Monday, September 28, 2009

‘No Line on the Horizon,’ U2

Author's note: I’ll be seeing U2 in a few hours. Before I do, however, I felt it necessary to finally write about the band’s current album, “No Line on the Horizon,” which arrived way back in March.

UPDATE (9.30.09): After last night's show I already need to amend a couple things in this review, and they both involve "Breathe." U2 opened with that song last night at FedEx Field, and it absolutely killed. "Breathe" now does, in fact, seem worthy of classic status in the band's catalog, and is now my favorite track off the album. Great show. You should see it if you can. More to come when I'm not dizzy with fatigue.

U2’s albums since 1991’s masterpiece “Achtung Baby” are fraught with peaks and valleys: for every “Beautiful Day” there’s a “Peace on Earth”; for every “Please” there’s a “Miami.” I don’t know that “No Line on the Horizon” climbs quite as high as those previous records, but it certainly doesn't slip as far. It’s actually shocking in its consistency, prompting me to call “No Line on the Horizon” their best work in nearly two decades. Here’s why:

‘No Line on the Horizon’

It wasn’t that big of a surprise to me that U2 pulled “Ultra Violet” out for this year’s tour, because that’s the first song I thought of when I heard this title track that opens the record.

This song works perfectly as the opener—it sets the tone so well as an introduction to the lyrical and musical themes to follow, it feels almost more like a prelude than an “official” song (kinda like AFI does with their albums—or "Zoo Station," for that matter). By reviving that rolling guitar riff/drumbeat so prevalent on “Achtung Baby,” the song recaptures the adventurous spirit that spurred U2 to epic artistic leaps in the 1990s.

The dominant theme of the album is the way Bono finds God through song (“let me in the sound …”), and he establishes all of that right from the start, using a woman as metaphor for music. The general idea is all there right in the title, though: there’s no objective, no endpoint the band’s striving to reach with this record. They’re just mates in the studio, “hatching some plot, scheming some scheme,” freeing themselves from expectations and destinations.

This song has grown on me a great deal over the past six months. I love the way it builds and builds, each verse and chorus revealing a little bit more of the band until the two-minute mark when Mullen really starts pounding the drums and Bono hits the “oooooohhhhhs.” It’s a nice hello from U2 after an absence that lasted way too long.



If there’s a song on this album that could hold its own with U2 classics, this is it. “Magnificent” is an absolute monster, somehow managing to combine all the sounds the band’s experimented with over its career into 5 minutes and 24 seconds. There’s classic Edge guitar work mingling with modern, “Pop”-era Edge guitar effects (that staccato thing he does diving into every chorus is just sick). Meanwhile, Larry and Adam’s sinewy rhythm is straight out of the dance-track vibe of the 1990s, but takes breaks for ’80s-era muscle.

And Bono … wow. In a Rolling Stone article from earlier this year he said the goal was to create modern-day hymns, and that effort starts right here. After so long searching for and arguing with God, it seems Bono’s finally found some rest for his weary soul. This album finds him probably the most overtly spiritual (in a positive light, anyway), since “October.” Here the word “love” is used for “God,” as Bono praises the Almighty for his life’s many blessings, including his gift for music and his salvation. To try and pull a quote from this powerhouse of a track is impossible, because every line is equally important (just go read them here). This is the first step in a movement toward humility Bono addresses throughout this record.

“Magnificent” is aptly titled. It’s a song of pure joy on every level.


‘Moment of Surrender’

As uplifting as “Magnificent” is, that song probably wouldn’t exist without this one. Here the man who once cursed at God in song lies broken and submissive before Him. I don’t know if Bono had Johnny Cash’s “I Came to Believe” in mind when he wrote these lyrics, but the songs both speak of God cracking through a man’s stubbornness and capturing his soul. Consider this glorious section alone:

It’s not if I believe in love

But if love believes in me

Oh, believe in me

The song speaks more directly to Bono’s need for humility. Here one of the most recognizable men on the planet, who’s daily schedule I cannot even begin to comprehend, sings of letting go the trappings of his crazy life in favor of utter rapture with God. He sought “vision over visibility,” and was so caught up in his spiritual breakthrough that even the passers-by “didn’t notice me.”

You’d think a song stretching more than seven minutes long would grow a bit stale at some point, but that’s not the case here. It’s a quite simple track, really, where Clayton’s bass plays the lead role and The Edge is mostly nonexistent in his traditional form; when the lead guitar does make its first major appearance five minutes in, even that is a plain, straightforward, sparse blues solo.

“Moment of Surrender” is nonetheless a difficult song—arresting. This is not a track to just pass time with. It reminds me of “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” (from 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”) in that way. If you’re not in the mood for the punch it packs, then best skip ahead to the pop songs and come back later.

Producer Brian Eno calls “Moment of Surrender” a miracle in that, like “One,” the song came together almost entirely in just one take. “Surrender” isn’t as good as “One,” but it's in that vein.


‘Unknown Caller’

The producing duo of Eno and Danny Lanois receives writing credits on each of the first four tracks, but this is the first time their influence is palpable, with the dramatic transitions from verse to avant-garde chorus.

Musically, I love “Unknown Caller”; the Pink Floyd-esque grandeur of the choruses is one of my favorite elements of the record. But Bono frustrates me on this one: He puts some of his best lines right up against some of his worst, particularly the Mac-centric techy entries that distract from the furthering of the humility theme this song addresses. “Force quit and move to trash” is not a line written to last.


‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’

“No Line on the Horizon” divides rather well into three distinct sections. This is the beginning of the album’s middle trio, where U2 says goodbye to Eno and Lanois for a little while and just does their pop/rock thing.

“Crazy Tonight” (as it should have been called—what is it with these unwieldy titles lately?) is exactly the type of song U2’s been writing since the beginning of this decade as part of their quest to reclaim their title as World’s Biggest Band. The big, clean Edge riffs, catchy rhythm, nice bass line, singalong chorus. They do this modern pop/rock thing probably better than anybody.

It’s also the first song on the record where Bono’s being Bono as we’ve come to know him this millennium. He sends out a call to “change the world” and implores nations to listen to the crazy ideas of its “little boys and girls,” who he encourages to strive for greatness. It’s kinda generic, but the song gets bonus points for some of the funniest lines of the record, such as “Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot,” and “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear.”

I like “Crazy Tonight.” It goes down smooth and easy, as it’s supposed to. I know U2 can seemingly write these songs in their sleep (see “Stand Up Comedy” in a minute …), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good, and that they don’t do them with conviction. This track isn’t as awesome as “Beautiful Day,” but it's a big step up from “Miracle Drug.”


‘Get on Your Boots’

Where is it written U2 aren’t allowed to have a little fun?

“Get on Your Boots” completes a new-millennium trilogy of mean, dirty rave ups that started with “Elevation” in 2000 and continued with “Vertigo” in 2004, two songs reviled by the hardcore fanbase for, I don’t know, having a little fun or something—as if every song they write has to aspire to be “Where the Streets Have No Name.” (Seriously, they get crushed by critics for being self-righteous world-savers, and crushed by fans for not writing tear-inducing lyrics on every track. They can't win, even though they try to split the atom on this record. But I digress …)

I love this track. I love that it compels me to reach for the volume knob and twist to the right. I love how much swagger it takes for a group of nearly 50-somethings to even attempt—much less pull off—a song as in your face as this one. I love that it was nothing like what I was expecting from the first single. I love that it reminds me of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” And I LOVE that little throwaway line at the 1:39 mark where after Bono sings “I don’t want to talk about the wars between the nations” he yelps “NOT RIGHT NOW!” That’s one of my favorite single seconds on the entire record.

“Get on Your Boots” is flush with youthful exuberance and the devil-may-care spirit that created albums like “Zooropa” and “Passengers.” It’s brash, it’s polarizing, and it balls-out rocks.


‘Stand Up Comedy’

There’s a song like “Stand Up Comedy” on each of the preceding U2 albums this decade: A solid, groovy rocker with a catchy riff and hummable melody that still isn’t quite good enough to be worthy of playing live on tour. “Stand Up Comedy” is “When I Look at the World” from 2000; it’s “Crumbs from Your Table” in 2004.

So if an album should be judged by its supposed weakest track, then what does it say about “No Line on the Horizon” that “Stand Up Comedy” is pretty darn good? Larry beats the ever-lovin’ crap out of his skins on this track (he’s great all the way through this album, really, the most forceful he’s been in years). Bono’s delivery is passionate and varied, and he spits out one of the best self-deprecating couplets of his career with “Stand up to rock stars, Napolean is in high heels/Josephine be careful of small men with big ideas.” And I really like the little “hmm-hmms” that you can only hear well on a good pair of headphones.

So what’s the problem? It’s the name. Stupid, stupid name. No one is ever going to want to admit “Stand Up Comedy” is their favorite U2 song. Never gonna happen.


‘FEZ—Being Born’

This unfolds in movements, much like “Zooropa” from 1993. Though the lyrics are just snatches of images, their purpose is more to accentuate the mood of the lush music than anything else. U2 haven’t written a track this ambitious in forever; it probably will never be played live and certainly would never make it to an iPod commercial; it’s a decidedly album-oriented endeavor, with soaring guitar and vocal that transition away from the three-pack of pop/rock songs and into the dense latter third of “No Line on the Horizon.”

“FEZ—Being Born” isn’t a song composed by men trying to reclaim their title as World’s Biggest Band. It’s the type of song being the biggest band in the world allows you to write. There’s definitely a time and place for tracks like this, but this band hasn’t been in that space for a decade. It’s refreshing to have them back there once again.

This is my favorite track on the album (notice I didn’t say best).


‘White as Snow’

There’s a lot of different versions of U2 on this album, personas that crop up from their past, and “White as Snow” showcases yet another. This pastoral, contemplative, spiritual gem is a look-back to the band’s earnest work of the 1980s—songs like “MLK,” “40,” or “Tomorrow" come to mind.

“White as Snow” is a look-back lyrically, as well, with Bono as nakedly worshipful as he’s ever been. The song contains one of the best verses of the entire record:

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

And this is as good a place as any, I suppose, to mention the restoration of Bono’s vocal cords, which he considers a miracle. There was a time when it appeared his voice was on its way out for good (see: "Pop"), but it came back to him sometime after the death of his father. Bono was back in fine form by the time U2 recorded “Atomic Bomb,” but he sounds like a man half his age on this album, “White as Snow,” in particular.



Welcome to the second monster track of “No Line on the Horizon.” The song gathers its clouds like a brewing storm, Larry rumbling to life with drums of doom and leading to a scathing Edge riff, his best on an album full of them. Bono joins the fray in a totally new beatnik persona, his words stumbling over one another through the verses before exploding into anthemic choruses in the great U2 stadium-shaking tradition, like bursts of sunlight blasting away the rain.

I read this as yet another Bono spiritual, addressing in the first verse once more his conversion (“Three!” = The Holy Trinity). Buying God’s cockatoo then gives him the ability to face his fears and “walk out into the street … with a love you can’t defeat.”

The last third of “Breathe” is all heavenward praise. In the Rolling Stone article, Bono says, to him, all music is worship (a notion I wholeheartedly agree with, given certain parameters), and the conclusion of this song is Bono putting that idea to words and the band putting it to music. The last two verses just smash into you in waves:

We are people borne of sound

The songs are in our eyes

Gonna wear them like a crown

Walk out, into the sunburst street

Sing your heart out, sing my heart out

I’ve found grace inside a sound

I found grace, it’s all that I found

And I can breathe

Breathe now

To this fan, these are nine of the best lines Bono’s ever written, bringing conclusion to the “let me in the sound” quest that is the overriding theme of “No Line on the Horizon.” They explode at the crescendo of a simply massive track, and music and meaning come together to summarize all that I love about this band.

The final 1 minute, 30 seconds of “Breathe” is now one of my favorite passages of any U2 song. Ever.


‘Cedars of Lebanon’

Why U2 chose to include this song—much less END the album with it—I do not know. “Breathe” works as a the perfect album closer, both thematically and musically; “Lebanon” feels merely like some weird, jarring coda.

Here Bono does his best Lou Reed impersonation in a spoken-word performance we haven’t heard since 1997’s “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.” In an album that to this point is largely apolitical, it’s an odd choice to close with a first-person narrative of a war correspondent contemplating the horrors before him and the family he’s left behind. To say it’s depressing is an understatement. Plus, it includes the worst moment on the entire record: the single-line chorus “Return the call to home,” sung by (I think) Edge and Eno in ridiculous falsettos is just horrendous.

“No Line on the Horizon” is, in total, an uplifting, spiritual, personal album. This song is none of those things. On its own merit “Cedars of Lebanon” isn’t bad—compelling, even. But it’s far from a fitting finale for what is otherwise U2’s best album in nearly two decades.



Bono was asked years ago to judge “Atomic Bomb,” and he said it wasn’t as great as the sum of its parts. “No Line on the Horizon” is the opposite. While even the best tracks on this album may have trouble cracking the U2 canon, the record as a whole is the most consistent effort this band has recorded since 1991.

While it definitely isn’t a third masterpiece to accompany “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby,” it's the closest they've come in a while. I rank “No Line on the Horizon” certainly among the next tier of U2 albums alongside the likes of “Boy” and “Zooropa.” They dug deep for this one, took their time, and in so doing found new sources and combinations of sound, reinventing themselves once more without sacrificing the touchstones that make them who they are. A record like “No Line on the Horizon” is exactly why U2 is not just the biggest but one of best bands in the world—out there earning it, with new material that holds its own against the old. To deliver a work of this stature this far into their career is … magnificent.

Grade: A-

Author's note (again): Back in March I "live-blogged" my initial thoughts on the album. I did not go back and look at those when writing this piece, but they can be found here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pearl Jam's 'Backspacer': After Just One Listen …

Uh … nothing.

I don't love it.

I don't hate it.

It's just sorta sitting there.

Which probably isn't a good thing.

I've never had this happen with a Pearl Jam record before.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Woke Up This Morning to an Empty Sky

NFL Network just replayed U2's performance during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.

I know it's just rock and roll, but …

His Airness?

I had mixed emotions tonight watching Michael Jordan's induction into the basketball hall of fame.

I loved—LOVED—Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls when I was a kid. I mean, devotion like I've given few things in my life. It was Michael Jordan who first turned me on to basketball, who first got me seriously interested in sports (even more so than the Redskins, if you can believe that). I was just 9 years old, as far as I can recall, and had no reason to root for him other than he was greatness personified (and, I'm proud to say, my fandom began before he started winning championships—I suffered through those Pistons playoff series). With his induction, I'm sure you can go any number of places on the Internet and find gushing praise of his prowess, so I'll spare you here.

In the years since his retirement (from the Wizards, you may recall, not the Bulls—the coda to his career conveniently forgotten by the video montage tonight), my devotion to Jordan hasn't just waned, it's all but disappeared. Now the stories about his ruthlessness—as both an opponent and a teammate—I ignored as a child strike a different chord. The sordid details of his messy divorce hold greater meaning than the championship trophies.

But seeing those highlights, I was swept up all over again in those beaming childhood memories. He was amazing, wasn't he? I've seen those clips literally hundreds of times—many of them I witnessed live (on TV, of course). They still give me goosebumps.

Those are fantasy. Michael Jordan the Reality was in full view tonight during his acceptance speech. A man obsessed with competition—winning, more specifically. As the glow of his athletic accomplishments fades from present day into history, the unsavory aspects of Jordan's personality shine brighter, and the glare is harsh.

I don't know Michael Jordan personally. Maybe he was just nervous. But he came off like a jerk tonight. A bitter former shorts-clad god who still holds grudges. He aired old grievances (here's lookin' at you, Jerry Krause), ripped former opponents (hello, Bryon Russell), and ridiculed ex-teammates in justifying a lifetime spent destroying every obstacle in his path. I would not want to be Michael Jordan's friend. I wonder how many he really has. He only mentioned a few, and only in passing (Scottie Pippen, Dean Smith, Phil Jackson—sorry, Charles, even though you're sitting right down front, no shout out from MJ).

He did make me laugh a few times. Of course he did. Jordan didn't become a global icon just because he could play ball—he's a charmer. But he's not nearly as personable anymore away from the dazzling dunks and game-winning shots.

So, in the end, tonight's induction of the greatest basketball player of my lifetime left me pondering a question I don't know if I'll ever be able to answer: How do you make the most out of what God gives you and still make room for God in your life? Whether he knows it or not, Michael Jordan was a blessed man. And he took what God gave him and made the absolute most of it—perhaps more than any other basketball player who's ever lived. Because as amazing as Jordan was physically, he may have been even more impressive mentally; his devotion to his craft was unparalleled, and that's what made him great. That's what he talked about tonight—the "competitive fire."

But at what point does making the most of what God's given you become contrary to His divine purpose for your life? How do you find the line between wasting your God-given abilities and allowing them to become your god? Did Michael Jordan's six championship titles cost him too much? Should I be doing more with my life than sitting here on a Friday night tapping away at a keyboard?

I have no idea.

But I do know Michael Jordan did not come across as His Airness tonight, the man who inspired millions and millions of kids just like me by floating high above the hardwood. Never has he seemed more stuck in the ground—a bitter middle-aged man looking for something, anything to fill his life the way basketball used to. It was a sad thing to watch, really.

So I guess he's inspired me again. In 16 years, when I reach his current age, I don't want to be like Mike.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

'The Way of Shadows,' Brent Weeks

Brent Weeks’ stunning debut fantasy novel, “The Way of Shadows,” is the story of an urchin who becomes an assassin to escape the living hell of the streets, but must battle his inner morality in the process.

It reminds me of The Gaslight Anthem’s latest album, “The ’59 Sound,” in a way, as Weeks doesn’t necessarily do anything utterly new here but synthesizes his many influences seamlessly. Like TGA, Weeks takes the best parts of the authors he loves to create something that feels, well, new. And, like “The ’59 Sound,” “The Way of Shadows” is utterly compelling from start to finish.

I don’t claim to know Weeks’ full range of influences, but here’s how I interpreted them through my own fantasy lens while tearing through “Shadows”:

• Weeks offers Terry Goodkind’s depth of character without requiring hundreds of pages of dialogue to do so.

• He captures the essence and innocence of childhood like Orson Scott Card (actually, for a while it walks a fine line between influence and downright stealing), but takes a step further into the dark corners of the underground urchin society where Card never went. He also writes with Card’s clarity of purpose and language.

• He presents multifaceted characters with deep flaws like Joe Abercrombie, but allows them more redeeming qualities. In short, you’ll feel OK loving these characters.

• Weeks provides scene after scene of pure, exhilarating action like Matthew Stover, but still adheres to a moral center. Also like Stover, Weeks provides just enough worldbuilding to give his novel depth but not intrude on the narrative flow.

• Like Joel Surnow of “24,” Weeks isn’t afraid to kill significant characters. It adds to the feeling that absolutely no one is safe in these pages.

And, most surprising, there is quite a bit of God talk in “Shadows,” and all of it sincere, not snide. I’m not saying Weeks is a Christian author, and this novel certainly doesn’t avow Christian values as a rule, but it’s utterly refreshing to encounter any characters in popular culture who speak of God with authenticity and truth. The “Christian” characters in “The Way of Shadows” are treated with the same care and respect as his other creations; they are one more color to the tapestry of action, romance, and political intrigue Weeks weaves over the course of 650 wonderful pages.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It’s the most visceral reading experience of a fantasy novel I’ve had since Goodkind’s “Confessor” in 2007.