All That You Can’t Leave Behind is not the best U2 album. The Joshua Tree is greater and grander. Achtung Baby is more innovative and more daring. War has more to say. I can see reasonable arguments for preferring most of the U2 catalog over this record—and frankly, many U2 fans do. Even the band’s non-Achtung ‘90s albums—the experimental, occasionally brilliant, occasionally baffling pair of Zooropa and Pop—tend to garner more praise from the average U2 fan than their 2000 comeback. And yet, despite all the criticisms thrown at All That You Can’t Leave Behind—that it’s too safe; that it effectively ends U2’s legacy as a chance-taking band; that it’s as top-heavy as any 2000s record give or take a Hot Fuss—it’s also, by far, the U2 album I reach for most. The Joshua Tree is my go-to favorite, and Achtung is the one I love thinking about most, but All That You Can’t Leave Behind has an advantage over both: something about it just feels like home.
When I hear All That You Can’t Leave Behind, I think of eighth grade. For most people, eighth grade is synonymous with peak adolescent awkwardness. But I have a lot of nostalgia for my eighth-grade year—not because I wasn’t an awkward pre-pubescent mess (I was), but because it was the year I really fell in love with music. U2 weren’t the headlining act in that awakening. Jimmy Eat World lit the match, Green Day stoked the flames, and Butch Walker doused the fire in gasoline. But U2 definitely played a role. That Christmas, when I unwrapped my first iPod under the tree, the then-brand-new How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (another Christmas morning treat) was the first album I ever loaded onto it. And when I had $100 in Amazon cash to burn through post-holidays, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was one of the dozen or so CDs I added to my collection.
I may not have heard All That You Can’t Leave Behind until January 2005, but I knew enough about it to know that it had a legacy tied deeply to the early 2000s. This record came out in October 2000, but I don’t think it truly struck the zeitgeist until almost a year later. The propulsive “Beautiful Day” was a ginormous hit during the summer of 2001—a true, well-deserved “re-coronation” for a band that touted All That You Can’t Leave Behind as its way of “re-applying” for the job of being the biggest band in the world. But when the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001, All That You Can’t Leave Behind took on a new character. People were yearning for songs that felt hopeful, for songs that seemed to speak to hard times and to overcoming those hard times. The 11 songs U2 had stacked onto their comeback record a year earlier absolutely fit the bill.
Listening to All That You Can’t Leave Behind all these years later, it’s eerie how closely the lyrics seem to reflect what happened on that fateful September Tuesday in 2001. “See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colors came out,” Bono sings on “Beautiful Day,” a reminder that sunshine comes after the storm. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was written as an imagined argument between two friends, one of whom is thinking about committing suicide. (It’s Bono’s tribute to INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who took his own life in 1997.) But the lyrics—particularly the closing refrain of “And if your way should falter/Along this stony pass/It’s just a moment/This time will pass” resonated in a distinctly different way after 9/11. The same is true of “Peace on Earth,” which functions as an impassioned prayer to end war and violence—something that felt incredibly wrenching and prescient in the aftermath of that deadly day. There’s even a song called “New York,” which is a tribute to all the noise and chaos of the Big Apple. And when Bono sings the third verse of “When I Look at the World” (“I’m in the waiting room/I can’t see for the smoke/I think of you and your holy book/While the rest of us choke”) it’s difficult not to envision the song and its narrator, in the midst of a crushing crisis of faith, reckoning with God in a tower about to collapse into rubble.
Were it not for the internet and the way it has changed how we remember things, All That You Can’t Leave Behind would probably be recalled today as a post-9/11 album—a record that, like Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, was about taking stock of America and the world at large after a history-altering tragedy. That this record felt so relevant in the days after 9/11, though—and that it still does, almost 20 years later—ultimately speaks more to the universality that U2 have always been so good at channeling through their music. Even when Bono is singing something that is so clearly personal—“Kite,” for instance, is a magnificent reflection about parents and children, written as Bono’s father was dying and his daughters were growing up—you could swear he’s singing about you.
That’s how I always felt about “Walk On,” the song on All That You Can’t Leave Behind that means the most to me. If you asked Bono, he’d tell you that “Walk On” was written for Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese activist. But I’ve always clung to the song as an ode to big changes, and to facing down the things in life that scare you most. “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been,” Bono sings at the start of the second verse. It’s a line I’ve fixated on over and over again throughout my life, at every graduation, before every move, during every moment where I found myself trying to muster the courage to take a leap of faith into the great unknown.
That’s why this album makes me think, first and foremost, of eighth grade. Not only was that the year when I first found this record, and the year when I fell in love with music for real, but it also marked my life’s first true, earthshaking coming-of-age moment. I’d spent eight years at the same school, from first grade to eighth, growing up alongside the same group of friends and under the guidance of the same group of teachers. Eighth grade meant the end of that journey: my first graduation, my first leap into the unknown, and then, high school. It sounds almost silly and trivial to talk about those things now, looking back as an adult. Grade school or middle school graduations only really seem important when you’re living them. But I certainly remember sitting in my old school’s makeshift auditorium during my eighth-grade graduation, watching photos of me and my classmates flicker past as part of a video slideshow. And, of course, part of that slideshow was soundtracked by Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” the song that has probably soundtracked every grade school or middle school graduation since 1998. But as the only person in my eighth-grade class who really gave a damn about music, I’d also campaigned to make sure our big eighth grade video ended with a different song.
“And love is not the easy thing/The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can’t leave behind.” Those are the first words that crackle through the speakers at the start of “Walk On,” and hearing them ring through my old school as I literally watched the previous eight years flash before my eyes was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. The years after that, between then and now, largely flew by. I grew up, and I had lots more endings and graduations and moments where I had to close chapters to begin new ones. For every one of those, every big “time to move on” moment in my life, I returned to “Walk On.” There are a lot of songs out there that make me feel happy, sad, nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet, regretful, and a million other emotions. “Walk On” is unique: it’s one of the only songs I can think of that makes me feel brave.
This past spring, just shy of 15 years since my eighth-grade graduation, I went back to my old school. I’d been invited back as a guest author, to read to the students a few books that I’d written and tell them about my journey from where I was then to where I am now. It had been a literal lifetime since I’d attended that school as a student. More years had passed since than I’d had to my name when I “graduated” in 2005. But so much still felt the same: my teachers were still there, to welcome me with open arms and reminisce about the old days; and the school—while it looked different, the product of numerous renovations and improvements since I’d left—still felt distinctly like home. It felt appropriate that day to go back to “Walk On,” to let the song that had encapsulated my departure from the school play a role in my homecoming. And listening to it, as all these memories and emotions swirled around me, reminded me of just how big a role music can play in your life when it hits at the right time.
Over the past 20 years, All That You Can’t Leave Behind has become one of the rare albums that always seems to be there at the right time. It was there after 9/11, when its hymns of resilience and spiritual strength resonated with a nation and a world that was reeling. It was there at a crucial coming-of-age moment for me, when I don’t think a single song on the planet could have meant more than “Walk On.” It’s been there for cross-country plane rides and long road trips, for massive stadium concerts and for intimate Christmases when songs like “Peace on Earth” and “Grace” always seemed to convey the message of the holidays better than any Christmas carol could. And it’s been there for me this year, when, just a week after my triumphant return to my old school, the world descended into a period of darkness, uncertainty, and fear unlike anything I’ve ever known. Some songs transcend time and intent to become something more than they were built to be—to become the things we reach for when everything gets knocked off its axis. In 2002, when U2 performed the then-15-year-old “Where the Streets Have No Name” at the Superbowl Halftime Show, in a goosebumps-inducing tribute to the victims of 9/11, it was clear that “Streets” was one of those songs. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is now five years older than The Joshua Tree was at the time, and it’s just as clear to me what it is: a classic that will live forever, if only because of how comforting it sounds when everything else is falling apart.