U2: No Line On The Horizon
U2 observes top 40 radio remotely via flyover at 90,000 feet
I couldn’t figure out why U2′s new album, No Line on the Horizon, got such wildy mixed reviews among critics — Rolling Stone loved it so much that it married the album (in a small ceremony in Maine, where marriage is legal between midcareer-statement-albums and too-hip-music-magazines). Time Magazine went with a joke about the “horizon” referring to the end of their careers, approaching rapidly (not likely, given how much us fans pay for concert tickets). Wikipedia calls it “the twelfth studio album by Irish rock band U2″. But I thought about it more, figured it out, and present my thesis here to you, the guy who stumbled onto this website during his/her lunch break and has a few minutes to kill.
Generally people agree that it’s not an immediate pleaser, like the previous two albums — there’s massive stylistic jumps from song to song, with some being obvious attempts at hit singles that are then immediately followed by experimental “sound sculptures” that will never be heard on a radio station not run out of a dorm room. For some it’s a definitive “grower” that they can’t stop playing, while for others it’s a muddled mess. The album sold well, but had no hit singles (notice you weren’t bombarded on the radio like you were for Atomic Bomb or Everything You Can’t Leave Behind). It suffered from a big impedance mismatch to pop radio, which is probably what the fellas in U2 were expecting (though their hope for a hit is palpable in the high radio-friendly polish on three or four of their songs). It’s without question an ambitous, challenging record, but it seems to have elicited a big “?” from the music world.
So what’s going on? The disparity in reviews reflects the album itself pretty well, as it admittedly is kind of a disjoint mess — this is the first U2 album without a cohesive theme, without an underlying framework into which all the songs fit. Think about how the americana-rock songs on Rattle and Hum would never fit on the postmodern disco on Zooropa, for example, and neither would sound right on the atmospheric Unforgettable Fire. All previous U2 albums had stylistic uniformity to them, recognizable from just a snippet of sound. Is Larry whacking a tambourine in the drum beat instead of a cymbal, so you can get your booty shaking? Must be post-Pop, something from the 2000′s. Is that a bit of country twang in Edge’s guitar? Joshua Tree. This new album has no stylistic uniformity — some of these songs have never met each other, much less live in the same neighborhood. It wouldn’t be recognizable as the same band, if they weren’t all instantly recognizable as U2. In fact all songs here inhabit the space of some previous album — several sound right off Achtung Baby, others from Atomic Bomb — that’s why they’re instantly pegged as the U2 sound, despite sounding nothing like each other. What we have here is a U2 best-of compilation covering the last 20 years, dropped out of some alternative universe.
For or five of the songs are more of the same 2000′s U2 — big fat anthemic optimistic rock, which you’ll just eat up if you like U2 (guilty), and will detest like usual if that’s been your habit from earlier albums. This includes most of the middle of the album, “Unknown Caller”, “I’ll Go Crazy”, “Stand Up Comedy”, “Get on Your Boots” — these are songs cut from the same post-Pop cloth as Everything You Can’t Leave Behind and Atomic Bomb, songs from which were so well-crafted and radio-friendly that you can practically hear Bono whispering “we can do better than Pop, we can still get on the radio!” into the drum mic. The best of these new songs (“I’ll Go Crazy”) stand up to any of the recent danceable pop that U2 have done in this decade, while the worst (“Boots” and “Unknown Caller”) suffer from the same weaknesses — Bono’s lyrics sometimes sound like he’s stringing together cliches from a “pithy statement of the day” calendar that happen to rhyme, and their complete lack of subtlety can sometimes be cringe-worthy (especially on “Unknown Caller”). These are still great songs, better than 99.9% of the crap on the radio (tell me Maroon 5 wouldn’t strangle one of the models from their videos if it meant they could write “Stand Up Comedy”), but these are songs where I, an ardent U2 fan, can grudgingly hear what the U2 detractors are talking about. Much like The Who, U2′s songs go embarassingly comical when they can’t hold up all the artifice. If you’re going to use a french horn in a rock song, you better have a good reason, and I’m not sure U2 pulled it off…
“Cedars of Lebanon” and “White as Snow” are the same slow, minor-key, thought-provokers that we hear on Passengers or Million Dollar Hotel — even when they do it well, I find myself guiltily skipping past them. To this day I still don’t own Passengers — and I actually bought *singles* from Achtung Baby to get the rare B-sides. They’re strong — U2 even manages to pull off a title like “Cedars of Lebanon” — but not my favorite. “Fez – Being Born” is being called a “sound sculpture” by some, and the most egregious example of failed experimentation by others, is a mostly instrumental piece that sounds like (and turns out, is) a couple different proto-songs mashed together. I like it, though I agree it’s not as Significant as a “sound sculpture” should be, but what it sounds most like to me is evidence of Bono losing his singing voice. His atonal howling toward the end might have some deeper meaning, but all they do for me is remind me of how Bono struggles to hit the high notes lately (anyone see their Letterman appearance?). It’s not a mystery on what vocal abuse might be causing his trouble — go back and listen to him shouting on “Pride”, back in the 80′s, when he probably didn’t even need a microphone – but it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts his performance with the likely eventual loss of those anthemic high-note shouts as he gets older. Oh — forgot to assign “Fez” to a U2 historical period, as is my conceit for this review. It clearly fits in well with “Pop”, with the most overt and self-conscious experimentation of their careers. Like Pop, it isn’t bad, but U2 does much better experimental stuff when the experimentation itself isn’t the central theme.
But then we get to the good stuff, none of which I’d assign to an album from after 2000, interestingly enough. “Moment of Surrender” is by far the critic’s favorite, the song everyone’s talking about, and it’s indeed worthy — they haven’t done anything this delicate, artistic, complete, or for that matter spiritual since maybe Joshua Tree. It’s a slow burner (no tambourines on the downbeat here), somewhat experimental but of the U2 old school — could have been written around the time of Unforgettable Fire. “No Line on the Horizon” is straight from Achtung Baby, and just as good — weird, but it works. “Magnificent” is just as stellar as these two, but is instantly recognizable as the U2 template — it’s just astounding that a new and brilliant song can be constructed from exactly the same U2 components as countless songs before. I’d also peg this one as in the same neighborhood as the songs on Achtung Baby, with exactly the same sweet-yet-sour-yet-funky mix as “End of the World” or “Wild Horses”.
And, finally, my favorite song on the album, “Breathe”, which underwhelmed me at first but has now become the song I overindulge on, hitting repeat over and over. The comparisons to “Bullet the Blue Sky” are too easy, and superficial (they share the same rapid spoken-not-sung storytelling lyrics), though this song is on par with their best anthemic, muscular songs of the Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum era. Because I need to see this historical-U2-reference theme through, I’m going to assign “Breathe” to Rattle and Hum, a hugely underrated U2 album in my view. (Don’t agree about Rattle? Toss out the fluff, keep “Desire”, “Hawkmoon”, the live “Pride”, “Angel of Harlem”, “Love comes to town”, “Heartland”, and “All I want is You”, and you’d have a tight set of songs as good as any U2 album.) Where was I? Oh right, “Breathe”, much like “Magnificent”, is U2 doing the U2 thing, and doing it fantastically. This song alone is my favorite moment of their last five albums. I have no idea what Bono’s talking about, which is a good thing after all the easily-digestible cliches and one-liners in the middle of the album, and the rhythm section hasn’t sounded this relaxed-yet-thunderous in years. And speaking of rhythm, do me a favor and listen to the very beginning of the song, crank up the volume, and listen to Larry’s drum solo — it’s just the opener, a bit of atmospherics before they get going, but how the hell does he do that? Bono might be losing a couple octaves, but it sounds like Larry grew a third arm.
Trying not to belabor the point here, because I appear to be risking writing a review as pretentious as the most pretentious U2 song. (Mabye I should write a “blog-sculpture”…) While I’m not sure this album is better than the last two, which were professional seamless pop music masterpieces, I think I like this one better, and certainly have been listening to it more. It’s a disjointed mess, it takes itself way too seriously, and its full of the bloated excesses that U2 are known for, but when they get all cylinders firing, there’s still no one in pop music today who can keep up…