U2's current single, ''Beautiful Day,'' opens not with a bang but a murmur. Gray-sky strings give way to a faint rhythmic pulse; slipping into the track like an errant husband coming home late, a hushed Bono paints a dreary picture of traffic jams, luckless circumstances, and sundry frustrations both everyday and cosmic. Then, suddenly, drummer Larry Mullen crashes in, and the song erupts into a euphoric bellow so uplifting ''Day'' was played during the recent Olympics telecast. We know it's a corny move, and U2 know we know; as the Edge unabashedly told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY last month, the song has a ''classic U2 arrangement.'' But damn if it isn't effective. For a few minutes, one is transported back to 1988 a time when so much rock, be it mainstream, indie, or hair metalish, actually sought to be sonically and emotionally uplifting.
For anyone still puzzling over 1997's half-baked Pop, this type of U2 song is a welcome reversal of fortune. Even more startling in light of the band's seeming obsolescence, the mood of ''Beautiful Day'' rarely lets up for the remainder of the accompanying album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's as if the band and Bono, in particular left the PopMart tour's space-age goggles and inane costumes on the bus. And as hopelessly antiquated as it may sound in the year 2000, it's as if they decided it was time to write and record an album of very good, extremely substantial traditional rock songs with an underlying inspirational bent.
Pop had its substantial moments too, but the band came across far from confident blending electronic swooshes into their songs, and the music seemed to slip through their fingers (and ours). Starting with ''Beautiful Day,'' which opens All That You Can't Leave Behind, the new album is as unwaveringly assured as Pop was tentative. ''Wild Honey,'' all sexual charge and emotional ambivalence, finds a melodic groove and stays there; the equally lusty ''Elevation'' and ''Walk On'' (one of many songs with lyrics straight out of a self-help manual) have the charging-horse feel of U2's youth, with a bumpy-noise upgrade courtesy of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Not to denigrate their early-'90s one-two punch, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, on which the band let its freak flag fly to often lustrous effect, but the new work focuses on songs, not sonic gimmicks, and the difference is palpable. Even when they frill up a track with rootsy touches, like the R&B accents of the lift-yourself-up bromide ''Stuck in a Moment,'' they shake off their stodginess. New-generation dullards like the Wallflowers would do well to scribble notes.
Of course, a U2 album would not be a U2 album without assorted Bono upheavals and quests. Here, the 40-year-old addresses a midlife crisis (complete with apparent affair) in ''New York'' and longs for ''heaven on earth/we need it now'' in ''Peace on Earth.'' The songs are heavyhearted, but the arrangements the grimy urban beats of the former and the delicate balladry of the latter aren't. (On ''New York,'' you even forgive Bono for describing Manhattan as hot and multiethnic, which is about as original as calling Dublin ''drizzly.'') Even the Edge dusts off his needles-and-pins leads. U2 no longer seem wary of their tendency toward the anthemic and grandiose, and they shouldn't be; it still sets them apart from nearly everyone, with the exception of Radiohead at their loftiest.
Unless it's on behalf of hard-to-recite album titles, All That You Can't Leave Behind doesn't stake any claims for advancing the art of pop music. At this point, U2 wouldn't be the ones to take us there anyway. But at a time when rock feels so earthbound, and dance-steeped albums like Moby's Play provide the musical exaltation guitar bands once did, U2 simply want to reclaim some of that old stomping ground. In their hands, falling back on old habits isn't cowardice, but a virtue. A