U2 - No Line on the Horizon Review

I suspect that U2 will eventually replace the Rolling Stones as being the second-oldest profession on the planet. The Stones may have the deeper catalog, but U2 has just entered their fourth decade and continue to release well-received albums with new songs that fans will clamor for at concerts rather than view as opportunities to visit the lavatory or buy another ten buck beer. But U2 has to be huge at this point in their career; if they were anything less, they'd never get away with what they were up to. Your average rock band could never sell the big drama, soaring sound and ego-fattened sentiments. But U2 is usually forgiven for any amount of obtuse sappiness or self-aggrandizement because they really are the biggest rock band in the world.


No Line on the Horizon is their eleventh studio album. Bono and crew have stated that this album will return to a more adventurous frame of mind after a pair of played-too-safe disappointments earlier this decade. And first single, “Get on Your Boots,” for all of its creaky lyricism, is a big glam rock fireball, like post-grunge-meets-Achtung. But “Boots” doesn't sell what is to come. It's misleading. Despite a sprinkling of intriguing (if not always successful) new directions, No Line is mostly just more of the same from a band that may not look their age but is beginning to advance their career like they need walkers just to move forward.


Opening with the title track, we're given a reason to look ahead favorably. Verbally-impaired, “No Line on the Horizon” at least manages to move with shiny, chugging speed atop Larry Mullen's martial drums. Even the whoa-ohs, which would have sunk most other songs of its ilk, are so refreshingly integrated into the melody, that it hooks you into place to enjoy all the overcooked charm. But not long after the optimism-boosting leadoff, the band runs through a dead zone rarely matched in their long and storied history. Until “Get on Your Boots” lands in the sixth spot, the rest of the first half is an arduously dull grind, like dragging your feet through a pool of bubbling tar.


“Magnificent” promises more than it can deliver, with bass-heavy fuzz squelches à la “No Son of Mine” and a building rhythm that promises some serious thunder. It does have thunder...if you think that arena rock romantics like Journey and Foreigner brought the thunder to their shows. The song's promises of love are confusing, though, since we never get a firm grasp on the narrator, the subject or the magnitude (unless we're to gauge solely on how big the choruses are, in which case U2 is always global). It runs out of energy before the fifth minute passes and one wishes for more prudent editing. But “Magnificent” is a spunky little gem compared to the ultra-laborious “Moment of Surrender,” which traces lines through synthetic dust for seven-and-a-half minutes. Beginning with, “I tied myself with wire/To let the horses run free/Playing with the fire/Until the fire played with me,” it only gets worse from there. Bono doesn't even try to shoehorn his limp lines into meter; better than forcing clunky rhymes, yes, but without a uniform rhythm, it can't even work as an empty-but-catchy number. No matter—it ain't catchy anyway.


“Unknown Caller” is up next, and again begins with a drawn out series of faint electronic washes that takes forever to coalesce. Momentum hint: if you're going to subject the audience to more than seven minutes of flat pseudo-balladry, you better get the next one going quick. For all of the track's spacious arrangements and ohh-ing that suggests heart-and-soul feeling, the lyrics fumble over the faux-futurism of everyday technology, uncomfortable bedfellows with any band that aims to attach itself to your estimations of love and faith. Efforts to translate IT lingo into life lessons are unbearable—“Force quit and move to trash” is as cloyingly lame as anything from Plastic Operator's “Folder.” Thoughts of, “Keep the old man away from the computer,” spring up.


By the time that “Boots” shows up, you're more willing than ever to forgive Bono's cryptic didacticism. At least it swings with the swagger that a band of U2's magnitude ought to be flashing more often. Instead of being content to sell a perfunctory message or query about the magnitude of life and spirituality, it keeps the fuzz unshaven and throbs with the thrill that marked their last album's brightest moment, “Love and Peace or Else.” It helps that the band gives us that vivacious kick; if I had to suffer Bono's forced (and often bizarre) rhymes with another soppy ballad arrangement, I might have given up right then and there. But “Rockets at the fun fair/Satan loves a bomb scare,” and “You free me from the dark dream/Candy floss ice cream?” It makes you long for a mixing engineer that'll bury Bono's voice beneath the twittery percussion and static.


The second half features the more experimental material they hinted at months back. “Stand Up Comedy” traverses a dangerous line with its rowdy rock groove and its “God is love” mantra, but Bono sells it through unexpected simplicity, rarely straining for bloated metaphors, and offering a straightforward and inspiring message. “Fez – Being Born” is No Line's most obvious flirtation with the avant garde. Combining their power pop bread and butter with mysticism, gospel and the occasional non-linear change-up, Bono offers an odd mélange of hotrod bravado, foreign intrigue and insecure helplessness, all of it used in figurative ways to paint a wider but no more specific picture. “Breathe” brings together so many divergent ideas that its partial success is almost a miracle. There's staccato narration, a heartfelt run through of the refrain, Springsteen grit, latter-day Replacements grind, Edge's shimmering guitar, “Beautiful Day” heated glee, soaring bridge...it's like a musical apocalypse where everything shuffles towards grim death and gets mixed up in a huge column of white fire. None of these trickier moments are great, but they at least show greater purpose than the tired tricks they faltered over on the first side.


The album ends on a high note, though. “Cedars of Lebanon” is a moody and subtle mood-changer that calmly floats by like many of The Joshua Tree's unsung second half ballads. It even offers lyrical imagery that evokes vivid scenes rather than straining pomp. “Now I've got a head like a lit cigarette/Unholy clouds reflecting in a minaret.” The performance even rings of a weary journeyman, appropriately mirroring the creased-eye observational mood.


But a good line like that is in short supply. Instead, we're usually given drably playful phrases like, “You put me on pause/I'm trying to rewind/And replay.” Inflated grand moments like “At the moment of surrender/I'm falling to my knees,” and, “I was born to be with you/In this space and time,” keep the band's sentiments at arm's length. The best rock anthems typically speak more directly; Bono usually sounds like he's speaking for us on subjects we wouldn't bother to consider, and not for lack of insight. They're also better off summoning sights of more earthly treasures like the Atlantic Sea and African sun; when they move towards the stars with, “I've been in every black hole/At the altar of a dark star,” the eyes roll almost as quickly as the stomach.


If all the blame could be issued upon Bono's pen, you might have ended up with a decent record anyway—ego can be forgiven in the face of great tunes. But U2 has difficulty in even making big arena rockers and power ballads anymore. The band brings back a familiar trio of producers; Steve Lillywhite knows how to layer on the sheen, but Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are better at more intimate material. Eno's stamp can even be found on the dreadful “Surrender,” an unfortunate miss for the usually reliable legend. And for all the promise of a return to more daring days, U2 actually plumbs into their 80s heyday for inspiration far more often than the 90s. The somber spirituality, the ambient drone pop, the optimism amidst uncontrollable ego...the only thing missing, really, are the fiery political tirades (which get light brushes on tracks like “Boots”). And if they're not being inspired by their own 80s interests, they look to the era's other arena balladeers. In addition to the aforementioned Genesis lift, “I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight” blatantly steals the hook from Journey's “Faithfully.”


The disappointment of this record doesn't stem entirely from unfair expectations. It's not even about the direction taken by a once truly viable band. I don't mourn the years of their great albums or unforgettable hits. But the U2 of the new millennium seem distracted by their own glamor and fame. They're no longer U2 the band but rather U2 the institution. They're chiseled figures in an increasingly stale world of popular music. If you found their last two albums to be worthy of the acclaim they found in many circles, there's no reason to dislike this one. It falls lockstep in line with their recent edgeless big pop/rock endeavors. But so little grabs hold on No Line on the Horizon, so little is remembered. The bookends are really good, but the rest ranges from uneven to outright failures. I don't see the sun setting anytime soon on U2's horizon, but I'm beginning to fear that their noteworthy days are long past them now.


"No Line on the Horizon" is on sale March 3, 2009 from Interscope.

Matt Medlock


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