Album Review: U2’s ‘No Line On The Horizon’

Three and 1/2 stars out of Five.

Song by Song review of the new U2 album…

No Line On The Horizon

An intro song. U2 imitate Arcade Fire. I suppose they decided that rather use ‘Wake Up’ as an intro (as they did during their ‘Vertigo’ tour), they would just write their own version.

Magnificent

U2 imitate themselves. This is their signature (proper) album opening song arrangement. The pulsing, anticipatory beginning and then… rush into the soaring guitars and high energy. This is this album’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’. Features a very low key guitar solo by The Edge. Standout lyrics: “Only love leave such a mark, but only love can heal such a scar.” Critics who think that the band is overblown and caught in their own hype will hate the title and all that it suggests of the band’s pomp.

Moment of Surrender

Forgetting that they already have a song in the U2 canon called ‘Surrender’, this song is a gospel soul song that bears little resemblance to the earlier tune. Standout lyric: “My body’s now a begging bowl that’s begging to get back … to be released from control”. I suppose oldsters such as Bono and Co. think about lack of bladder control enough to let the subject slip into their songs, but is it really necessary? Features another low key guitar solo by The Edge and some interesting slide guitars that are trademark Daniel Lanois (co-producer and songwriter).

Unknown Caller

This one sounds like a leftover track from The Unforgettable Fire, eight albums ago. The lyrics are credited to both Bono and Daniel Lanois and feature men’s choir unison chanting. Unfortunately, the lyrics they are chanting are rather banal. Rather than the haunting imagery of a song like ‘Lemon’ (from the underrated Zooropa album), the standout lyrics this track are “Here me, cease to speak that I may speak. Shush now. Oh, oh. Force quit and move to trash.” Features a more extended and ambitious guitar solo by The Edge.

I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight

U2 do a mash up of a bunch of their more mediocre hits. It’s the City of Blinding Lights (from their last album) meets Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses meets Ultraviolet (Light My Way). The non sequitur chorus seems like Bono is channeling Pink in between philosophical ponderings about how “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain as you start out the climb.” I have tried to find redeeming qualities to this song, but it’s only interesting as an art piece in which Bono sings “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear.” This song seems to be a good illustration of this point.

Get On Your Boots

A take off on ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ while borrowing a line from ‘Do You Realize?’ by The Flaming Lips (“You don’t know how beautiful you are”). It’s a nice rocker of a tune with that same groovy edge they had with ‘The Fly’.

Stand Up Comedy

U2 do funk without any recognizable funky bass line. I blame the mixing of this because Adam Clayton sure tries to play a funky bass line. It just gets buried beneath Bono’s ridiculous falsetto. The Edge delivers a low key slide guitar solo followed by a psychadelic guitar part that dies out fast. Standout lyric: “C’mon ye people. Stand up then sit down for your love.” Seems like a dig at organized church services.

Fez – Being Born

Its an ambient Brian Eno track, which includes an echo of ‘Let me in the sound’ from Get On Your Boots, abruptly fused into a proper U2 track. Another take on ‘City of Blinding Lights’ it seems (a little slower this time) meets ‘Lemon’ with minimalistic lyrics (for once) from Bono. Standout lyric: “Burning rubber, burning chrome”. A William Gibson reference? The male choir chanting in this one is more haunting than in ‘Unknown Caller’.

White As Snow

A better title would be ‘White Flag’ given the fact that it is supposed to be sung from the perspective of a soldier. This would tie into their War album nicely. Oh well. Heavy-handed Christian imagery makes this one more or less an artistic clunker, but nice as a churchy, Sunday School anthem. Standout lyric: “Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not. Only the lamb as white as snow.”

Breathe

The apotheosis of the U2 genre. Everything you like about U2 is right here encapsultated in this one song. After writing this song, U2 can now retire. They have hit the high point. Standout lyric: “Got a love you can’t defeat… I found grace inside a sound.”

Cedars of Lebanon

Bono gives up singing in favor of spoken word. Slow and meandering, it is more of a jazz ambient track than anything else. I really wouldn’t mind more of this type of sound from U2 because, frankly, they’ve done everything else they’ve done on this album once or twice before, and a little better. This is the first track that is actually more revolutionary for them. Standout lyric: “This shitty world sometimes produces a rose. The scent of it lingers and then it just goes.” Features a very nice Daniel Lanois signature men’s chorus that almost brings tears at the lyric “Return the call to home.”

Summary

Overall, for whatever criticism one would like to lay on the U2 chaps, the only reason it’s possible to apply any at all is because we expect so much. Ordinarily, an album would be simply music, something to have in the car and absent-mindedly hum along to. Either you like it or not. But with U2, it’s bigger than that. It’s a cultural force, a phenomenon. It’s attached to indelible memories of something powerful and wonderful. So the bar is raised high.

For that, for the most part, U2 pull it off on this latest effort. From an impressionistic point of view, this album satisifies all the requirements of a great U2 album. Only when you look very closely do you see the blurs and smudges that make up the total whole. Sit back and enjoy this album like you would relax your eyes to see a ‘Magic Eye’ poster. The images start becoming clearer and clearer until this incredible 3-D image appears.

The smudges? We can start with the vocals. I think it’s easy to assume that whenever Bono opens his mouth it’s sheer genius. Wrong. I believe a few more vocal takes would have perfected the parts and would have improved this album, especially the falsetto parts that are almost always flat in every song that he reaches to the higher regiser. Apparently, though, either Bono was not available enough to do the parts or his voice is just too shot from years of use and abuse. Sometimes the strain in his voice is painful to listen to. Sometimes you can hear the Bono of old. Unfortunately, there is not nearly enough use of The Edge’s background vocal to make up for the weakness of Bono’s aging vocal cords. To his credit, Bono pulls off some soulful singing that his aged voice actually makes more convincing because of the strain, but overall he needs to take care of his instrument more. It is failing him.

Production and over-writing is also a problem. Sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth. Eno and Lanois have always done a stellar job of adding the right touches in their own ways on previous U2 albums. Yet the albums, the great ones, always bring out the best of U2 and what they bring to the table. This time the production / songwriting team sort of take over a bit. The team that brought us The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby come through well in songs like ‘Moment of Surrender’ but ‘Unknown Caller,’ for example, comes across a little too heavy-handed, with a bit too much chorus vocal and a bit too much of the signature Edge ringing bell-like guitar, as if obligatory.

In addition to Eno and Lanois, we have U2 stalwart producer Steve Lillywhite for good measure. And if that is not enough, we also have keyboards on at least five tracks by Terry Lawless as well as production and keyboard contributions by will.i.am (strangely, it is difficult to hear the keyboard in the will.i.am tracks).

“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is arguably the most overproduced (and overwrought) track U2 has ever released (barring the ‘Pop’ material). It doesn’t help that ‘Crazy…’ is simply unfocused. In that way it’s a perfect song for the ADD generation. For everyone else it’s a few too many ideas fused into one song with no one telling Bono that he may want to pare his lyrics down a bit and take just one direction. I suppose it’s difficult, even for his mates, to provide honest criticism to someone of Bono’s admitted stature. Still, another few drafts would have been in order. Never mind, too, that the title’s sentiment does not fit the earnestness with which it is delivered. As I wrote in my specific track notes, above, the chorus is more like something Pink would come up with. U2, in this case, just don’t pull it off convincingly.

Finally on the production side, as nice as they may be, tracks like Fez and Cedars of Lebanon are just more obviously products of the production crew than U2 proper. It’s hard to say whether this is because U2 have simply started running out of steam and surrendered songwriting control or they are just being more honest about the role these very talented gentleman (Eno and Lanois) play in creating the U2 sound. Given the lack of success they had when working with producer Rick Rubin (someone they had never worked with before), it’s easy to surmise that it’s the latter.

But sit back and forget about all that. If you don’t listen too hard or think about the credits too much… if you listen a bit more casually to ‘No Line On the Horizon’. What is it? Yes, that’s right. It’s a U2 album. And a good one. As usual. Standout Lyrics of the Album: “Coming from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo.” (from ‘Breathe’).

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