Review Summary: A release that does have some genuinely awesome moments and more than a few head-scratching ones.
U2 have been on a hot streak of critical and commercial success lately, their two millennial albums (All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb) selling millions and landing them lucrative gigs like Grammy awards and Super Bowl half-time shows. With such success comes, as it always does, accusations of the band “getting soft,” trading in the transcendent, thoughtful rock of their late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday with palatable arena rock. But let’s face it; U2 have always been a band suited to the stadium, with Bono’s Messiah-complex and resonating voice mixed with the Edge’s crystalline shards of guitar noise a perfect fit for the kind of bombastic, lyrical rock ‘n roll they have come to represent.
With the undertaking that is No Line On The Horizon, a record that’s taken nearly five years and numerous superstar producers, however, U2 have tried to reinvent themselves again, although Horizon is more of a remake than a reinvention; in this case, a harkening back to the atmospheric sounds of The Unforgettable Fire courtesy of producer extraordinaire Brian Eno. Predictably, this “experimental” attempt is at times gorgeous and at others hackneyed, a record with just as many “holy-***” moments as there are “why-would-they-ever-do-that” enigmas.
It’s not hard to pick out the latter: just take a listen to first single “Get On Your Boots,” the equivalent to an aural warning against masturbatory studio excess if there ever was one. It starts off promisingly with a rugged guitar riff before abruptly dropping off into a sparse arrangement of percussion and bass and Bono singing “future needs a big kiss / winds blow with a twist / never seen a move like this” and more nonsensical spouting. The song has more transitions and shifts than a classical symphony, with none of the subtlety or any clear direction to be spoken of. Adventurous, sure, but easily one of the more painful things U2 has ever put to disc.
As if knowing their mistake, “Get On Your Boots” doesn’t show up until the tedious midpoint of the album amidst a three-song run of the worst on the record. The opening punch of the title track, “Magnificent,” and “Moment Of Surrender” are much better, a trio of musical statements that end up being reminders of what the album could have been. The former is an effectively chugging rocker with all those characteristics U2 fans have come to love; Bono’s soaring vocals, a wall-of-sound spurred along by Edge’s vibrant guitar work, and a swelling, emotional chorus. “Magnificent” starts out slower, ambient noise building up around a threatening bass roar before Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drums come pounding in and Edge’s lick propels the song along into quite the effective pop tune.
The seven-minute-plus “Moment Of Surrender” ups the grandeur even more, announcing itself with a solemn string part and a techno-y drum beat as Bono sings one of his most affecting love songs in recent memory. And when the band reach the epic chorus and Bono sings out “at the moment of surrender / of vision over visibility / I did not notice the passers-by / and they did notice me,” it’s easily one of the highlights of a record that rapidly turns south.
After the acceptable “Unknown Caller,” a stereotypically Bono song about the banalities of modern life replete with a multi-tracked chorus, comes the ill-titled “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” It’s poppy and catchy and, overall, not particularly interesting, the kind of filler that is all the more obvious coming after the excellent trifecta of the beginning. And lyrics like “is it true that perfect love drives out all fear"” don’t really do much for Bono’s reputation as a corny wordsmith.
“Get On Your Boots” follows along with “Stand Up Comedy,” their poor idea of funk and the type of song that seems more than a little bit forced from a band like U2. “Fez – Being Born” and the quiet “White As Snow” push the record in an increasingly ambient direction, with co-producer Eno’s handprints showing up everywhere. “Fez”’s opening minute seems like an entirely pointless waste of noise that shows little connection with the up-tempo song that follows, while “White As Snow” seems more like a half-realized idea of a folk tune than a truly finished, genuine U2 product.
It’s only on the closing duo of “Breathe” and “Cedars Of Lebanon” that U2 match the arena-rock grandeur of their recent releases with this more atmospheric bent of some of their older ones. “Breathe” is vintage U2, with a revitalizing guitar solo by the Edge and typical Bono-esque lyrics about modern life and an urge to “walk out into the street / sing your heart out.” “Cedars Of Lebanon,” meanwhile, is explicitly experimental, but this time it sounds natural rather than contrived. Bono seems exhausted, singing more in a talky verse than the full-throated echo we’re used to, with a collapsing drum part driving the song along behind a dreamy guitar lick. It’s a haunting musing on people in war and one of the few places where the ideas Bono and company no doubt had coming into the studio actually combine to create entertaining music rather than fall apart like a badly constructed house of cards.
No Line On The Horizon is an unabashed U2 album complete with all their trademarks, and in that respect it will surely please all but the most stringent of their humongous fanbase. But it’s surely not as cohesive as Atomic Bomb nor as accomplished as All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and it’s definitely a far cry from some of the earlier work they attempted to emulate with the help of Brian Eno. Much like the disastrous “Get On Your Boots,” too much of the album sounds like too many disparate ideas tacked onto each other in an effort to sound fresh, leading to a release that does have some genuinely awesome moments and more than a few head-scratching ones. But hey, when you’re U2, I guess you can pretty much do whatever you want.