Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay reviews U2’s latest album, No Line on the Horizon.
The arc of the Biggest Band in the World, U2, can be traced through three dispensations, or even testaments: The Book of the Rock-n-Roll Anthem, in which the band laid down the law of commitment to a searching quest for love, God, and social justice through pounding rhythm and soaring vocals, culminating in The Joshua Tree, the best album of the 80’s. Following some intertestamental literature, Rattle and Hum as the Babylonian exile and the return of the Maccabees, they entered the second dispensation, The Book of Europop. This began with the jolt of new gospel in Achtung Baby, the best album of the 90’s, in which U2 got a sense of humor and combined the sacred and the carnal in new (and “mysterious”) ways. This era continued in the epistles of Zooropa and Pop. The third dispensation might be called The Book of the Millennium, containing the accounts of the band’s second coming, where anthemic and pop sensibilities combined into complicated prose titles like All that You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb. The culminating album of this trilogy, and the best of the three, is their March 3rd release, No Line on the Horizon.
This is the most Eno-ish of their endeavors in some time. The producer’s ambient loops and sounds layer across the songs, combining the rhythmic thump of Indian tablas, street sounds from Morocco, birdsong, even a boy soprano and a French horn (!) with the legendary Edge guitar and Bono’s soaring vocals. This is the most richly composed U2 album in some time – contrasting starkly with the stripped-down rock-n-roll of Atomic Bomb. The music is beautiful and listenable, but there are times when the songwriting itself breaks down a bit and we are left with lots of oh’s and oo’s. But then, maybe that’s really the essential U2: Edge’s infinite guitar riffs and Bono’s paint-peeling shout. At this point, what else needs to be said?
The title track begins with a Celtic strum that bodes well for the album, but then Bono comes in with “I know a girl who’s like the sea/I watch her changing every day for me/Oh yeah/ Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh.” By the time you get to “you can hear the universe in her sea shells,” and, “She put her tongue in my ear” you can tell this song isn’t one of the rock bard’s greatest efforts. Rockspeak like “I know a girl” doesn’t work on an album this highly produced, or with a man of Bono’s age for that matter. But this song may yet prove historic – a U2 song without the word “you” in it. Just try and find one since Achtung Baby.
Fortunately, it gets better. “Magnificent” truly is. It mixes together the old U2 anthem rock with the techno beat that served them so well in the 90’s. Lyrics like:
“I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up/And sing whatever song you wanted me to/ I give you back my voice/ From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise…”
suggest a song of praise to God as well as Bono’s sense of duty to his listeners. The money’s on this one becoming another rocking hit at concerts.
The next song, “Moment of Surrender” is a stunning, slow-motion secular hymn with Eno’s strings and gospel organ accompaniment. Like the best of U2’s ballads, it has one foot in the church and one foot in the bar:
“I was speeding on the subway/Through the stations of the cross/Every eye looking every other way/ Counting down ‘til the pain would stop.”
This one’s bound to join “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for,” “One,” and “Walk On” on the group’s classic list of pop prayers.
“Unknown Caller” has a full minute and 16 seconds of mystical introduction with Edge’s famous open fifths jangling around, before opening up into a wonderfully weird monotone chant about a drunk guy trying to talk to his phone. This is one with the French horn, and my second favorite song on the album. At this point U2 works best as pop music Rothko – pulsing, abstract, and open to interpretation.
“I Know I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” has more of a pop sensibility and I’m not sure the chorus works with the more inspirational theme of the lyrics. On the other hand, it has a great bridge section with “baby baby’s” that remind me of “Light My Way,” and a jaunty Irish jig of a solo by Edge. Again Bono juxtaposes the sacred and the profane following a paraphrase from the Apostle Paul, “Is it true that perfect love drives out all fear?” with “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear.”
And speaking of ridiculous, “Get on Your Boots” picks up where “Vertigo” left off with a driving opening guitar riff and a killer bass line. According to one interview, it’s the fastest song U2’s ever recorded – a zany masterpiece of fuzz guitar with an Austin Powers vibe. If “Vertigo’s” boots were Doc Martins, “Get on Your Boots” surely means to suggest platform go-go’s.
“Stand Up Comedy” sounds like a power-to-the-people number: “Come on you people, stand up for your love!” But it’s sprinkled throughout with Bono’s rock messiah ironic self-effacement. “Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels/ Josephine be careful of small men with big ideas.” Words to live by, Bono…words to live by. And while you’re at it, “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”
The album takes a turn at track 8 where the band seems to kick their composition chops into high gear. The last four songs are the most musically complex — mostly unsingable by anyone but Bono, but they take the listener into rapturous new zones of sonic exploration.
“Fez-Being Born” is an epic tone poem that turns tempos and sound worlds on a dime, mixing an ambient electronic chill with a boy soprano at first, then breaking into martial drumming and Edge’s ringing guitar, one exquisite note at a time. The layers of music wash over you as Bono and the boys sing in unison a song of messy rebirth: “A speeding head, a speeding heart/ I’m being born, a bleeding start.” This song is best heard on earphones with the lights out.
“White as Snow” is a haunting folk song about lost purity. The tune is credited as “traditional” with lyrics by U2. It sounds a lot like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” And surely the line, “Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not/ Only the lamb as white as snow,” will send Bono’s evangelical fanboys into ecstasy. “See, he’s one of us!” The song sounds a little like a Dublin cowboy ballad to me, but poignant, nonetheless.
“Breathe” is a driving piece of poetry slam, and maybe the best on the album at being raw and earnest without sounding cheesy. The man who sings, “There’s nothing you have that I need/ I can breathe/ Breathe now,” as the news theme-sounding piano and cello grind around him, has suffered and lived to tell about it.
“Cedars of Lebanon” brings the album to a close with the usual patented U2 Contemplative Moment. TM (Why don’t they ever end an album with an “up” number?) Bono says the song is really about Lebanon, and he tried to think like a war correspondent in writing it. I love the final verse, “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cause they will define you/ Make them interesting ‘cause in some ways they will mind you/ They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends/ Gonna last with you longer than your friends.”
This album is a gorgeous piece of work. It’s not the best album of the rapidly-expiring “aughts,” but it might be one of the best. But then it would be foolish to expect a 30 year-old band of guys in their 50’s to match the world-shifting power of their youth. Not to suggest that they, or their sound, are getting old (ask U2 offspring like Coldplay or Snow Patrol). Or to suggest what they’re putting out isn’t better than 95% of what bands half their age are doing. It’s just that bands have a creative arc. Novelty comes with youth, with the arrogance and stupidity of not knowing what you’re not supposed to be able to do. Once the new sound has been birthed, the tendency is to derive from what was done before, to rearrange the now-famous sound in new ways.
Even if you can name the snippets in the collage of Horizon like watching ingredients bubble up in a boiling soup (Oh, there’s a little “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” here’s a piece of “Mysterious Ways,” there goes “Where the Streets Have No Name”) this album presents a distinct and expansive sound. You have to admire the creative integrity of this group, that they would still be “go(ing) away to dream it all up again,” as Bono once put it, when they have all the money in the world and nothing to prove. Horizon is the sweet fruit of a thirty-year collaboration of one of rock’s most talented musical families.
And lo, U2 speaketh, and heaven and earth continue to be moved.