“We’re back, re-applying for the job of best band in the world,” U2 frontman Bono announced onstage at London’s Astoria Theatre on the night of February 7, 2001. When “Beautiful Day,” the lead single from the band’s tenth album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, won three Grammy Awards just two weeks later, it must have felt like confirmation that they got their old job back.
Like Nirvana, who was also a contender for the “best band in the world” title in the 90s, U2 spent much of the decade deliberately picking their fame apart. For their 1991 masterpiece, Achtung Baby, the band jettisoned their well-worn sincerity and fascination with American roots music in favor of recording something darker and more abrasive. U2 continued this artistic trajectory through their next two albums, 1993’s Zooropa and 1997’s Pop, experimenting with electronic music and writing more disillusioned lyrics. But after Pop’s underwhelming critical and commercial performance, the band realized that they had, in the words of guitarist the Edge, “taken the deconstruction of the rock’n’roll band format” as far as they could.
With the recording of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2, for the first time in their career, made a conscious effort to sound like the U2 of old. To this end, the group reunited with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who had produced The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby, to ensure that they were capturing that classic U2 sound. Even so, they had reservations about drawing on their past: When the Edge wanted to play the song with a guitar tone that he had used on U2’s first three albums – jangly, with a little bit of distortion and a lot of reverb –his bandmates tried to convince him to find a new one. (The Edge ultimately kept the familiar tone.)
“Beautiful Day” grew out of “Always”, a song that U2 wrote in the earliest recording sessions for All That You Can’t Leave Behind but wasn’t entirely satisfied with. (Listen to “Always”, and you’ll see how closely its chorus resembles that of “Beautiful Day”.) The band continued to tinker with “Always” until one day, while jamming in the studio, Bono spontaneously sang “It’s a beautiful day” – and just like that, they not only had a new approach to an old song, but the genesis of an entirely new song.
Bono wrote an entirely new set of lyrics that suggested loss but also optimism. “You’re out of luck and the reason that you had to care / The traffic is stuck and you’re not moving anywhere,” Bono croons at the beginning of the song, in a voice that’s closer to speaking than singing. But moments later, the chorus hits like a sunbeam breaking through rainclouds as Bono reminds you, “It’s a beautiful day / Don’t let it get away.”
There are a few embellishments that give the song a more modern sound – Eno added some synthesized strings at the beginning, as well as a drum machine that thumps and clicks throughout the track – but “Beautiful Day” derives almost all of its power from letting U2 do what they do best. After adopting a rougher and more understated vocal style on Zooropa and Pop, Bono returned to using the full range of his voice, a dazzling and inimitable instrument.
To this day he remains one of rock’s greatest singers, one who can imbue a line like “Teach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case” with the emotive force of a wrecking ball. Likewise, the Edge’s return to a familiar guitar tone – after several years of trying to not sound like himself – feels like a warm hug from an old friend, and underscores just how simply effective his playing is. And even with the drum machine, U2’s rhythm section is as airtight as ever, with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. adding color and punch to the track.
Critically and commercially, “Beautiful Day” was the hit that U2 needed. Critics who had cooled on the band’s late-90s work hailed the song as a return to form: Rolling Stone was particularly praiseworthy, later calling it the ninth-best song of the 2000s and adding it to the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. After its release as a single in October 2000, the song topped music sales charts in nearly a dozen countries and sold more than a million copies around the world. And at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards, “Beautiful Day” took home the trophies for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
But the song’s true legacy is in the moments that it has soundtracked over the last 20 years. “Beautiful Day” has been on the setlist of every single U2 concert since the beginning of the Elevation Tour behind All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2001. When U2 performed the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVI, five months after 9/11, the band opened with “Beautiful Day” before paying tribute to the victims of the attack with “MLK” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
And when Barack and Michelle Obama organized a virtual commencement ceremony for all the students who graduated amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it included a cover of “Beautiful Day,” sung by Camila Cabello, Ben Platt, Khalid, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and more – introduced by Bono himself, who said “the song was not a description of where we were at. It was a prayer for where we could go.”
“Beautiful Day” can be heard on the new 20th anniversary reissue of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Along with a remaster of the original album, various formats include up to 39 additional bonus tracks, a book of archival photos by Anton Corbijn, and a 19-track live set of U2’s performance at the Fleet Center in Boston, Massachusetts on the Elevation Tour in June 2001.
The 20th anniversary editions of All That You Can’t Leave Behind can be bought here.