In the midst of a week residency on Late Night with David Letterman, on the eve of announcing a massive fall tour of football stadiums, and in the wake of Tuesday’s release of No Line on the Horizon, U2 should feel on top of the world. Instead, everything about the Irish rock band suggests the come down, the hangover.
The past decade’s Christmastime releases of three greatest hits packages, a digital box set, and numerous concert DVDs are a sign to U2’s true believers that their favorite foursome has made the regression from a relevant it band to a greatest hits act. If all that didn’t make the point, then the group’s new album, No Line on the Horizon, and the near five-year gap between releases that introduced Bono to a new generation of potential fans as a politician rather than a pop star, certainly will.
To be sure, reviewers have queued up on cue to fawn. No Line on the Horizon, according to Rolling Stone, is “their best, in its textural exploration and tenacious melodic grip, since 1991’s Achtung Baby.” If the sentiment sounds familiar, it is because you may have read the same review in Rolling Stone for any number of late-period U2 efforts. The magazine, after all, dubbed All That You Can’t Leave Behind the group’s “third masterpiece” and claimed, “With Pop, they’ve defied the odds and made some of the greatest music of their lives.” Call it the lifetime-achievement-award method of reviewing records, in which the band’s overall corpus of music rather than the CD under review dictates the tenor of the critique. The reviewer, like the reviewed, plays it safe.
Playing it safe is ruinous to an artistic endeavor in which reinvention has served as the lifeblood. The lineup and Larry Mullen Jr.’s haircut have stayed the same. Everything else changed.
From the get-go, U2’s songs obsessed over the two topics to be avoided in polite company: religion and politics. “Gloria,” “I Will Follow,” and “Forty” come across more as prayers than as songs. The lyrics for the 1983 album War seem culled from the headlines, with songs about nuclear annihilation (“Seconds”), inspired by the Solidarity movement (“New Year’s Day”), and lamenting Ireland’s protracted unrest (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”).
Then, the raw, post-punk U2, with the aid of producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, etched a layered soundscape of ethereal keyboards and haunting background vocals on 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. The U2 of “A Sort of Homecoming,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” and “Elvis Presley and America” were not the same band that performed “I Will Follow” and “Gloria.” The band wasn’t so much evolving as it was becoming a new species. Swerves followed this initial swerve, with the bandwagon perpetually adding and losing passengers.
When self-indulgent stage sermons and hosannas to aging rock gods wore thin on audiences, Bono informed fans at a 1989 New Year’s Eve concert that the band would “go away and dream it all up again.” Achtung Baby‘s sonic makeover replaced angry-young-man earnestness with jaded irony, the influence of America with Europe, and the sound of roots rock with fuzzed-out guitars, distorted vocals, and club beats. The 1991 album was, as Bono termed it, “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” After experimentation veered too dramatically from mainstream tastes in the mid-1990s, with Island Records finding one album so commercially unviable that U2 released it under the “Passengers” moniker so not to undermine their brand, U2 opted for an identikit U2 sound on All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004). It was U2 playing U2, if you will.
No Line on the Horizon is U2 playing U2 too, only this time around the U2 self-imitation also encompasses the experimental version of the band heard on Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997). The pretension of experimentation, as it too follows a template, further strips the album of credibility, making it staler than their two previous victory laps.
No Line on the Horizon is, in a word, uninspired. Lyrically, it’s about what one would expect from someone on sabbatical from saving the world. It is also sonically pedestrian, which would be more understandable had The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton spent their time earning Time‘s “person of the year” honors, hob-knobbing with presidents, getting knighted by the Queen of England, and writing a column for The New York Times.
Even on past U2 albums that missed the mark, there was always something to admire: the anthemic quality of “Walk On,” the soaring beauty of “City of Blinding Lights,” the wit of “The Playboy Mansion,” the passion exploding in “All I Want Is You.” None of that, which salvaged the LP offerings that weren’t masterpieces, salvages No Line on the Horizon.
Had U2 been a younger act, an Interscope executive would have undoubtedly sat them down to deliver the five scariest words in the music industry: “I don’t hear a single.” The nursery-rhyme, sing-along single, “Get on Your Boots,” sounds reminiscent of “Elevation” or “Vertigo”—arena-friendly singles from the previous two albums—only redone with trippy beats and electronic effects. The recidivism likely explains its debut on the Billboard Hot 100 at #37, fall to #96 the following week, and subsequent disappearance altogether. Worse still for a band known as much for its deep album cuts (and even B-sides) as its singles, No Line on the Horizon contains no hidden gems, just a string of listenable tracks such as “Breathe” and “Magnificent.”
Twenty years ago Bono sang, “I don’t believe that rock ‘n’ roll can really change the world/It’s just spins and revolutions, spirals and turns.” This hasn’t stopped him from testing that hypothesis from time to time.
U2 consistently putting out great records bought Bono audiences with Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Pope John Paul II, President George W. Bush, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Unfortunately, the price of releasing long-delayed musical afterthoughts will ensure fewer listeners — not only on the radio, in concert, and on iPods, but in the Oval Office, the UN general assembly, and the EU Parliament as well.