Bono: "There's nothing that you can throw at me that I haven't heard/I'm just trying to find a decent melody/ A song that I can sing in my own company."

The album follows a purported identity crisis within the band, as detailed in a recent Billboard article that reveals U2 wrote nearly 100 songs, spanning every genre. But they pared them down wisely and no identity issues come across on the album.

However, there is a general wistfulness, and a definite taking stock of the new millennium, on a song like "Kite." It has a George Harrison-like slide guitar sound from the Edge, topped by such Bono lines as "You don't need me anymore" and "The last of the rock stars/ When hip-hop drove the big cars/ In the time when new media was the big idea."

It's a reminder that U2 isn't the Next Big Thing anymore, and they know it. But you have to admire the band's self-examination and self-acceptance. They're not trying to be 21 years old as they were on "Pop." Three of the band members - Bono, the Edge, and bassist Adam Clayton - are now 40 years old, while drummer Larry Mullen Jr. is just shy of that.

This is the most adult album the group has made. A number of love songs stand out, among them "Wild Honey" ("You were my shelter and my shade") and the gently bluesy, soulful "In a Little While," about returning home to one's lover: "This hurt will hurt no more/ I'll be home, love/ Slow down my beating heart/ Slowly, slowly, love."

It may seem as if Bono has been reading a little too much early Yeats judging from that line, but the sentiments are heartfelt. The music - limned with additional guitar from co-producer Daniel Lanois - is simply gorgeous.

Regarding this talk of returning to one's home, it should be noted that both Bono and the Edge fathered sons in the last year. The Edge named his son Levi, while Bono opted for the more tongue-twisting Elijah Bob Patricius Guggi Q Hewson (Hewson being Bono's last name).

The songcraft is exceptional, especially if you let the CD grow on you. There's not that immediate rush of some previous albums such as "Joshua Tree" or "Achtung Baby." The new one reveals its strengths more slowly, but persuasively. The return to using producers Lanois and Brian Eno, who worked on vintage discs "Unforgettable Fire" and "Joshua Tree," was a masterstroke. Eno adds some warmly supportive synthesizer lines, though the focus is very much the traditional sound of Bono's yearning vocals, the Edge's psychedelic guitar lines, and the painterly rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen.

The band's famed sense of humor is still evident. On the song "New York," Bono, who just purchased an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, talk-sings in a Lou Reed fashion and even jokes about the city: "The Irish have been coming here for years/ Feel like they own the place."

This is an album U2 diehards should truly enjoy.

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