With or without you

If Achtung Baby were recorded without all the fancy dance beats or all the studio trickery, it probably would have come across much like U2’s latest long-player, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Unlike the other two albums in the Irish quartet’s 90s oeuvre, Achtung Baby was propelled by its songwriting first, its studio magic second. Zooropa needed quite a number of listens — and in some instances, hindsight — to penetrate its layers of effects, while on Pop, the surface was the depth.

For All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 has gone back to being a rock band, just as the band’s PR machinery predicted. As a result, the group has once again placed focus on the one thing that often seemed lost in its attempt to use the studio as a fifth member — the song.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind is practically filler-free, and even the dead weight — “New York,” “Grace” — are light years better than, say, the entire second half of Pop.

“Beautiful Day,” the first single off the album, features that signature U2 chorus in which the Edge competes with Bono by singing a soaring single-note “Yeah!” “Elevation” employs some of the effects processing from the group’s immediate past as a means to drive the song’s hook.

“Walk On” could be considered the cousin to “Until the End of the World,” which is a good thing, while “Stuck in a Moment” successfully traffics in the gospel tendencies that made Rattle and Hum tedious.

It’s very easy to sing this album’s praises — U2 is pretty much back on top of their proverbial game.

But don’t think Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry Jr. have gone back to re-recording The Unforgettable Fire — this “new” U2 draws as much upon its latter day works as the spirit of its earlier songs.

“Kite” begins with a backmasked synthesizer before the Edge crashes in with his trademark slide. At the same time, “Wild Honey” depends on acoustic guitars to provide most of its backdrop.

“In a Little While” might have hints of Rattle and Hum’s soul and Achtung Baby’s backbeat, but “Peace on Earth” has The Joshua Tree’s sense of holistic introspection.

In short, U2 has taken the sum of its entire career and created a whole work that shows them in one of their best moments.