It must be hard to be U2: with each new album, they're wrestling with their own mythology, which grows ever bigger as time passes.
On "No Line on the Horizon," out March 3, that weight seemed to loom large: the Irish quartet's 12th studio album was originally slated to come out before the end of last year, but the band pulled it back to mold and twist it some more.
The result is 11 songs that thematically seem to have no link (although being lost surfaces quite a few times), but sonically unite the many sides of U2-the edgy atmospheric creators, the pop crafters, the electronica dilettantes, the anthem makers. Regardless of which prism the music is filtered through, U2 always sounds like themselves: at some point, no matter how dissonant or otherworldy the music, the Edge's razor-sharp guitar pierces through, Bono's ragged vocals shatter the silence. The arrival of such moments feels like the combined comfort and excitement of seeing an old friend.
Given the band's propensity for large statements, it's sometimes hard for U2 to make a small sound. Even the two words, "Rise up," on "Unknown Caller" resonate as a call to action, no matter the context. But the album's emotional center, the 7-minute "Moment of Surrender" is one of its simpler, quieter tunes that seeps into your pores. The deceptively languid song opens with an organ and a gentle, yet insistent beat. It's a meditation of sorts about life and losing oneself (perhaps into addiction?) with some clever religious imagery that has become U2's trademark: "I was speeding through the subway, stopping at the stations of the cross," sings Bono. It's a beauty and the most memorable song on "No Line."
Given how he's sounded on some recent live appearances, such as the "We Are One" Inaugural concert, there's been concern about Bono's voice. Throughout the album, it wavers and switches from moments of strength to world-weariness. If it's lost any of its potency, his voice has gained subtle nuances that come with age and experience and serve him very well here.
In addition to "Moment," among the other top cuts are "Magnificent," a driving, mid-tempo rocker that recalls early U2 (Think something from "War" or "Boy," but not as classic as anything from "The Joshua Tree"). When Bono says "I was born to sing for you," it's possible to believe he's talking to all of us who have been on this journey for 30 years.
Speaking of the past, the intro of "Unknown Caller," plainly and beautifully echoes "Bad," before the song evolves into its own creation. Similarly, "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," starts as a standard U2 mid-tempo twister then turns into a Beatlesque ode before it switches back again. Often things on "No Line" are not what they originally seem.
Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois produced the bulk of the material and are to thank for the atmospheric touches. Steve Lillywhite, who is credited with "additional production" tends to bring out the band's fuller sound.
First single, "Get on Your Boots," is one of the weakest songs on the album and doesn't seem to fit. But in some ways, upon listening to the full CD, it's understandable why Interscope picked it as the opening salvo: it is the most in-your-face, accessible track. However, it has none of the depth or resonance of many of the other tracks and seems to have already worn out its welcome at radio. Its "Let me in the sound" refrain resurfaces a few songs later on "FEZ-Being Born," which opens with a collection of seemingly disparate sounds before yielding to the most interesting and adventurous song on the album.
Bono the storyteller takes over on "White As Snow," a loping, primarily acoustic tale (complete with horns) cinematic imagery. He continues the narrative on "Cedars of Lebanon," a haunting ode written from the perspective of a war correspondent.
A feeling of uncertainly and restlessness runs through the album. Doubts and desires go unquenched. It's not an album that's meant to soothe us in these troubled times. Bono's clearly just as wrecked as the rest of us when he sings in the heavy "Breathe," "I'm running down the road like loose electricity while the band in my head plays a strip tease." But maybe it's enough to know that at least we're not alone.
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