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.
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.
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
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.
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.