U2 No Line On The Horizon Track-By-Track Album Review
, February 21st, 2009 06:53
U2's much-awaited new album No Line On The Horizon finds Bono and chums making concessions to humour, humanity, and their best work in years, finds Stephen Dalton
'No Line On The Horizon'
Great news for Bono bashers. The most punchable motormouth in rock is back with another album full of preposterous slogans and half-baked pretensions. But U2’s 12th studio album is good news for curious, open-minded floating voters too. Because No Line On The Horizon is their most playful, experimental and sonically adventurous work for over a decade. The Irish superstars have been treading water since the millennium, taking care of business, methodically reclaiming the conservative heartland of their mullet-haired 1980s prime. Consequently their last two albums were lacklustre pop-rock affairs, shorn of the kaleidoscopic irony and self-doubting ambiguity that made them the most interesting stadium band in the world during their weird, wobbly, wayward 1990s. Ripe for reinvention again, they have finally reunited with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the producers and co-writers behind their best work. The shift is instantly apparent on this opening title track, a fuzzy disco-rock juggernaut layered with Krautrock rhythms and vaguely eastern-sounding keyboard drones. Edge’s guitars are fluid and libidinous. Bono is in Paris, dreaming of Morocco, singing about girls and traffic cops. His voice sounds liberated again, an ecstatic falsetto screech. U2 are not quite back in the nocturnal urban sleaze-world of Achtung Baby, but their mood has definitely changed. We’re not in Kansas any more.
With a modest title like that, this affirmative anthem of all-conquering love really needs to be great. Fortunately, it is. Emerging from an introductory clatter of Eno-esque bleeps and beats, Edge’s spangled starburst of guitar galvanises the tune into a windswept spaghetti-western gallop. There are echoes of 'New Year’s Day' and 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' in the choppy fast-forward momentum, but more nimble than either, with invincible romantic optimism as its driving force. Bono’s widescreen voice sounds like its bouncing off the Grand Canyon in blazing sunshine, channelling the shrill euphoria of the late, great Billy Mackenzie at times. An instant U2 classic and dead cert for future single release.
'Moment Of Surrender'
The obligatory slow-burn power-ballad weepie, and it’s another cracker. U2 have been trying to recreate the lustrous, soulful splendour of 'One' for almost two decades. This is not quite in that Olympian league but it’s probably their closest attempt so far: an understated trip-hop shuffle beat, wrapped in mournful strings and gospel-kissed keyboards, with languid licks of Floydian guitar draped across its latter half. Drifting through a nocturnal city, Bono’s haunted narrator suffers a nervous breakdown after spying his own ravaged reflection the ATM machine. Stuck in a moment he can’t get out of, the Biblical allusions tumble by, including subway stops becoming stations of the cross. The warm, surging chorus kneels at the altar of Stones classic 'Wild Horses' and Neil Young’s 'After The Goldrush'. A show-stopping stadium epic is born.
A pop-noir sketch, incorporating snatches of birdsong and lightly robotic beats. Bono takes a mystery phone call in the small hours and turns it into a chanted, disconnected jumble of computer language: “force quit and move to trash... reboot yourself.” The mood is faintly melancholy, but the tune ungainly. This could be a lesser track from Achtung Baby. Enjoyably strange but ultimately insubstantial.
'I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight'
The first track without input from Eno or Lanois, and it shows. U2’s current infatuation with the Killers and Kings of Leon seems to inform this shiny, old-school sky-puncher, which spent 16 months slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Bono’s lyric is another scrappy beat-poet shopping list of fortune-cookie paradoxes and smirking one-liners: “every beauty needs to go out with an idiot... the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear.” A few sharp lines but the bustling tune never gets out of second gear, and ultimately sounds like an outtake from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Everything from that goofy title down only serves to prove that U2, stripped of their more playful and pretentious side, are just a whisker away from turning into Bon Jovi.
'Get On Your Boots'
The shame of it – the heavily hyped lead single from No Line On The Horizon was denied a high UK chart placing by Lily Allen and Lady GaGa. But 'Get On Your Boots' still a hell-for-leather hurtle of dayglo bubblegum pop, rocketing along on Adam Clayton’s rude, fuzzed-up, snaking bassline and Bono’s self-mocking crap-rap slogans: “I don’t wanna talk about wars between nations”. Reviewers have already spotted Elvis Costello, Dylan and Queens of the Stone Age lurking in the pick’n’mix foliage. Me, I reckon that swirling chorus sounds like Queen in their pomp-rock prime. It’s a throwaway tune, but there are worse things in rock than finding U2 in priapic party mode. The question now is: can they do the fandango?
'Stand Up Comedy'
U2 squeeze into their old leather trousers for a blast of dirty funk-rock boogie. Edge plays slinky glam-grunge riffs in the vein of 'Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me' while Bono winks at the listener with more self-referential slogans: “stand up to rock stars... be careful of small men with big ideas.” There are a few droll lines here, but plenty of clumsy ones too. U2 have always been too cerebral and self-conscious to rock out with any real conviction, a quality which is both their Achilles heel and saving grace. A minor track.
'Fez - Being Born'
Further proof why Brian Eno is my favourite member of U2. This conjoined track opens with one minute of amorphous ambient sound painting, its only vocal a ghostly loop of Bono’s “let me in the sound” refrain from 'Get On Your Boots'. Then the more muscular second section kicks in, a textured electro-rock travelogue with a driving motorik rhythm and a wide-eyed retro-futurist sheen reminiscent of Neu! or early Kraftwerk. Featuring a spare, fragmentary vocal, this is one of the album’s more successful experiments. New ground for U2.
'White As Snow'
A striking change of tone brings this austere, mournful, finger-picking acoustic lament about war-torn Afghanistan seen through outsider‘s eyes. U2 have not played the Celtic folk card in such an unadorned manner since the 1980s, although the mood here is less one of sepia-tinted rustic introspection than brooding, remorseful unease. Think Rubin-era Johnny Cash with a hint of Metallica’s 'Unforgiven'. Adapted from a traditional folk melody, 'White As Snow' is destined for the soundtrack of Jim Sheridan’s new film, Brothers. A sublime moment of quiet contemplation on a otherwise crowded, noisy album.
Some advance reports of No Line On The Horizon hinted that Edge was turning into an old-school axe hero following his jam session with Jimmy Page and Jack White for the forthcoming guitar documentary It Might Get Loud. There is actually scant evidence of this shift on the album, thankfully, besides 'Breathe'. Here U2 plug in and let rip with a bluesy, swaggering, saloon-bar rocker set to a sloppy speed-waltz rhythm. Bono slathers these overdriven riffs in rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness verbosity about “Ju Ju men” and “loose electricity”. He’s standing on the shoulders of Patti Smith and Dylan again, but also trying to access his inner Robert Plant. This oddly traditional cock-rock number has been tipped as a future stadium slayer, but I’m not convinced. It’s raunchy swagger feels forced, its drunken stagger calculated. And let’s be honest, Led Zeppelin were always crap.
'Cedars Of Lebanon'
Always leave them laughing: the cast-iron showbiz rule that U2 have consistently ignored on almost every album. Written from the viewpoint of a jaded war reporter adrift in the Middle East, Bono’s croaky confessional falls somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler. After such a rich opening spread, this sketchy character study simply lacks the melodic and emotional punch to cut it as a credible finale. But such is the perverse logic of U2 World. They may not know how to sequence albums, while their quality control and crazy-paving mix of styles feels totally haywire at times. But No Line On the Horizon is still their most adventurous and rewarding long-player for 15 years. A record full of mischief, sunshine, hedonism, love, grief, humour, lust and vulnerability. At last, U2 have joined us mere mortals again.