No Line On The Horizon

Wed Mar 11 2009

Bono has said in the past that as long as the members of U2 keep challenging themselves, they will remain relevant. That’s got to be a real challenge when ravenous fans are guaranteed to eat up every tour and album you throw their way. Then again, those legions probably wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for U2’s commitment to change. This is unabashedly yet modestly the bravest album U2 has made since Zooropa, and there are stylistic parallels to be drawn between the two albums, as well as nods to the atmospherics of Pop, but unlike those two albums, a sense of urgency straight out of War overshadows any playfulness. The band reexamined its ability to have fun and reinvented itself in the 90’s. No Line On The Horizon suggests that playtime is over.

All in all, U2 is more methodical than it has been since The Unforgettable Fire. There’s no “Vertigo” or “Beautiful Day” here. Where Atomic Bomb and ATYCLB would nail you with instantly iconic riffs and vocal hooks, this album builds slowly. These songs take time to develop their intensity. This is not at all the way U2 generally operates. Even a classic slow-burner like “Bad” grabs you with quintessential Edge first, essence of Bono a moment later, but most of NLOTH doesn’t yield that comforting beacon of familiarity to lean on. Naturally, you can put this on Brian Eno’s shoulders to a degree, but as a whole U2 seems determined to let its message soak in this time around rather than hitting anyone over the head with it.

You can feel it right from the first track; that opening wash of sound is virtual static, and Bono is really belting it out but there’s not much of a melody. The chorus is little more than a tease. And then that huge bridge, a clarion call straight out of the 80’s, but with that modern Bono scratch, all wrapped up with a simple guitar chime reminiscent of “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”. It’s a statement of purpose, with Eno’s hand all over it, but like much of the album, there are only two reasons you can tell who it is. It’s about time U2 remembered that with Bono and the Edge out front, you can do whatever the hell you want and it will still be U2.

Bono sounds more like he’s got something to prove than he has in a while. He is pushing his voice to its limits, particularly on the first three tunes, and the rewards are impressive (I just hope he can keep it up on tour). The gritty capture of his vocals ups the stakes and pays big when it counts. Even the chorus of old men in “Moment Of Surrender” and “Unknown Caller” makes no effort at really blending, so it comes off like a motley church choir, but Bono seems to stand out just because he can’t reign in the emotion. He leaves the falsetto behind for the most part (it’s so ineffectual in “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”), concentrating on staying within his register, and he hasn’t lost anyone’s attention.

Lyrically, Bono is more literal than usual; it’s as if he feels he hasn’t quite been getting his point across, and he’s tired of preaching to the converted. When he sings “I was born to sing for you”(“Magnificent”), it’s almost like an apology wrapped in an affirmation. He basically lays it all out on the table with “God is love/And love is evolution’s very best day”(“Stand Up”). He’s daring the cynics to tear him down, but he’s fine with it; no hiding behind metaphors, no abstract mantras. Even if you don’t believe Bono cares as much as he says he does, you have to marvel at the evolution of the persona, and you have to acknowledge the power in it.

The weakest moments are due to idea-overcrowding. Edge 101 opens “Unknown Caller”, and the chanted chorus alternates between effective and silly based on the lyrics (“Shush now” is something that just can’t be chanted meaningfully). “Boots” (really the only whimsical song on the album) grows on me with each listen, but that riff still doesn’t quite stand up to the Edge canon. That’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that they never really let it rip, “Elevation”-style, at any point, and then suddenly bury it in the mix at the end of the song. The whole song just comes off like nobody involved would risk offending the others by insisting on a cohesive direction.

The highlights clearly outweigh the missteps, though. “Moment Of Surrender” achieves a modicum of gospel atmosphere without shoving it down anyone’s throat, radiating gratitude and serenity. “Stand Up” grooves to a beat U2 has never considered before. Larry Mullen must have gotten bored over the past decade because, without ever getting fancy, he’s throwing in all kinds of un-Larry-like flourishes all over the album, and it’s refreshing. The mechanical drumming here actually makes the riff move more than it otherwise should, and the Edge’s mini fuzz solo is almost eerie; when was the last time you thought that about a U2 song? “Breathe” rocks with the strength of a Stone Gossard-esque waltz riff, a crisp, timely guitar solo, some of Bono’s least-contrived half-spoken vocals ever, and an ebullient harmonic refrain to end the song.

But the final track, “Cedars Of Lebanon”, is a crowning achievement for this band. There are no histrionics, and Bono’s voice rarely rises higher than the pitch of the spoken word. It is a deliberate lament, a character study, and a warning, and it does not have a happy ending. It’s a classic U2 move to temper the optimism with fear for the end of the album (“Is That All?”, “’40’”, “Mothers Of The Disappeared”, “Love Is Blindness”), and “Lebanon” stands up amongst the most powerful statements the band has made. The message is simple, whispered in every line: be grateful for what you have. It’s easy to remember in your best moments, but sometimes you have to be shaken. U2 still has the ability to shake us, and that trumps Bono’s own condition for the relevance of his band.

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