Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/17/09.
For more than 25 years, U2 has been one of rock's most beloved and premier rock bands. Led by lead singer, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. U2 were the band that changed the face of rock in the 1980s with their songs about religion, love, politics, and the world in general. Since they emerged onto the music scene with their 1980 album Boy, the band were like no other as they broke through internationally with 1983's War while it's follow-up album The Unforgettable Fire in 1984 expanded their unique sound. 1987's The Joshua Tree made U2 rock superstars as the band that was the alternative to new wave and hair metal were now the mainstream. Yet, for all of the album's success in terms of album sales, Grammy awards, and sell-out concert attendances. The backlash would also come for the band as they would face it for many years to come.
1988's Rattle & Hum, a double album of live material and new tracks from its accompanying documentary film marked a troubling period for the band as the film and album were both panned by critics despite the album's success. After deciding to take a break at the end of the 80s, U2 decided to reinvent themselves with 1991's Achtung Baby with electronic flourishes added to their sound. The album was supported by a massively successful stadium tour known as Zoo TV. 1993's Zootropa was a minor success in comparison to Achtung Baby but still helped raise U2's profile as the world's best band. Following another break came another set-back in 1997 when the band released Pop with a huge stadium tour known as PopMart. The album was considered a disappointment while the tour in its big staging drew comparisons to the film This is Spinal Tap where at one point, the band found themselves stuck inside a lemon they were supposed to come out of.
The band ultimately returned in 2000 with All That You Can Leave Behind as it was the album to announce that they're back and not willing to call it quits. The album's success and acclaim help restore their status as one of rock's great bands as their tours were selling out while Bono continued to be the world's greatest peace activist despite annoying some fans over his activism. 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb helped continue the band's reign of success but some fans complained that the band is starting to show their age with its polished sound and production. At the same time, several artists and acts were starting to go for the same ambition as U2. Notably Coldplay with some in the press tagging them as the next U2 with critics grumbling about Coldplay. With U2 hoping to reclaim their throne as the world's best band once again, they return in 2009 with a new album entitled No Line on the Horizon.
Produced by longtime collaborators Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno with additional work from Steve Lillywhite and songs written by the band with Eno and Lanois. No Line on the Horizon is an album that continues U2's thematic quality of songs about love, God, and the world. Described as a gospel album of sorts while recalling the experiments of early 90s albums like Achtung Baby and Zootropa. The album is more in line with the band's past two albums in terms of its somber, lush production and performance. Yet, the result is what is truly the band's dullest album to date with no real sense of direction as they're starting to show their age.
The album opens with its title track, a shimmering, mid-tempo track with pulsating, tribal drumming from Larry Mullen Jr. With fuzz-driven, swooning guitars from the Edge and wobbly bass lines from Adam Clayton, it's Bono's wailing, raspy vocals filled with lyrics of love that drives the song. With its atmospheric, tingling production along with its smooth yet pulsating tempo, it's a song that proves U2 still has some juice in them as it mixes rock and Brian Eno's ambient-style presentation. The album's second single is the sweeping yet rhythmic Magnificent with its thumping back beat, growling and arpeggio-laden guitars, wobbly bass lines, and soft synthesizer flourishes. With Bono's calm vocals and dreamy lyrics, it's a song that shows the band delving into disco but with a great style and enthusiasm which includes an evocative slide-guitar solo from the Edge.
Moment Of Surrender is a seven-minute, twenty-second song with smooth, ambient-like flourishes courtesy of Brian Eno's keyboards and a slow, thumping drum track from Mullen. With Clayton's bass grooves and Bono's wailing vocals filled with reflective lyrics on love. It's a song that kind of drags in its time length and ambient presentation despite its performance along with the Edge's soft, ringing guitar. Unknown Caller is a track that starts off as a ballad with the Edge's arpeggio guitar flourishes and Clayton's wobbly bass lines. With Mullen's pulsating, sparse drumming that becomes a mid-tempo track of sorts along with Bono's calm vocals and gospel-like lyrics. The song is good though its production is too clean and calm in its performance along with Bono's lyrics which is a bit overbearing in its message.
I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight is a mid-tempo ballad with the Edge's ringing guitar riffs, Mullen's thumping drums, Clayton's melodic bass lines, and Bono's swooning vocals about love and life. While it has a nice presentation despite some qualms in Bono's lyrics that are bit silly in its intentions. The album's first single is the upbeat, fuzzy Get On Your Boots led by pulsating rhythms, fuzzy guitars and bass riffs, it's a song that kind of goes well except for a bunch of things. The lyrics are very stupid as Bono tries to make a song that is sexy but fails while there's a section when the band sound for some reason, the British band Muse in the bridge of the song. The breaks get even more ridiculous during a point where Bono says "Let me in the sound" repeatedly with pulsating beats that just goes nowhere. Stand Up Comedy is an upbeat, mid-tempo rocker with driving guitar riffs, funky rhythms, and Bono's calm, wailing vocals. Yet, the song is not very memorable with its silly lyrics and polished production in some spots of the vocals and guitars along with its chorus as Bono wails in his vocals.
Fez-Being Born begins with distorted loops with ambient-like textures and repeated lyrics of "Let me in the sound" that is played throughout until it gets distorted into this ambient-flavored song of sorts. With shimmering guitars and throbbing rhythms, it's a song that has Bono delving into spiritual-laden lyrics with wailing vocals as it's a good song with great performance and musicianship despite a very misguided intro and polished production. White As Snow is a traditional song with new arrangements by the band, Eno, and Daniel Lanois with its somber, ambient flourishes with plucking guitar notes from the Edge. Bono sings cooly with the song though it's one of the least memorable songs on the record as it drags in its presentation despite some of guitar flourishes from the Edge and smooth rhythms from Clayton and Mullen.
Breathe is a mid-tempo song with Mullen's pulsating, hollow drums and the Edge's shimmering guitar that goes into driving power chords with Clayton's thumping bass and Bono's frenetic vocals. Featuring soft piano melodies in the background, it's a song that features inspiring lyrics as it's one of the album's best cuts due to its performance, production, and lyrical content. The album's closer is Cedars Of Lebanon is a smooth, ambient-inspired track with soft, pulsating drums from Mullen, Clayton's melodic bass, and the Edge's flourishing guitar. Yet, it's a track that is just dull in its musical presentation and production with Bono singing calmly but with the lyrics not carrying much depth as it comes out quite silly. With background voices in the song, it tries to be atmospheric but fails as it ends the album with a whimper.
Whenever U2 plans to release an album, it's always meant to be more than an album but rather than event as if they're claiming that the world's best band is back. Yet, there's some major problems with this record. It doesn't have a cohesive sense of direction with its emphasis on ambient music, rock songs, and dance-like tunes that makes the album feel uneven and also uninspiring. At the same time, the production feels very lazily as it tries to go for mood with a polished sound but it lacks a real sense of excitement and immediacy that worked in previous albums. Lyrically, U2 sticks to what they know and it seems like they had some ideas but some of it comes off either very silly or overbearing. Yet, in the case of the album's misguided first single Get Off Your Boots, it reaches the line of stupidity.
For all of U2's ambitions to maintain their status of the world's best band, that's the other problem. They're not the world's best band (that's Radiohead for 12 year running and without effort or care). The album seems to state that even though they still have a few great songs in them, they've become more of a band that is like a brand name than a real band. At the same time, for their sense of ambition and wanting to give audiences the kind of music and shows to put on. They risk themselves of becoming something that most bands don't want to be. Rock dinosaurs. With bands that want to be U2, there's definitely bands that don't want to be U2 because they don't want to make fools of themselves and make records that sounds very dull as the band is about to reach the age of 50.
No Line on the Horizon isn't really a bad album but not a great album that lives up to U2's standards. Audiences who have enjoyed some of the band's more pop-driven sounds of the past two albums might enjoy it, notably the song Magnificent which is one of their best singles. Audiences of more old-school U2 of the 80s and 90s will definitely be disappointed in its lack of direction and lazy production as they're now a band that has definitely lost its sense of focus. With plans for another album coming out later this year, it's clear that U2 aren't the same band they were in previous decades but rather a band that's gotten their ambitions over their head again. In the end, No Line on the Horizon is a sign that age is starting to creep into the mind of U2.
U2 Reviews: Studio Albums: (Boy) - (October) - (War) - (The Unforgettable Fire) - (The Joshua Tree) - (Rattle & Hum OST) - (Achtung Baby) - (Zooropa) - (Pop) - (All That You Can Leave Behind) - (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)
Compilations: (The Best of 1980-1990) - (The Best of 1990-2000) - (U218 Singles)
Live/Remix Albums: (Under the Blood Red Sky) - (Melon) - (Original Soundtracks 1) - (Hasta La Vista! Live from Mexico City) - (The Million Dollar Hotel OST)
Films: (Rattle & Hum) - From the Sky Down
(C) thevoid99 2011