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U2’s No Line on the Horizon: A Review

March 6, 2009 2 comments

Since my first review on this blog was a review of the then-current U2 release How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, felt it was only fitting to review the now-current U2 release, No Line on the Horizon. I will follow the format of my Death Magnetic review, with a general album rundown, and then a track-by-track breakdown.

U2 have never been a group of guys to be subtle. Or at least, they rarely are. Bombast and excess have been used to their fullest extent on their albums, for different reasons, for pretty much their whole career. Bono’s voice doesn’t really do intimate. The Edge’s guitar work is a constant focus. Larry Mullin, Jr’s drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass playing are the grooving, driving, rock-n-roll part of the band. In the 80s, this bombast lent itself to the heart-on-their-sleeves activism and political stance. In the 90s, the excess skewed the band toward irony and self-parody. Now, in this current version of the U2 sound, the layers of produced-by-committee, overworked arrangements try to work toward the “Okay, we admit it, we’re the greatest band in the world” mentality of the 2000s.

But really, for a band that’s always been so bent on changing their sound–from Larry Mullin’s desire to not be a punk band to Bono’s wishes to go away and dream it all up again, to The Edge’s futuristic techno-punk guitar explosions–this outing sounds about as much like U2 as one could expect. Rather than channeling their early-80s sound, No Line is a revisting of their 90s forays into techno and pop, more akin to Zooropa than to The Unforgettable Fire. Unfortunately, many of the problems with those 90s albums are present in this new disc. The desire to pile on effects, sequencing, and ambience gets in the way of some really solid songwriting.

Make no mistake, this album is good. Very good. If I were inclined to rank the albums I’d likely put this one as fourth in their catalog, after The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby!, and Pop. I don’t think there’s a single “bad” track on the album, and that’s saying something. But there are some particular flaws in each song, which I’ll get to in a bit. (I’ll give you a hint: most of the complaints involve the phrase “there’s too much.”) And I think the second half, starting with “Get on Your Boots”, is very, very good.

Right now the band is in the midst of a week-long stint on The Late Show with David Letterman. I’ve never liked watching U2 on a small stage because Bono’s stage antics and giant personality don’t really serve the small screen (despite my 42-inch plasma…) very well. And really, I think that’s the problem with this album. While constantly pushing themselves to excel, the band tips over into excess this time, and I just don’t understand why. Maybe it’s to make sure no one confuses them with Coldplay?


“No Line on the Horizon”
On the first track of the album–the title track, no less, which seems odd–we are almost assaulted with piles of Eno-inspired synth pads. Edge alternates between the shimmery echo of his 80s sound and the dirty funky sound of the 90s sound, and for the most part this works. Unfortunately for Mullin and Clayton, the rhythm section is ultimately the problem. The song is entirely too busy to make it sound open and airy and as free as, say, The Joshua Tree.

There’s too much Bono. The song begins with some really great sequencing, and the rhythm tracks kick in, and then Bono screws up the whole thing with an admittedly half-assed disco syncopation that grates badly against the chorus. I think this song is what “Discotheque” would have been if it weren’t so campy and fun. This is not campy, nor fun. But I think it’s because the song sounds tired, not because the song is bad. I’m waiting for the live version on this one. With the amount of sequencing the band uses live, I think the song will really come into its own on the road.

“Moment of Surrender”
There’s too much Eno. The pads, the vocal harmonies, the drum sequencing, the whole thing sounds more like a leftover Eno project than a U2 song. A more sparse arrangement would lend itself much better, and the chorus would be able to really be something transcendent, instead of merely above-average.

“Unknown Caller”
This was the first time on the album that I was really hooked. The way the song builds is really impressive, from the mellow intro to The Edge’s backing vocals, to The Edge’s shimmering guitar. Even the Coldplay-imitated “wooh oh oh oh oh” vocal hooks are pretty good. The chorus chants are definite Eno influences. But I think most of this song is The Edge’s work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said to my wife (who is a thousand times the U2 fan that I am), this album is essentially the world catching up to The Edge’s ahead-of-his time guitar work. Also: I really like the simple solo on this song. No effects, no gimmicks, just a really good solo. Nice one, Mr. The Edge.

“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”
If there’s ever been a waste of a fucking great song title, this is it. Even when they played this on Letterman, it seemed like the band wasn’t exactly happy with this song. Except, oddly, Larry Mullin, Jr., who rarely smiles. The chorus is a certifiable hook and the middle eight is good enough, though, so I expect it will probably be in the live set for a while. I don’t know, it could be good, but I think this is probably this album’s “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Bono may acknowledge his downfalls in this song, but I think he could have just left this one off the album and no one would care.

“Get on Your Boots”
If this song had some dirtier guitar work and Rob Zombie singing on it, it would have been on Hellbilly Deluxe. If you listen to it in that frame of mind, it’s an entirely different song. Not better, mind. Just different. Mr. Zombie, if you’re reading this: please cover this song. I will buy the album it’s on. And anyone who thinks this song is a bizarro throwaway song? That’s the point. Enjoy it for what it is.

“Stand Up Comedy”
This song is pretty much “The Fly” from Achtung Baby. That’s a good thing. “Stop helping God/Across the road/Like a little old lady” is probably one of the best lyrics that ever came from Bono’s pen. “Stand up to the rockstars” he says. Well… okay. If he’s letting me.

“Fez – Being Born”
A great segue track. Containing samples from other tracks on the album (as well as from other sources, I assume), it serves as a great bridge between the wacky middle tracks and the more serious work of the final tracks. At once The Joshua Tree and Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”, this song is where I’d like to see the band go on the next album, if there is one. Which I expect.

“White as Snow”
There’s too much other stuff. Half the song could be just Bono and some guitar. No synth, no piano, just voice and guitar. Think about it: U2’s best songs (“With or Without You”, “Running to Stand Still”, “MLK”, “Bad”, “One”) are incredibly sparse. As this should be. More than it is, anyway. Unfair to Larry and Adam, sure, but the amount of good rhythm work elsewhere should more than make up for this one. I mean, they let The Edge have “Numb” on Zooropa. And there’s too much backing vocal work. One other harmony track, guys. That’s plenty.

Another mostly-segue intro. The only thing I dislike about this song is the syncopated piano bit in the chorus. I suspect this was Eno’s doing again, but I can’t be sure. Bono channels Bob Dylan in the verses and well… Bono in the choruses. Maybe Chris Martin? Have we gotten to the point that Coldplay and U2 are creating a feeback loop? Coldplay does U2 who in turn do Coldplay? How ass-backwards is that? Having said that, this song is fantastic, aside from that weird piano thing.

“Cedars of Lebanon”
I honestly don’t know what to think about this track. It left me feeling… weird. It’s the first time in a long time I truly had a visceral reaction to a song. I can’t tell if it’s about an actual specific person, I can’t tell if the style of the song is an homage. But this song is the most perfectly balanced of all the tracks on the album. And then, just like that, it ends. Abruptly. There is talk that it might be a reference to the Cedar Revolution (in Lebanon–go fig!) but it might also be a reference to the book of Psalms, many of which David supposedly wrote while in the wilderness. I have no idea what the song actually means, it might just be about a journalist covering the Revolution. Or a soldier in the conflict. Or… I could just listen to the song and appreciate how friggin’ amazing it is.


So there it is. Just about every thought that crapped out of my head after listening to No Line on the Horizon a few times. Unlike some other albums I’ve reviewed, I think this an obvious good album. Not without flaws, but damn good. Thanks for sticking with me.


If We Weren’t So Alike, You’d Like Me a Whole Lot More…

February 9, 2006 Leave a comment

In response to the record stores being sold out of the new Mastodon album (which is, in actuality, a rerelease of their debut EP and four new songs), I had a day long moratorium on writing. And something happened last night. Yes, the Grammys were last night. In that light, today’s review is:

U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Yes, the album is almost a year old. But it won five Grammys last night. So I figured it’s worth a shot. Also, I actually own this album, as opposed to the new Mastodon.

U2’s 2005 release is more than simply another U2 record. That would have been reserved for Rattle and Hum or Zooropa. U2’s evolution has followed a more-or-less block format. There’s that first bit, Boy through War, in which they were the young, impudant freedom-fighters. Then came The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum. This block came out of the obvious influence of years of American touring. But even U2 realized that they were quickly becoming a one-trick pony. After a break they released their German-influenced Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. Then we got All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And now How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Apparently U2 equate success with long album titles. Or the public does, because these two albums were two of U2’s biggest sellers to date. ATYCLB is a carefully constructed pop album, though, aside from a couple cuts.

How to Dismantle… takes the sound of ATYCLB and turns it into a rock album. Yes, How to Dismantle… is a pop record, with cuts like “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, but it’s got just as many flat-out rockers. Far more than their older albums, in some cases. Things like “Vertigo” and “City of Blinding Lights” would never be on something like, say, Pop. Or October, for that matter. Yes, the punky attitude on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is wholly unlike the attitude on their earlier albums. But the same U2 pomp and arrogance is there. “Love and Peace or Else”? Can’t get much more arrogant than that.

The production is somewhere between the slick sheen of ATYCLB and the expansiveness of The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree. No claustrophobic techno mixes here. Just enough grit to be relavent and punky in the time of The White Stripes and Jet. The guitars crackle, the bass pounds and thumps, Bono’s voice is far less pronounced than on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I think with the refining of digital technology, the next album or two from U2 will sound a little more refined, though. Just a predition. The only thing that’s really lacking in fidelity in my opinion is the sound of the sequenced drum bits and/or the synth parts. Especially compared to some of the better electronics production on 90s albums.

This album has spawned a few big, big singles, and probably has a couple more left in it. The virtual inescapability from “Vertigo” is obvious, and both “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” and “City of Blinding Lights” won Grammys. I’d keep my eyes open for “Love and Peace or Else” still, and “Original of the Species” is already out there, even though I still don’t particularly like that song. “All Because of You” is big as well. There’s a reason this album has one of the best collective ratings of all the albums I have in iTunes.

Of course, with all those great songs, there’s got to be a clunker here and there, and some of the last half falls short when put up against the other songs on the album. “Yahweh”, while having a good melody, is overwraught and pretentious. “A Man and a Woman” just doesn’t do it for me. The falsetto, delivered by the Edge, I assume, is just annoying more than anything. In fact, just about all of the songs past “All Because of You” are pretty mediocre.

What U2 really excelled at on How to Dismantle is their ability to connect with the energy of their own audience. Even the successful ballads by the band, like “One” or “With or Without You” tap into a feeling, a stream of consciousness of the listener. They tap into it, and they demand attention, because they connect with the listener. When U2 fail (at least commercially), it is because they are failing to do that. Zooropa and Pop weren’t failures because they were bad songs, it’s because the songs didn’t capture the engergy of U2, and they lost that powerful dynamic–the drive of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., the swagger of Bono, and the calculated brilliance of the Edge.

Now, the first time I heard this album was when was streaming it the week before its release. I originally dismissed well over half of the album; it was “too much like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, not enough Edge guitar delay on it.” But upon subsequent listenings, more and more details popped out to me. There’s one little bit on “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, in which Bono is repeating the chorus, and singing up to the line “Best you can do/is to fake it”. There’s a bit of literary irony here in the delivery. Bono has long since lost the keening tenor of the early days, destroyed by cigarettes and alcohol. So in the 90s he started singing in a falsetto voice, or the high-pitched, “head-voice” singing that permeates the later U2 records. “Falsetto” literally means “false”… or fake. In a line that he’s working up to a falsetto pitch on the word “fake”, he suddenly decides to attempt the pitch in full voice… leading to a ragged, ugly crack.

The whole album can be boiled down to that one word. Sometimes, even the biggest band in the world can go at something honestly and come out making something ugly. Most of the album is great, but some of it is composed of bad decisions. But, like “fake”, I’m sure the decisions were deliberate; they thought they were good ideas at the time. I’m sure one day we’ll be getting an apology for some of the worse songs on the album. If there’s anything U2 has the humility to do, it’s admit when they’ve been wrong. I think one day they’ll see some of these songs as less than perfect.

But the ones that are… man. They’re perfect.