There’s a song on the new U2 album that has quite possibly the worst title since Neanderthal man first bashed one rock with another rock and said, “This one’s called ‘Same Jeans’.” On – oh yes – ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’ a small Dubliner called Paul stands on a mountainous melody and proclaims “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear”. In other breaking news, the world isn’t flat.
While it may be over four years since ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’, it’s over a decade since the world’s biggest band last released an album that could realistically be tagged ‘brave’: the noble failure, ‘Pop’. Since then they’ve become the U2 everyone writes off as dinosaurs – ‘Beautiful Day’ soundtracking sports highlights, “Uno, dos, tres, catorce!” and ‘Vertigo’ flogging iPods – the past triumphs of ‘Achtung Baby’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ fading further. But where U2’s lovable ridiculousness used to stem from their affinity for grandiose musical statements – the grandstanding sloganeering of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, the ‘let’s save the human race’ emoting of ‘One’ – now it’s considered a symptom of their desire to simply continue Being U2 In Public, of Bono thinking he’s more than just a singer in a band.
Pleasingly, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ proves that, rather than just trying to be an out-and-out rock band, had they spent the last decade reining in their experimental leanings but still writing the same ocean-sized pop songs, they’d probably be just as huge as they are now. It’s a grand, sweeping, brave record that, while not quite the reinvention they pegged it as, suggests they’ve got the chops to retain their relevance well into their fourth decade as a band.
Most impressive of all is the seven-minute-plus ‘Moment Of Surrender’, a gorgeously sparse prayer built around Adam Clayton’s heartbeat bassline and Bono’s rough growl. It crawls and creeps and seeps into being, with each separate part knowing exactly when to melt away – a sweetly melodic Edge solo, a sudden choir of backing vocals for the climactic chorus, a lick of organ behind the verse – and doesn’t feel overlong. Along with the similarly downbeat but no-less-enthralling ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’, which is buoyed by Larry Mullen Jr’s martial drumming and a twinkling guitar, it will never be used on adverts or performed during a Super Bowl halftime show. ‘No Line On The Horizon’ and ‘Breathe’ have flashes of familiarity, but also the heft and punch of a band half their age; the title track in particular recalls the metallic groove of ‘Vertigo’ but, thanks to The Edge pressing the button marked ‘freight train’ rather than ‘annoying echo’ on his guitar, throbs with a refound passion and remains peppered with new sounds and textures. And ‘Breathe’, unspectacular on first listen but later proving itself perhaps the best song they’ve written since ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’, is a pummelling foray into blues-rock territory, all crashing chords and a soaring chorus with the simple call to “Walk out into the street/Sing your heart out”. The verse is twaddle (kudos, though, for the line “Coming from a long line of travelling salespeople on my mother’s side/I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo”) and patently old-school U2 ridiculous, as is The Edge’s nuclear guitar solo, which is perhaps why it sounds so heart-stirringly brilliant.
Unfortunately, the clumsiness of some of the lyrics let ‘No Line…’ down significantly. Much has been made of Bono writing from other points of view, but considering the title track is supposed to be in the words of a traffic cop and yet states “I’m a traffic cop”, and the war correspondent narrator of ‘Cedars…’ talks of headlines, deadlines and a “Child drinking dirty water from the river bank/Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank”, you wonder if his boundless imagination couldn’t have been employed more subtly.
And a close-to-50-year-old using his Apple Mac as inspiration for parts of ‘Unknown Caller’ (“Force quit and move to trash… Restart and reboot yourself”) and slithering “sexy boots” on single ‘Get On Your Boots’? Too far, dad. Only ‘White As Snow’, with its crescendo of “And the water, it was icy/As it washed all over me” is remotely as affecting as the rest of the album seeks to be.
‘Magnificent’ and ‘Stand Up Comedy’ are astonishingly uninteresting, two bog-standard rock songs that sound like they were reconstituted from the ‘…Atomic Bomb’ sessions. Bono’s falsetto, The Edge’s chiming guitar, solid rhythm work from The Other Two (see, they’ve gone back to anonymity): all too obvious and almost entirely bereft of spark. And ‘FEZ – Being Born’ isn’t nearly as daring as it thinks it is, merely a meandering slice of ambient doodling before kicking into gear as yet another mid-paced rocker.
‘No Line…’ is unmistakably U2 (who else would write sleevenotes thanking The Mighty Boosh, Green Day, “Jay-Z and the Queen B” alongside Desmond Tutu, credited – we shit you not – as ‘The Arch’) but in a thoroughly good way. It has the pomp and arrogance of their best work, enough new sounds and interesting new avenues to satisfy the musos and, at its core, is a very good collection of very good songs played very well. A little more silliness would go a long way, though.
Facts about this album:
U2 recorded ‘No Line On The Horizon’ in the Moroccan city of Fez, in the courtyard of a converted riad.
Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton formed U2 in Dublin in 1976
‘No Line On The Horizon’ is U2’s twelfth album.