Review: U2’s “No Line On The Horizon”

I bought Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and U2’s “Achtung Baby” on the very same day back in early 1992.  They were both monumental classics.  The two records were strikingly different but they were both unique and groundbreaking.  Hearing both records for the first time was like opening my eyes for the first time.  Both records were perfect statements in their own way.  Both records were solid reinventions.  “Nevermind” saved us from parasitic pop music and  “Achtung” made a much beloved band from the eighties sound new again. 

“Achtung” still stands as U2’s high point.  Never have they been more inspired.  That being said, over their thirty year career they have issued five or six true classics with wide range.  “War” from 1983 still stands as one of their best moments as well.  Each record has its fans.  There are those who swear that “The Joshua Tree”(1987) is their favorite, while others might prefer “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” from 2000.  Personally, I like their weirder, more experimental period.  “Zooropa” (1993) was their “Kid A.”  It was both weird and compelling.  “Rattle And Hum” (1988) has its share of fans and detractors.  I’m in the former category.  It may have a ramshackle flow, but it has some great moments.  Widely seen as a failure, “Pop” (1997) is an under-rated very misunderstood record.  It probably would’ve done better if “Discotheque” hadn’t been the first single.  I actually think that that album’s song, “The Playboy Mansion” should’ve been a hit. 

Their last album, 2004’s “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” was their least inspired album to date.  It was a pure disappointment.  Sure, “Vertigo” and “All Because Of You” rocked out, but they were standouts on a somewhat bland offering.  “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” was also good and among the album’s better ballads, but the album also had forgettable songs like “City Of Blinding Lights” and “Miracle Drug.”  By U2 standards, these were songs they could’ve recorded in their sleep.  Part of the problem was that the press before the release of “Bomb” kept hyping it as a rock record.  “Vertigo” was a dynamic rock and roll statement.  The band had claimed they were influenced by the Ramones and here was the first true proof.  Fans who heard it on the radio and got psyched up by its energy couldn’t help but be disappointed with the rest of the record.

“No Line On The Horizon” is a much better record.  It’s a much more satisfying record.  It’s not a perfect record but for U2 fans, it will do the trick.  During its most inspired moments, it plays like “Achtung Baby Part II.”  At other points, it recalls even earlier records.  Bono’s voice sounds particularly strong.   There are points when he reaches notes I haven’t heard from him since “The Unforgettable Fire.”  However, this record doesn’t sound nearly as fresh as the previously mentioned benchmarks.    It’s still low on innovation.  If you listen to “Zooropa” in particular, there’s something really unique and different about it.  All of the tracks on that album sound exclusively like they belong in that alien universe.  That’s partly what makes that album great.  The songs here all recall past periods while breaking little new ground.  There’s something to be said about consistency and reliability, but still, it would be nice to hear something really amazing and different.  It would’ve been nice to hear more risks.  So, while this record is far from boring or humdrum, it’s also rather safe.  It stacks on new songs which sound good next to old ones.  A lot of fans will be pleased by this.  Others will look at this sadly.  U2 used to be more flexible.  If the experimentation on “Pop” had been received better, they would probably still be continually finding new ways to amaze.  That album’s poor reception led them to go back to basics, thus creating a cycle. Ever since then, while their music has still been on the strong side, experimentation has taken a backseat to more populist flare.

    The title track opens “No Line On The Horizon” with a defining urgency.  Immediately, it’s apparent that this song would’ve been a much better first single than “Get On Your Boots.”  The Edge, (the band’s most consistent MVP) crashes in with an ominous two-chord pattern while Bono screams his lyrics as if trying to be heard on the other side of a giant wall.  This isn’t the stadium side of U2.  This is the U2 from the early eighties, back to make a new appearance.  These are the same defiant Irish lads who brought us “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” “I Will Follow” and “A Sort Of Homecoming.”  The guitars recede as Bono gets more hushed for the song’s chorus, and once that happens, Larry Mullen Jr. (assisted by co-producer Daniel Lanois) switches his marching beat pattern to a very “Achtung”-esque drum loop.  In one song, the members of U2 somehow conjure up sounds from their entire career.  It’s an awakening.

“Magnificent” plays like a combination of “New Year’s Day,” “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” and “Even Better Than The Real Thing.”  Although it is augmented by electronic rhythms, this is the oldest, earthier version of the band.

  “Moment Of Surrender” is a synth-heavy dose of soulful gospel.  Bono has always sort of seen himself as a soul singer and indeed he’s got the chops to pull it off.  This song is added to a long list of examples like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Angel Of Harlem” and “In A Little While.”   The synths are warm and the song wraps itself around you.  At nearly seven-and-a-half minutes, it’s a minute-and-a-half too long. Nevertheless, this will probably be a single.

“Unknown Caller” is another six-minute ballad.  It’s a little on the sleepy side at first before it slowly escalates into something more interesting.  Its saving grace is Bono’s “oh-oh-oh-oh” refrain.  Once again, this recalls the earliest U2 records. Without that element, this song would’ve just floated away.

  “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is a U2 single by the numbers.  It sounds like so many songs before it.  Most notably it sounds like the newest answer to “Walk On.”  It’s a good song but it feels a little like a third-generation re-tread, until the bridge when it switches up and Bono sings, “Baby, Baby, Baby. / I know I’m not alone.”  This little, momentary switch provides some much needed refreshment.

  “Get On Your Boots” may be the first single, but it’s the weakest song on the record.  It’s hard to tell why it was picked when there are so many stronger songs.  All at once, the verse-portion recalls the Temptations’ “Ball Of Confusion,” Dylan’s “Subterranean  Homesick Blues” and Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.”  While the song rocks out, compared to other harder edged songs like “Elevation” and the before-mentioned “Vertigo,” it seems a little clumsy.  I’m also not too sure about the refrain of “Get on your boots. / Sexy boots.”  U2 can do way more than this.  It should be more melodic and less workman-like.  Thankfully, near  the end, the song finally seems to come alive when a lot of the sonic murk is taken away and a trippier rhythm is introduced. During this time, the beat seems like it could burst through your speakers, while Bono is singing the repeated phrase, “Meet me in the sound. / Let me in the sound.”  It almost serves as a last-second save.  Almost.

“Stand Up Comedy” would’ve been a much better single choice.  It rocks like “Boots” but much more effectively. The Edge showcases more distinct, bluesier guitar muscle and the melodic element is there.  This is much more of a go-get-‘em sort of anthem with its “stand up” and “fall down” imagery.  The “stand up for your love” line is vaguely generic, but the song is good enough to overcome its clichés. Adam Clayton is also allowed here to get a little funky with his bass, to the track’s benefit.

“FEZ – Being Born” is an experimental, eastern-themed, world conscious number.  It swells and recedes, and it sounds great, but it won’t be a song that will immediately catch your ear.  It feels more like a moody jam-session.

  “White As Snow” is the best ballad on the record.  It feels like a real song packed with authentic feeling, rather than a collection of lines for the radio. Bono’s lyrical imagery is stronger  here than it has been in a while as he describes a man’s relationship with his brother, peppered with images of the wilderness.  When he says “the water was icy,” you can almost feel it.

Similarly, “Breathe” is also quite strong.  The verses are quite wordy.  it’s got some interesting lines like “I’m running down the road like loose electricity while the band in my head plays a strip-tease.” The lyrics for the most part have to do with various global issues like the economic crisis and SARS.  This is one of the most globally aware bands around after all, and here, they have created an appealing song.  Along with the title track, it’s the best song on the record.

The album ends with “Cedars Of Lebanon.”  Much like most U2 album closers, it’s a very meditative, introspective exercise.  Here, Bono sings from the point of view of a lonely, world-weary and war-weary journalist.  He pines over an old girlfriend as he bemoans the state of the world. His lyrics are almost spoken, as he delivers them in his most deadpan tone.  Again, because of the keen sense of imagery, this is a standout track. It’s quiet and mellow.  It’s not trying to hit you over the head, so it demands focus.  The album ends with its most useful and clever lines. “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you. / Make them interesting ‘cos in some ways they will mind you. / They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends. / Gonna last with you longer than your friend.”  It’s a bleak sentiment and it sticks with you.  The world is full of turmoil, so you better get to know the ones who hate you. 

Overall, “No Line On The Horizon” succeeds.  It’s not quite a classic but an enjoyable record, nonetheless. It’s a record which should please many of the band’s longtime fans.  After all these years, U2 still can deliver.   

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