No Line on the Horizon

(Island; 2009)

By David M. Goldstein | 9 March 2009

“Punk rock on Mars!”

“The Edge has reinvented the guitar!”

Those were simply but two of the numerous platitudes Bono whipped out in the pre-release hype-run up to 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, a merely OK album so relentlessly buzzed about by its frontman that listeners would be forgiven for thinking that each purchase entitled them to a sexual favor (of their choosing) courtesy of the man himself. A-Bomb sounded like roughly half of a decent U2 record (and given this band’s penchant for frontloading, guess which half). 2000’s somewhat-better All That You Can’t Leave Behind was very similar, containing a handful of vintage-sounding corkers for the live show but nothing worth listening to after the seventh song. Bono naturally referred to it as a “U2 classic” four months prior to its release.

No one has any reason to think No Line On the Horizon will be any different, aside from the fact that since its release is in March, the album won’t exactly be the cash-in some might expect from the most holiday season-centric of rock bands. Bono recently, and expectedly, stated to Rolling Stone something to the effect of “if your most recent album isn’t your best album, then you’re irrelevant.” And the nicest thing I have to say about first single “Get On Your Boots” is that it sounds marginally better in the album’s context and is still far from the worst song they’ve ever written (always a lively debate; I vote for Atomic Bomb‘s “Yahweh”). Melding the fuzz from Radiohead’s “Myxamatosis” to stream-of-consciousness “lyrics” and Bono’s cries of “Sexy boots!” makes for a lousy first impression, especially to critics (re: bloggers) not already predisposed to giving this band the benefit of the doubt.

Funny then that, for what I’m thinking is the first time since I was 14, I’m wholeheartedly buying into the gospel of one Paul Hewson. I’ve listened to NLOTH enough times to determine that it really is their finest outing since Zooropa (1992) and not just because U2’s current five-night run on Letterman has brainwashed the listening public into temporarily thinking so. It doesn’t take nearly as many risks as its authors would have you believe, but it corrects a goodly portion of the flaws of their last two records; namely, it has ballads that are far less cloying than one would expect and, more importantly, a B-side that actually merits listening.

Seriously, every song from “Stand Up Comedy” through “Cedars of Lebanon” is actually pretty damn engaging; granted, “Comedy” is more than a little corny with its Physical Graffiti (1975)-lite funk riffing over Bono’s pleas to “stand up for your love!” but it’s still catchy and enthusiastic, not to mention a shit ton better than, uh, “Peace on Earth.” There’s enough trademark Brian Eno-isms splashed throughout “FEZ-Being Born” and the meditative “Cedars of Lebanon”(far better than the title would suggest) to barely allow Bono to get away with calling the album “experimental,” and “White as Snow” is as stark as U2 ballads come, enough to have credibly sat on The Joshua Tree (1987). But while it’s certainly welcome to have more than an EP’s worth of decent U2 music for a change, with the exception of “Breathe,” a late album barnstormer destined to set football stadiums aflame, nobody is going to complain if “Cedars of Lebanon” fails to make it to the live show.

The same cannot be said for any one of NLOTH‘s opening quintet, the strongest run of textbook U2-isms in ages. The title track is the opener and it takes minimal risks, essentially existing as a dirtied-up version of “The Fly” with added Middle Eastern textures, no doubt to remind you that a portion of the album was recorded in Morocco. But it still completely rocks, Bono’s voice gamely straining to reach raspy high notes in a bygone world where auto-tune is clearly not an option. Rest assured Bono is going to get the spotlight treatment for his verses on a darkened stage, while the face melting light show at the bridge will make that $120 ticket seem downright cheap. This is followed by one of those U2 songs in “Magnificent,” a soul-searching epic with classic Bono gibberish like “only love! only love can / leave such a mark!” and a trademark ringing Edge line that needs only fifteen seconds to render the entirety of the last Coldplay record moot.

The BIG ballad here is “Moment of Surrender,” and one has every right to be wary of a seven-minute gospel number in which Bono sings about “punching in the numbers / at the A-T-M machine.” And yet it casts a surprisingly pleasant haze, soothing even, with an Adam Clayton bassline to massage your dome until The Edge finally breaks out his David Gilmour worship at the end. “Unknown Caller” is the rock song as motivational counselor, mixing ethereal Edge hooks with a group-shout chorus imploring the listener to “Reboot Yourself!” “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” finds Bono milking an off-key falsetto to craft U2’s most unabashed, starry-eyed pop song since “The Sweetest Thing.”

Hey! Fun things can happen when U2 elects not to phone it in! Or at least when U2 stops trying to be more than U2. No Line On the Horizon isn’t revolutionary in the least, but its first half is going to cave heads when unleashed onstage and the remainder is far more than an afterthought—never ever a given with this band. Though I’d hardly go as far to call it their best album, which I guess makes U2 irrelevant by Bono’s logic, its best songs can credibly stand alongside their classics, and how many bands can maintain this level of vitality 30 years into their career? I give.

:: myspace.com/u2