U2 – No Line on the Horizon: Speeding on the Subway through the Stations of the Cross

PackshotArtist: U2
Album: No Line on the Horizon
Year: 2009
Grade: B

In Brief: I’d say give it some time, but time is apparently irrelevant. So uh, just listen to it a lot and you’ll get the hang of it.

I really should know by now not to go into a new U2 album with unfairly high expectations. I’ve found that reasonably good expectations can cause me to respond better to an album of decent, but not timeless, quality with more of an open mind than I would if I had expectations of a band immediately redefining the face of rock music as we know it. I’m aware of this pitfall, but I still fall victim to it every time with certain bands, especially those who are perceived as having redefined the face of rock music on previous occasions. No matter what modern U2 does, in the minds of most fans, it ain’t gonna be The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby or what have you. I’ve found a place in my personal U2 pantheon for Pop, their most misunderstood and maligned album, and yet I still find it easy to pinpoint weak spots and try to make fun of any attempts on the band’s part to “modernize”. Clearly there’s a difference between theory and practice that I haven’t fully identified yet.

U2’s latest disc, No Line on the Horizon has one strike against it from the very outset – it’s the longest that the band’s fans have had to wait in between albums, delayed from a fall 2008 release and throwing off the “New U2 album every election year” cycle that they’d established with 2000’s All that You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. (Hmm. Given the outcome of those elections, maybe they didn’t want to jinx Barack Obama.) Expectations were naturally going to be higher, as if Bono and his big mouth weren’t already causing this with ridiculous promises of things like “hot molten metal” from The Edge‘s guitar and other such nonsense that is not, has never been, and will never be part of the U2 sound. People who work with U2 should know better than to indicate that an upcoming album by the band blows away everything they’ve ever done, too – even if it were true, there’d simply be legions of fans waiting to say, “Oh yeah? Let’s see you try.” Issues of fan expectations aside, though, once I sit down and evaluate No Line on the Horizon on its own terms, it’s far from a failure. Some critics don’t seem to see much of a grey area in which U2 can just be “pretty good” – they’ve either got to be awesome or risk being labelled as horrible and irrelevant. I come out on the positive, but not emphatically overexcited, side of things as I listen to this one.

For most of the new millennium, U2’s been revisiting their much-loved 80’s sound with the occasional electronic flourish, but without reprising the dark cynicism that characterized their 90’s work. Perhaps some of us were expecting a revision of their 90’s sound somewhere down the line, but personally, I didn’t want U2 to have to live in the shadow of their older work forever. I feel like they aimed at something new with No Line, and landed on a synthesis between the best of their 80’s and 90’s sounds, which gave them the opportunity to play around with the danceable programming without sucking the passion out of their chimey, stadium-sized sound from days of yore. It’s not anything revolutionary, but it is often quite tasty, and the band still knows how to throw us a curveball here and there. Aside from a few musical cues in a song or two that are likely intentional, I don’t find myself saying, “U2 tried to do this same thing before, and it was better when they did it in (Insert Classic Song Title Here)”. At the same time, they still fall victim to some of the same overindulgences here that made Zooropa feel like it came out of nowhere, and Bono still doesn’t seem to realize when a metaphor is too kistchy or otherwise bizarre for us to stay in the moment during a serious, meditative song.

And as much as I don’t want to pine over the U2 sound of days gone by, I still listen to early records of theirs, most notably War, and wonder what happened to some of the useful recklessness. Sure, maybe Bono sang off-key a bit in those days, and maybe some of the material dated itself. And sure, they’ve grown up a lot and benefitted from the work of producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, both of which helmed this album. But drummer Larry Mullen hasn’t sounded like his same old rambunctious self for most of the last 20 years. Adam Clayton‘s fared a little better, his bass giving plenty of these new songs a solid groove, but the magic isn’t quite the same when the rhythm section isn’t locked into the 2-pronged attack that used to make U2 such charming upstarts. The Edge has always been about saying a lot by playing a little, and he is perhaps the most consistent and dependable member of the band, whether he’s filling up the arena with endless, echoing delay effects and gently seducing the fretboard like Eric Clapton might. So it’s the men with the strings that give U2 the most power in their current incantation, while Bono – God bless him for being the unique, outspoken, and larger-than-life individual that he is – sometimes doesn’t know how to stick with the program when the rest of his band is taking the more subtle route. Not everything about U2 has to be “big” and the other guys get that, but sometimes there he is, jumping right out of the speaker, bellowing from the bottom of his gut what should perhaps be handled with a more delicate tongue.

OK, so the music and lyrics are hit and miss on No Line, but if the band’s accomplished anything here, it’s that they’ve given us an interesting revision of their own sonic history, flipping through their Rolodex of old tricks and learning a few new ones while constructing an interesting (if flawed) web of lyrical ideas about the interconnectedness of space and time. The more I pick up on how one lyrical snippet seems to connect to an idea expressed earlier on, or even makes a subtle nod to classic U2 while illuminating old thoughts in a new light and juxtaposing them with the occasional new experiment that only barely sounds like the pervious versions of U2 we’ve come to love. It’s almost like a retrospective album that contains no previously released material. It is to U2 what Hail to the Thief is to Radiohead.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. No Line on the Horizon

I know a girl with a hole in her heart
She said infinity is a great place to start…

The title track does a good job of setting the stage for the album with its theme of time and space being relative, but it doesn’t do such a good job of getting the listener revved up about the sound of the new record. Not that Bono doesn’t do his part with about twice the amount of soaring “Whoa”s as you’d expect to find in your average Coldplay song, and not that Adam’s bass isn’t awesome here (it’s the first of several times on this album), but Edge’s distant, hazy guitar buzz and Larry’s drums hit with all the force of a pair of windshield wipers – which is to say, not much. The fact that Bono can’t seem to decide whether to exhort us about our newfound metaphysical freedom or to awkwardly sing about being seduced by a mermaid (OK, not really, but tell me you didn’t think of that when you heard the line “You can hear the universe in her seashells”) doesn’t help much. It’s a fun title track, but it suffers a bit production-wise. (So did several otherwise great songs on Achtung Baby, but that was 1991 and I figure we’re past those limitations now.)

2. Magnificent
I was born, I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice…
This song suffers from absolutely no restraints holding it back. It’s the most likely “undisputed classic” of the album, and it plays with all of the joy of “Beautiful Day”, the religious zeal of “Gloria”, and the danceability of “Discotheque”. For my money, it’s the best synthesis of U2’s well-loved 80’s sound and their more experimental, electronic 90’s sound that I’ve heard yet in the new decade. The song’s dancefloor intentions are clear from the bass-heavy intro that builds up with unabashedly dated synthesizers and explodes into a grand, chiming, crowd-pleasing Edge riff. All of this musical fanfare supports a 100% irony-free psalm of praise, a song about magnifying the Magnificent. “Only love can leave such a mark”, Bono cries out in the impassioned chorus. This would likely sound pretty cheesy in the hands of most Christian rock bands, and even U2 has stumbled in their attempts to be straightforwardly spiritual in recent years (see “Yahweh”), but there’s no awkwardness to this one. It’s like a renewed mission statement for the band – one that isn’t loaded down with religious jargon in a way that would be off-putting for those who want to interpret it as a simple love song, but one that seems to say, “We’re older and hopefully a bit wiser than the young upstarts who brought you October, but we’ve come full circle and we’re not ashamed to shout it from the rooftops.”

3. Moment of Surrender
I was speeding on the subway
Through the stations of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down ’til the pain would stop…

One of U2’s stated goals for this album was to explore trance music. I’m guessing this was the most obvious result of that little experiment – it’s built on a slow, easygoing drum loop with deep bass to guide the melody along during the lengthy intro before Bono begins to sing. A bit unusual for this early in the album (and it’s a looooong one, too), but I’m feelin’ the groove until Bono opens his mouth. See, he’s the kind of vocalist who has a lot of power, and who can use it to set hearts on fire if he wants to – see the bridge to “With or Without You”. But when he dives in using all of his lungpower from the get-go, it feels completely out of place in such an intimate song as this. That’s particularly problematic given that he’s obviously aging, so what you get when he bellows “I tied myself with wire!” at the beginning of this little number is a bit of a shock to the eardrums. So he goes, squawking and wailing away at a song that the rest of the band at least seems to understand how to caress softly. The Edge’s restraint is admirable, as he plays one of his sparsest, but most soulful, guitar solos during a merciful break in the lyrics. I want to love those lyrics, by the way. They’re rife with analogies and allusions and a myriad of potential meanings, and I like the way that Edge harmonizes with Bono here (some say he sounds a little deadpan, but given who he’s singing with, it’s a welcome contrast). The band apparently recorded most or all of this rumination on isolation versus human contact in a single take, and from that standpoint it seems pretty cohesive. Still, they should have tried another take and recommended that Bono dial it back a bit.

4. Unknown Caller
I was right there at the top of the bottom
On the edge of the known universe where I wanted to be
I had driven to the scene of the accident
And I sat there waiting for me

Now I don’t want to be the one to suggest that U2 tame their experimental impulses, but every now and then a song comes along where it just feels like U2 is trying a little too hard to not be themselves. Along those lines, I’d like to nominate this song – the second of two tracks that are long enough to wear out their welcome this far up in the track listing – for the Zooropa award. I didn’t hate Zooropa, but it had its share of “OK, Bono, nice try” moments, and this track echoes that sort of feel, with its detached drum programming and its half-existential and half computer-obsessed language, vascillating between knowingly ironic obervations of seemingly contradictory activities, and silly, barked-out commands such as “Restart and reboot yourself” or “Password, you enter here, right now”. Fill in the gaps with a lot more “Whoa”s and a pretty slick Edge solo, and that’s pretty much the song. I think it’s the most obvious misstep on the album. As weak spots on studio albums go, I suppose it’s more interesting than the dull “One Step Closer” and more listenable than the ear-grating “When I Look at the World”, but it’s still a weaker link than a band like U2, who takes upwards of four years to record an album and throws out tons of song ideas in the process, should be able to justify at this stage.

5. I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight
Everybody needs to cry or needs to spit
Every sweet tooth needs just a little hit
Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot
How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?

Score one more point for U2’s history of including at least one long, unwieldy song title on almost every album! (Not that I have a problem with this. I’m just sayin’.) Here we dive headlong into the most accessible and ostensibly “rock-oriented” phase of the album, with this upbeat tune beggining to set us free from our boredom. It’s a mixture of the classic chiming Edge theatrics, some fist-pumping lyrics from Bono about letting loose and having fun, and more trance-like drums that really should have been kicked up a notch given the overall energy level of the song. I’m tempted to blame guest producer will.i.am for this, but then U2 has been in love with this sort of drum sound since Achtung Baby, and in particular it’s sort of the same complaint that I have about “Until the End of the World” (an otherwise amazing song). I saw them play it on Letterman. I know it’s the perfect feel-good tune to rev up a crowd. And good bands often sound like canned crap on late-night talk shows, so there’s something seriously wrong with the fact that they sounded better playing this on TV than they do on my stereo. I still enjoy it quite a bit, but I get the sneaking suspicion that it could go down as another all-time favorite if they had just dressed it up in better clothes. I also have to knock off a few points for the re-use of “Baby baby baby” during the bridge, which sounds like they ripped it straight from “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”, the one track on Achtung Baby that never really floated my boat.

6. Get on Your Boots

If someone’s into blowing up, we’re into growing up
Women are the future, all the big revelations
I’ve gotta submarine, you’ve got gasoline
I don’t wanna talk about wars between nations…

This is the one that got ’em all talking. I can’t think of a more reviled U2 song since they came out with “Discotheque” over ten years ago. (Not that “Vertigo” didn’t have its share of detractors. Personally, I love both of those songs.) The first few times I heard this head-scratcher of a lead single, I was right there with all the haters, throwing vicious stones at a band I claimed as one of my personal favorites, because they went and dared to write a goofy, proto-punk song about women and their “sexy boots”. It sure sounds like a damn fool thing to write a song about at first – at least if you’re U2 and the stuff you get up on huge stages and sing to people about purports to be important and all that. Once I started to get a handle on what Bono was actually trying to say here, I was able to let loose and have a little more fun with it. The irony quotient is brought back in this song, but Bono turns it inward, sort of making fun of himself as he remarks that he’s tired of hearing all of this rhetoric about war and he’s tired of big men and their testosterone causing the world to blow itself up several times over, and he hints that maybe our world should be run by a massive army of women. Yeah, I can’t make it sound like it makes much sense, but I like the light-hearted attempt at saying, “Hey, let’s give women a turn here.” What I don’t like so much is that on one of the few tracks where Larry is really on his game with the playful drum rolls and all that, The Edge’s role feels so reduced that I can’t tell him apart from Adam. It feels like there’s a whole guitar track missing from this song, one that finally surfaces after Bono’s ridiculous but catchy chant of “Let me in the sound sound, let me in the sound!” and gives this track the snarling attitude that it deserves, before fading back into the fuzzy woodwork. It’s frustrating. The fact that it ends with a sudden little “zip” from the guitar only serves to put an exclamation point on the observation that it’s really a pale imitation of “Vertigo”. And “Vertigo” is the sort of thing that I’d really only have wanted U2 to try once.

7. Stand Up Comedy
I gotta stand up to ego
But my ego’s not really the enemy
It’s like a small child crossing an eight lane highway
On a voyage of discovery…

People keep telling me that this song has a funk-styled guitar riff to it (as filtered through a group of Irish white dudes, anyway). I don’t know about all that, or whether this is what U2 purports to be attempting, but I know that this a fun song, with its angular riffing providing a different context for The Edge to really drive a song home. This song isn’t particularly hilarious, as the title might lead you to believe, but it is witty enough to give me a few small chuckles as Bono elaborates more on the theme of why big rock stars like himself oughta just keep their mouths shut sometimes. It’s really a bit of introspection turned outwards – he’s realized he sometimes falls into the trap of assuming God needs his help (which he compares to helping a little old lady across the street – OK, maybe that part is hilarious!) and being a bit of a “small man with big ideals”. It’s another entry in the set of teflon-coated hits in the waiting that populate the center of this record, and I enjoy this one a good deal too, but I wish that U2 wouldn’t keep going to such great lengths to remind me that Achtung Baby was a better record. This time around it’s the echoing repetition of “love, love, love” in the background that I’m pretty sure they must have culled from “Until the End of the World”. And I’ve already been reminded of that song once. Sometimes you just can’t go home again, y’know?

8. Fez – Being Born
Six o’clock on the autoroute
Burning rubber, burning chrome
Bay of Cadiz and ferry home
Atlantic sea cut glass, African sun at last…

OK, enough of that radio-friendly crap, time for U2 to try something weird and easily misunderstood again. You can probably tell from the off-the-wall title that radio deejays won’t be announcing this one as part of their playlists any time soon. That’s partially a bad thing and partially not – the hyphenated title seems to indicate that what we’ve really got here is an interlude and a song proper that have little to do with one another. The “Fez” part, named for the city in Morocoo where U2 recorded part of the album, is a distant, ambient piece that attempts to recapture the aura of a place they apparently fell in love with by using found sounds from the city as a backdrop while other weird bits of music – including the “Let me in the sound” section from “Get on Your Boots” – fade in and out. After a minute or so of this, the knob turns abruptly and a mid-tempo Edge riff breaks in, and we’re treated to a restrained but impassioned song that strikes a healthy balance between its soul and its machinery, with keyboard and guitar ringing out across a metallic, rhythmic musical landscape. It’s the kind of song that plays best as a journey between two destinations rather than a destination unto itself, and from U2’s lyrical exploration of a state of change and personal re-awakening, that may have been the intent. I’m glad they didn’t go with their original instinct to open the album with this. It just wouldn’t have felt right to put a transitional track right up front (and this album’s track listing is already out of whack as it is).

9. White as Snow
Once I knew there was a love divine
Then came a time I thought it knew me not
Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not
Only the lamb as white as snow

Wow. I didn’t think U2 had this sort of restraint left in them – at least, not while simultaneously evoking such a hauntingly beautiful mood. They accomplish exactly that in this mellow, minor-key ballad that ponders a man’s loss of innocence as he lays dying. Supposedly it’s written from the point of view of a soldier left to die in Afghanistan, but it could just as easily be the words of a man who has lived long past his prime and has a lot of regrets behind him. This heartbreaking tale isn’t without its redemption – even at U2’s bleakest, they recognize that “only the lamb as white as snow” can heal the scars of a once great land left in ruins. (This ability to cling to faith even in an unflichingly dark depiction of a person’s death is an interesting contrast to the lack of faith that came from complete immersion in a superficial, commercialized lifestyle on Pop. People don’t seem to get that U2 likes to explore the extremes of faith on either end.) Of course, a big draw for me is that this song borrows its melody from the ancient carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, which in and of itself is a song written to reflect the longing for a Savior at the darkest period of Israel’s history. U2’s one of those bands that actually has the audacity to think they can add to a classic (though at least here they’re not trying to put themselves in a pantheon with Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon), but it’s that audacity that pays off, as the post-modern application of this ancient melody brings it full circle – back to the scars that human conflict has left on the Middle East. (Maybe that’s a stretch. But I like the thematic symmetry.)

10. Breathe
Coming from a long line of traveling salespeople on my mother’s side
I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo
So why would I invite a complete stranger into my home?
Would you?

Here’s where U2 gets to let loose one last time before the somber ending of this album – it’s a much needed bit of levity after the long trek across the desert that the past few songs took us on. Now we’re right back in Bono’s living room in the comforts of the Western World, and he’s ranting and raving about a salesman who showed up at his door with an offer of the latest gadgest or program or petition that he makes out to sound like it’s absolutely essential to Bono’s life. The way Bono just rambles along to the unorthodox, rattling rhythm of Larry’s drums gives the song a humorous sense of getting fed up – it’s a protest against crass consumerism, but not the deadly serious sort of protest song U2 would have written when they were all still in their 20’s. I’m even willing to forgive Bono being slightly off-key here and there (hey, I guess you can go back to the old days after all!) because the band’s performance and overall attitude here are just awesome – Edge finds a way to soar despite the weird syncopation, and while I do think the double team of Eno and Lanois may have produced this one a bit too much (it doesn’t seem to bust out of the speakers with quite the amount of force and sheer speed that it wants to), I do like the little touches of piano and the swirling string section. I can’t pin this to the sound of any old U2 songs, but it’s still a blast and still completely believable for the band. That’s when I like U2 best these days – when they’re not playing by old tricks that they’ve used endless times before (as much as I do love their vintage sound), but when they’re trying something new that still comes across as undeniably U2-ish.

11. Cedars of Lebanon
The worst of us are a long drawn out confession
The best of us are geniuses of compression
You say you’re not going to leave the truth alone
I’m here ’cause I don’t want to go home…
The promised somber ending shows up here – lots of dark, icy keyboards and pensive bass and just the slightest hints of textured guitar. Bono does right by his lyrics as he takes on more of a hushes, conversational tone – this just isn’t the song to let loose and wail on. Here he’s taking on the role of a reporter, someone who is trying to be objective and report world affairs as he sees them happening, but someone who seems to have suffered personal loss due to the human conflict he’s only supposed to be observing – Bono references a photo of a wife who is either separated from this man, dead, or missing. I’m not sure which. Either way, the subtle Biblical metaphor about a type of ancient tree used to build temples isn’t lost on me – religion undoubtedly fuels a lot of the conflict making the headlines that this man is writing. It’s a complex song, though – not just a declaration that war is bad, not just a longing for peace, but something more complex that I can’t fully unravel. The thin, haggard chorus of “return the call to home” is eerie in light of themes presented earlier in the album (and OK, it might begin to give “Unknown Caller” a bit of context), and the final lyrics, which end the album rather abruptly, are enough to leave a lump in my throat: “Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you/ Make them interesting, ’cause in some ways they’ll remind you. They’re not there in the beginning, but when your story ends, gonna last with you longer than your friends.”

And before you perhaps even realized it, that’s the album. It’s not immediately fascinating, it’s not a bona fide classic, and it’s gonna take some digging and some taking botched experiments with a grain of salt before the themes and the connections between bits of lyrics start setting off bells in your mind. U2 may still have things to learn about how to make a cohesive album (which is annoying given that they’ve made them before), but the fact that they’re still willing to learn and grow at this stage in their career – three decades with the same four members and counting – is immensely encouraging. One might say that they’ve got no line on their horizon. (Ahh! Stop throwing rotten fruit at me.)

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
No Line on the Horizon $1.50
Magnificent $2
Moment of Surrender $1
Unknown Caller $0
I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight $1.50
Get on Your Boots $1
Stand Up Comedy $1.50
Fez – Being Born $1
White as Snow $1.50
Breathe $1.50
Cedars of Lebanon $1
TOTAL: $13.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Paul Hewson a.k.a. “Bono”: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar
David Evans a.k.a. “The Edge”: Electric guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Adam Clayton: Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr.: Drums

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

WEBSITE:
http://www.u2.com

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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