IT’S HARD to write an ending chapter when you didn’t write the beginning.
Try to drop into the story, the myth, the legend of U2 and it always feels like you need some type of preface before beginning, some recitation of your knowledge and justification for why you have the right to contribute anything to this ongoing saga. The love and hatred directed towards the foursome from Dublin leaves little room for the lukewarm, toe-dipping writer. If Paul decided to mail a new apostolic letter every few years, it might come close to the type of response greeting a new album from the band. You either believe in Bono, or you don’t.
It’s dangerous to talk U2 with non-believers. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up on a Saturday night, sitting on a couch, surrounded by allergen-activating cats and far too intelligent people, arguing the merits of this album with a person who simultaneously compares Bono to Oprah and finds inspiration in the glistening dome that is Michael Stipe. (True story.) Point being: things can get weird fast.
U2’s twelfth studio release—really a joint offering from the Big Four and their longtime production wizards Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois—should be neither worshiped or dismissed lightly. There is nothing new under the musical sun, but while No Line on the Horizon is hardly on the cusp of the next wave of a musical revolution, it does provide a fitting and profoundly satisfying continuance to the band’s ongoing “search to be the next big thing.”
This is no All that You Can’t Leave Behind or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and appreciating what the most pompous band in the world is trying to do here requires more than a cursory knowledge of their older breakthroughs Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree. This album is less about pushing music forward than it is about digging in, adding nuance and redefinition to nearly forty years of work. No Line fills in musical gaps separating the be-mulleted, gospel-preaching, synth-heavy early days from the muscle-suit wearing, existence-questioning, arena spectacle that followed. Think The Unforgettable Fire meets Zoo TV meets Pop. The musical texture and lyrical voice common on the last two U2 expeditions is noticeably absent, allowing a darker beauty to emerge for the patient listener.
The title track opens with a muscular wave of guitars that’s finally broken by Bono, rasping and yodeling through a story about a “girl like the sea” and an overwhelming desire to escape. A piano-spiked chorus echoes the yearning, cutting through the earthy verses: “no, no line on the horizon!” But there’s something left off—something that still leaves you longing for something a bit more, a bit deeper, a bit fuller.
And so it comes.
It hits with the thumping, the slow “rawr” of the guitar and the gradual building of the musical canvas that finally explodes when “Magnificent” opens into a song that’s unmistakably U2 but nothing like the last nineteen years. Outside of the kick, there’s nothing uncommon about the drum line. Mullen’s standard undertones are there, and Clayton blends his bass line for a relaxed-journey tone that never sacrifices urgency. The Edge soars through a series of riffs, climaxing in a stunningly graceful solo that seems to mimic Bono’s vocals. Lyrically, the song feels like a throwback to “Gloria” days, its joyous unmasked spirituality declaring, “Justified till we die/You and I will magnify/Oh, the magnificent.” Then the bluesy seven-minute-plus “Moment of Surrender” follows, complete with a dark piano-laden canvass, a mournful solo and Bono’s beatific vision of himself as, “just an average guy”: “I did not notice the passers-by/And they did not notice me.”
The music is gorgeous, the vocals piercing, and the chorus is anthem-prepped, but “Moment of Surrender” suffers from the biggest problem hanging throughout No Line—lyrical confusion. Bono seems to have something obstructing his vision and impairing his ability to write transparent and identifiable stories. Whether it’s the pseudo-militaristic “women of the future” (“Get on Your Boots”) or St. John the Divine on the line (“Breathe”), he doesn’t manage to recreate his subjects as three-dimensional being with real emotions. He writes from inside his own world of recording in Fez, Morocco, and, while he may be seeking to hash out his own existential issues, his poetic structure is either too personally self-referential (“Breathe”), or it devolves into a stream of off-the-cuff platitudes and T-shirt catch-phrases (“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”).
But keep going, and the strengths start to overshadow. U2’s willingness to stretch their songs past the standard three and a half-minute, radio-ready format showcases their ability to create delicate textures and layers like no other band in the world. “Unknown Caller,” which builds in a series of movements, is simultaneously a protest anthem, a brawny rock song, and a swirling orchestral experience. It’s meant to be chanted by 20,000 arena-packed worshipers, but perfect for quiet headphone-clasped nights.
Tucked in after the middle of the album is the riveting “Fez – Being Born,” which opens with an ambient montage reminiscent of something you would hear at a Zoo TV-era U2 show. But instead of kicking into “Zoo Station,” when the music winds up and distorts, a haunting Unforgettable Fire guitar lick dances into the space that the opening ambience hollowed out. No song better illustrates the influence that recording in Morocco had upon the band, and the slow piano drips through the Edge’s heavy distortion and Mullen’s terse rhythm.
“White as Snow” reads as a slow confessional, drawing its melody and syncopated progression from the Latin hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Bono mourns, “If only a heart could be as white as snow.” It’s a vulnerable, shades-removing moment, leading into the jarring, Dylan-esque, speak-singing, “Breathe.” Neither “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” or “Get on Your Boots”—nods to U2 in the 2000s—deserve to be over scrutinized or dissected, but both possess a musical complexity and that sends sometimes trite pronouncements screaming through your speakers and into your subconscious.
“Cedars of Lebanon” concludes the album with a startlingly unfinished, rambling visit through Bono’s head. “I have your face here in an old Polaroid/Tidying the children’s clothes and toys/You’re smiling back at me.” It’s dark and depressing, but it feels like Bono at the most vulnerable, the most open and the most incomplete.
And there it ends.
Bono has this line that he likes to drop in the live shows, about how they like to take the best parts of the past and bring them out with the present. No Line on the Horizon is about U2 fusing the best unexplored parts of their past—namely the stunning canvasses of The Unforgettable Fire and the brashness of Boy—with their present musical and spiritual journey. It’s a tapestry of musical colors that rewards patience, forcing you to turn the music up to eleven, pull the headphones tight, and try desperately to catch every layer. This is old, seasoned music, something deeper, something that you won’t find in the blog band of the week. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth arguing about, because it’s something worth believing in.
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