[sic] Magazine

U2 – No Line On The Horizon

It must be hard being in U2. You’ve got everything in the world – more money than God – and can play stadiums at the click of your fingers. But what you want, you can’t always get, even if you have all the money in the world. You can’t buy credibility. And you can’t buy genius. And, judging from ‘Pop’s’ relative failure, you can’t rely on being huge forever.

When Bono’s not busy flicking the V’s at photographers behind pink sunglasses as he mingles with war criminals, sometimes, he gets to do his day job : musician. It’s actually embarrassing sometimes, as he tries to combine Jesus with Jim Morrison. Especially on the early parts of ‘The Vertigo Tour’, as he flubbed his lines and forgot the words whilst charging $200 a ticket.

When Bono’s busy doing his job, that is, playing and singing music, he’s certainly capable and far beyond the average. U2 have always tried, always strived, always hoped to be more than they were, always pushed the boundaries of technology and art. When it would have been easy and lucrative to pump out another dull stadium rock LP to diminishing returns, they went all weird and produced their meisterworks ‘Achtung Baby’ and ‘Zooropa’. A decade later, they took a step in another direction with ‘All That You Can Leave Behind’ and whilst at the time they said they were re-applying for the biggest band in the world, they mistook biggest for best. And everyone knows biggest is not always best. An aircraft carrier makes for a rubbish yacht.

Meanwhile, U2 are one of the few bands of their age and legacy that seem absolutely determined not to fall into what I call “Rolling Stones” syndrome. U2 are always pushing forward. They don’t make lazy, bloated albums of crud as an excuse to prop up a money-grabbing tour, they don’t tour and not play anything off the new record, and they don’t constantly prostitute their talents in sponsorship deals.

Unfortunately, there is a latter year U2 template that they often seem to revert to : the music they record now just doesn’t have the bite it used to – “Unknown Caller” and “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” are exactly the type of songs that U2 do in their sleep : chiming chords, mid paced drum tempos, a fluid bassline, and Bono singing about something/anything that sounds like it makes sense and doesn’t, all coiled around a keyshifted chorus following The Pixies quietLOUDquiet template, and a backing that is immaculately crafted and thus, sanitised. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a new U2 song and been absolutely stunned by it. It’s very good, well crafted, artistic, and they clearly mean it, but it sometimes doesn’t grab the soul with the urgency and necessity of desperate art. This record is overthought, and underfelt.

Yet, and make no mistake about it, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ is the best U2 album in fifteen years. I’ve always gravitated to the weirder stuff, where U2 were out there in the stars, doing whatever they wanted and without an eye on how it would sound in the Chicago Allstate Arena on a spring night. It opens with the off-chord, coiled title track, which is ‘Zooropa’-esque, that grows and repeats itself with a mantra. It’s probably the best single song they’ve done this decade. After that comes ‘Magnificent’ : designed to open stadium shows across the world, it is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a sleek beast, like a jet taking off, an uncoiled beast with Bono almost doing autobiography and a backing that propels it to instant U2 classic status. If you like U2, that is.

That said some of the lyrics are a little alienating. Whilst most of the world is trudging to work, Bono is writing about the Bay of Cadiz and setting sail on the Atlantic Sea. Thankfully there are no pious preaching moments such as ‘Crumbs On Your Table’, ‘Peace On Earth’ or ‘Please’, but that does not mean the album is not without its moments of dry humour. Make no mistake, this a wordy album, long meditations on the world, life, and the nature of a man. “Every beauty must go out with an idiot” is a fabulous line.

As is, the somewhat telling (in “Stand Up Comedy”) :

“Stand up to rock stars / Napolean is in high heels / Be careful / Of small men with big ideas”

If anything, the album is a step sideways, from the recent, and more conventional, that is to say, frankly oft boring stadium rock of their last few albums to a reflective, self-aware, slightly leftfield path. The material is still recognisably U2, but a five year gap between albums should produce better material than this. And if they really have recorded 50-60 songs, are these the best they can do thus far?

The strangest thing is from here, U2 can do anything and go anywhere, and yet seem content to peek their heads only slightly out of a comfort zone and produce two types of song, big, stadium anthems occasionally and smaller, more reflective grooving ballads that search the universe known and unknown for a secret and an answer that cannot be found. Their songs are always searching, going somewhere, reflecting on where they’ve been and where they’re going.

It’s good, and certainly far better than any band of their age, vintage and wealth needs to be, but it’s not great. Maybe over time it, like some of the other U2 albums, will unfold glories and mature over time. For now though, No Line On The Horizon is an intelligent, crafted, but slightly dull record that sees U2 hinting towards a return to their past creative high points. I suppose if the world has to have a biggest band in it, then you can do an awful lot worse than U2.



Rooftop gig

For more from Mark please visit The Mark Reed website