U2 has been around the block a time or two over the course of a long career of making music. Having started out over 30 years ago from the kitchen of their drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and having reached the highest highs of any rock band who came before or since, you wonder when this band might truly peak. In rock n roll a 30 year career will see many peaks and valleys, and U2 is no stranger to either. But three decades into their now storied history, with each release we are somehow amazed at the consistency at which they reach a new peak and avoid the valleys. And with the release of their latest album No Line On The Horizon
we once again find U2 at the top of the heap and on top of their game.
Working once more with the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who together are responsible for pulling some of the best work out of the group over the years (The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and All That You Can't Leave behind, respectively), the album opens with the title cut, which immediately sets the tone for the rest of the album. Drowning in fuzz, reverb, and layered keyboards, No Line On The Horizon
cuts a deep groove through the air while managing to rock out and create a soulful ambiance all the while. A marked departure from the opening track on U2's last release, the power chord hungry Vertigo
, it sets the table nicely for the diverse musical palette to come. And it gives long time U2 listeners something to smile widely about. Which is U2 without compromise or calculation.
Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois must be given much credit for the burst of musical creativity and complex song structure which makes this new work such a rich and rewarding listening experience. Sharing songwriting credits with the band on no less then seven of the eleven tracks on the new album, it is undeniable U2 is a better band on record with this production team then without. And as if to acknowledge this fact, the album is front loaded with four songs written in collaboration with Eno and Lanois right off the bat.
And this top four pack of songs serves as the foundation of the album in much regard. Subtle, thoughtful, and without a hint of the bloated bombast found on U2's last album, instead we are treated to warm electronic ambiance, Edge's splintered and shimmering guitar work, and the steady beats and rhythms of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Magnificent
manages to recall U2 anthems past while incorporating lush keyboards, soft electronic hand claps, and a subtle Euro disco vibe which recalls Zooropa era U2 and gets our hips shaking. The lovely seven minute junkie prayer Moment Of Surrender
merges spiritually tinged lyrics of longing and desperate hope with syncopated beats, thick bass lines, Edge's moody guitar, and U2's trademark chant like backing harmonies, creating a piece which floats by you as if in a dream. And Unknown Caller
, a track Edge has said is about a person who's "phone starts talking to him" while in an "altered state" of some sort, rides along atop his trademark ringing guitar and wide open vocal choruses of simple "oh oh oh's". What is interesting about this track and those which proceed it are the way they smartly unfold before the listener. Nothing is rushed, no urgency involved, they are utterly stripped of angst both musically and lyrically. These songs reveal themselves slowly to us over their duration, yet never bore us with mindless doodling or self indulgent muck. Every note, every lyric it would seem, serves its larger purpose. And nothing is put to waste.
However, as if to remind us they are still a rock band that can still, well, rock
, the middle portion of this album backs away from all this goodness for more standard U2 fare as we have come to know it this past half decade. Ditching Eno and Lanois's songwriting influence and handing production and mixing duties over to Boy / October / War producer Steve Lillywhite, the band takes a foray into How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
style stadium rock. An album also produced by Lillywhite. And while their is nothing particularly wrong with these tunes (the tuneful but ordinary I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight,
dance rock oriented Get On Your Boots
, and anthemic rocker Stand Up Comedy,
respectively) they nonetheless sound inserted and out of place surrounded by tracks as subtle and deft as the Eno - Lanois collaborations. It's as if someone took off the new album and put on a set of unreleased cuts from the How To Dismantle The Atomic Bomb
sessions. Not to disparage that album, it's a fine recording for what it is. However it doesn't belong here, and it shows. Their is a reason U2 stopped working exclusively with Steve Lillywhite after the early records, as good as they were. And those reasons were his limitations as producer and the creative restrictions the band felt working under them. And taken in straight doses such as this, those limitations are all too apparent. Some say U2 were a better band in the early years and wish they would return to that sound and style. Well, if that's what you think you'll love these middle tracks. For the rest of us its a case of "careful what you wish for."
This is not to say the album sinks under the weight of these middle songs. Strangely enough by albums end rather then feel we have heard an album divided in two, we are left with the impression of a recording which is in perfect balance. An album whose sum is definitely greater then its parts, No Line On The Horizon
easily overcomes its shortcomings by it's overwhelming artistic vision and audacious creativity. Returning to the team of Eno and Lanois for three of the four final cuts we once again find the loveliness in the album which enveloped us earlier, and the album simply falls into perfect place. For the first minute of Fez - Being Born
, the song simply drifts on a soft wave of muted far off guitar noodling, broken percussion, whirling electronic noises, and whisper quiet vocals before breaking into a soaring and melodic soundscape with accompanying vocals. And White As Snow
is as lovely a ballad of mystery and innocence lost as the group has ever recorded. And as the album closes through the eyes of a man looking out onto a world at war with itself in the quietly angry eulogy Cedars Of Lebanon
, we want nothing more then to listen to this album again and again to keep discovering the still unfolding mysteries it offers. It is a deeply fascinating musical work in most every way.
And through it all U2 remain very much U2. Bono's lyrics touch on his familiar themes of hope, hopelessness, redemption, addiction, joy and pain. The Edge's guitar soars, rings out, and get's loud and quiet seemingly all at once. And the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. remains one of the most solid and skillful in all of music. And by opening themselves up to the empty spaces within these songs and allowing those spaces to be filled not with noisy banter or stadium rock bravado but with melodic musical subtlety, they have crafted an album on par with 1984's flawed but ambitious The Unforgettable Fire
in artistic vision. However with over 20 years of experience now behind them to draw on to bring more clarity to that vision they have created a near modern masterpiece of an album most bands 30 plus years into a long career of making rock music simply aren't capable of. This should come as no surprise for long time followers of the band who have come to expect the unexpected from U2 every so often. But what does surprise is the maturity and grace with which it is executed on No Line On The Horizon
. And we can only hope it is once again a new beginning for a group which has given us a few of those in the past.