Never has any rock’n’roll band been so polarising an entity, so adored and abhorred, so blessed/cursed with the ability to inspire and capacity to infuriate, as U2. For every one of the millions who’ve been roused, thrilled and moved by them, there’s at least one other, whose life’s experience of popular culture has been partially defined by how very, very much they hate this group.
Inevitably, both constituencies will find much to fuel their passions and/or goad their furies in this, U2’s 12th album, an artefact that has next to no hope of being judged wholly on its own merits. Possibly in recognition of the mixed blessing of becoming a genre unto themselves, parts of No Line On The Horizon duly find U2 – not for the first time – essaying some mischievous sabotage of their own reputation.
“Stand up to rock stars,” suggests the funky, Zeppelin-ish “Stand Up Comedy”, before describing such creatures as “Napoleons in high heels… Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas”. “The right to appear ridiculous,” declares Bono on the cute pop shimmer “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”, “is something I hold dear.”
In fact, U2 exercise this prerogative only sparingly on No Line On The Horizon. Aside from the quoted zingers and the sprightly single, “Get On
Your Boots” – Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” cutting a rug at U2’s own “Discothèque” – No Line On The Horizon is a serious, even solemn album, reminiscent of a younger band, circa The Unforgettable Fire, seeking to sublimate their anxiety in piety. Pre-release suggestions that No Line On The Horizon would constitute an audacious sonic leap were somewhat over-stated: the recurring, defining motifs of the album are old-school U2. Several tracks (the title cut, “Magnificent”, “Unknown Caller”, “Stand Up Comedy”, “Fez – Being Born”) bear an oh-wo-woah chantalong echoing down the ages from “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. Edge’s guitar, though no less adventurous in places than it has been on every U2 album since Achtung Baby, is still most often driven by a heavy foot on the delay pedal.
A dozen albums in, it’s possible to perceive U2’s catalogue as four distinct – if you will – gospels, each of three chapters: the opening salvo of Boy/War/October, all nerves, good intentions and adolescent bluster; The Unforgettable Fire/The Joshua Tree/Rattle & Hum arc from ambition to triumph to hubris; the bleak irony and exuberant experimentation of Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop; the reconciliation of what they’d learned with who they always were embodied in 2000’s All That
You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Unprecedented five-year delay notwithstanding, No Line On The Horizon feels more than anything a companion piece to this latter pair. While some unusual ideas and influences percolate through the album, they never prevent U2 from sounding like U2. More than half the tracks launch from false starts – glimmers and wobbles of keyboard and effects briefly announcing themselves before being overwhelmed by the group doing what we’ve become accustomed to them doing (“Fez – Being Born” starts with what sounds like a radio dial flicking between stations, as if attempting to tune U2 in). It is doubtless no reflection
on the way the sessions ran, but it’s difficult to shift the image of producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite noodling boffinishly at synthesisers and sequencers only to be blasted out of the recording studio by an impatient rock’n’roll band yelping “1-2-3-4!”
Much of No Line On The Horizon bustles with such urgency. The title track crashes in like a wave over the bows, washes of keyboards retreating to reveal a growling guitar riff retreaded from “The Fly”, and one of U2’s most memorably anthemic choruses. “Magnificent” is a thrilling rush, an older, wiser, but no less devil-driven update of “I Will Follow”, Bono hoarse at the limits of his range. “Unknown Caller” is the most dramatic bait-and-switch on a record riddled with them – a gentle Edge guitar figure and birdsong an unlikely foundation for the gradual erection of a terrifically unabashed stadium epic. “Moment Of Surrender” evokes the gloomier reaches of Achtung Baby, a distinctly Pink Floyd-ish backdrop eventually acknowledged by an unmistakably Gilmour-ish guitar solo.
Lyrically, this is U2’s least transparent work for some time.
A weariness of being spokesband for every damn thing may be gleaned from “Get On Your Boots”, where Bono announces, “I don’t want to talk about wars between nations/Not right now”.
Though the album’s retreat/venture (it’s never quite clear which) into opacity will come as a relief to many – U2 themselves likely among them – it seems a shame in light of two beautifully wrought narratives toward the close of the album. “White As Snow” tries to see Afghanistan from inside the helmet of a foreign soldier (the lines “The road refuses strangers/The land the seed we sow,” could have come from an early draft of Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”). It is both the most modest and most affecting track on the record, and one of the best things Bono has ever sung. The closing cut, “Cedars Of Lebanon”, is a war correspondent’s nightmare that maintains this essentially optimistic group’s counter-intuitive tradition of ending their albums with rueful comedowns (think “Mothers Of The Disappeared”, “Love Is Blindness”, “Wake Up Dead Man”).
It gets more difficult with every release to hear a U2 album as anything but a U2 album – everyone reading this will have history with the band, whether they like it or not. More than anything else that U2 have done, though, No Line On The Horizon requires and rewards checking in without baggage. It’s U2’s least immediate album – but there’s something about it that suggests it may be one of their most enduring.
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