U2: the verdict on 'No Line on the Horizon'

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By John Meagher, Irish Independent

They took their time, didn't they? It's been four years and three months since the last U2 studio album -- the longest gap in the band's history. At times, this -- their 12th -- could have been called No Finish on the Horizon, such were the apparent difficulties and insecurities they faced when making it.

Initially, Rick Rubin, the American producer who helped rejuvenate the careers of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, was seen as the one that could move the band into exciting new areas. But those sessions, from July 2006, didn't work out and they turned once more to trusted old friends, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite. The latter has worked on and off with the band since their debut album, Boy, the former pair from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire.

Recording took place in Morocco, New York, London and their Hanover Quay studio in Dublin with up to 50 new songs recorded. They were still tinkering with songs, titles and sequences right up to Christmas, further fuelling online speculation that they were suffering creative paralysis and not confident enough to let go.

And creative difficulties seemed all too apparent on early acquaintance with lead single, "Get On Your Boots." "Is this it?" you could almost hear the punters say when the song was debuted on 2FM last month. Its insistent, fuzzy guitars were fine, although the nonsense lyrics were harder to stomach, but just where was the bold new direction the band and assorted friends had been promising us?

A bold change in direction will not be found on the album either. It won't wrong-foot the listener in the way that Achtung Baby or even Pop did. But suggestions that U2 had lost their mojo are just as unfounded -- and unfair. No Line on the Horizon may not be a masterpiece, but it is unquestionably a very good, consistently strong collection that's every bit the match of their two huge selling albums of this decade, All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Even "Get On Your Boots" proves to be a grower, working well when heard within the context of the album.

Just shy of 54 minutes long, it's one of their lengthier efforts. And of the 11 tracks, only two could be described as duds (more of which anon). That's not a bad strike rate by anybody's standards.

It starts off strongly with the title track, a barnstorming stadium rock tune that could have come from the songwriting stable of Kings of Leon. The young Southerners have supported U2 on the road, and that clearly has had an impact on Bono who sounds uncannily like that band's Caleb Followill in places. Imitation, flattery and all that...

It's followed by one of the album's stand-outs, the aptly titled "Magnificent." This already sounds like a classic U2 song that combines disparate eras of their career in a hugely appealing way -- War-meets-Zooropa, if you will. Even the most avowed U2-hater is likely to struggle to come up with reasons to dislike the Edge's irresistible guitars and muscular rhythm section. It's one of two songs featuring the keyboards of will.i.am and while the Black Eyed Peas' main man is hardly a distinct enough keys player to make you sit up and take notice, Eno's typically smart production takes all the elements and concocts the sort of epic five-minuter that's become his stock-in-trade. Let's just say one of his more recent "clients," Coldplay's Chris Martin, is likely to weep with envy when he hears it.

No Line on the Horizon is, for the most part, an upbeat album. There are several euphoric moments and lots of allusions to redemption. Songs like "Moment of Salvation" -- which, at more than seven minutes long, definitely outstays its welcome -- is loaded with lyrics referencing "soul," "God" and "fire." The atmospheric "Unknown Caller" is cut from the same cloth. Let's face it, it would hardly be a U2 album if Bono wasn't engaged by such themes -- and if you're one of the many who finds this sort of stuff off-putting, much of the album simply won't work for you.

There are plenty of songs that won't have such a divisive effect, however. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," for instance, is a massively uplifting number that's bound to be a live favourite when U2 take the show on the road this summer. There's humour too, as Bono, tongue firmly in cheek, notes: "The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear." Never a truer word spoken, Bono.

It's not the only self-deprecating moment on the album. "Stand Up Comedy" finds the frontman, who is given to wearing shoes with elevated soles, singing of "Napolean in high heels" before offering the killer line: "Be careful of small men with big ideas." The Edge's guitar playing is raw and dirty -- it's got Queens of the Stone Age written all over it. But the song fails to captivate. It just seems a little too contrived.

The album's most intriguing song is "FEZ -- Coming Home," which is a triumph of Eno's yen for experimentalism over U2's big sound. (In fact, Eno and Lanois share songwriting credits on several tracks.) It was one of the first songs recorded -- during sessions in the Moroccan city that gives the song its title -- and it's a hint about what this album could have sounded like if the band really had thrown caution to the wind. Its electro-ambient intro features the sound of birds singing and the bustle of Moroccan life (it was apparently recorded in the outdoor courtyard of an ancient riad) and Bono referencing the "let me in the sound" line from "Get On Your Boots," before it dissolves into a scattergun rock that shifts and slides into unexpected territory. The tempo changes are surprising and the song boasts a daring that the bulk of the other tracks, for all their merits, simply lack.

As mentioned at the outset, a pair of songs fall some way short of the mark. One of them is "Stand Up Comedy." The other is "Breathe," which finds Bono in semi spoken-word mode, although the song doesn't do enough to draw the listener in.

The plaintive "White As Snow" has no such problem. One of the slower tracks on the album, its intro recalls Sigur Ros while, later, a French horn highlights the evocative lyrics.

Closer "Cedars of Lebanon" is the most overtly political song, and a real grower. Like many of its siblings on this album, its moody atmospheric texture recalls Achtung Baby-era U2. It's a downbeat song on which to conclude an album brimming with life and hope.

No Line on the Horizon is unlikely to disappoint the band's multitudinous fanbase. They haven't reinvented themselves as they have suggested, but instead play to their strengths. Fledgling bands with stadium rock ambitions could certainly learn a thing or two from this album.

After such a long and difficult gestation, the album feels like a triumph. It won't change the world, but it does give Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry a ticket for world domination once more. Just watch those sales figures roll in.

No Line on the Horizon is released on February 27. Lead single "Get On Your Boots" is released in physical format today.

© 2009 Irish Independent.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on February 13, 2009 11:54 AM.

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