A little background on my life with U2. I grew up in Japan (5th grade through my senior year of high school), and when I was in 7th grade, my dad went back to the U.S. for some reason or another, walked into a record store, asking “What’s new that I can bring back to my kids in Japan?” and the sales clerk told him to pick up a cassette copy of The Joshua Tree. That was pretty much the first real rock record I ever owned. Not a bad start for exposure to the wide world of rock ‘n’ roll. Rattle and Hum (both the cassette and the movie on VHS—“It’s a musical journey”) followed shortly thereafter, and my fandom was confirmed. Through high school came the confusing shift to Achtung Baby and Zooropa, and I’ll admit I didn’t really get it. But, when Pop came out while I was in college, the 90’s trilogy (AB, Z, and Pop) with all its brilliant, irony-filled soul-searching hit home, and to this day, those have continued to be three of my favorite U2 records.
Next was the return to “classic” U2 with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, that had some pretty fantastic moments (“Beautiful Day”, “Walk On”, “When I Look at the World”, “Grace”), and some poor ones (“Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “In a Little While”, which completely ripped off the opening lick of Sixpence None the Richer’s “I Can’t Catch You” from their self-titled record, which is a better song in every way. But I digress…). Overall, though, the record worked. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was probably the band’s weakest effort in some years (gosh, maybe going all the way back to October?, although most critics would probably argue for Pop, which again, I really liked). I mean, after “Vertigo”, most of How to Dismantle is filler.
So, for me, it was time for U2 to try something else. All early reports were that the band was indeed looking for new sounds, doing a round of tracking in exotic Morocco for inspiration. On release day, my coworkers and I dutifully headed to Best Buy to pick up our CD copies. (Sorry folks, as an audio geek, it’s still hard for me to not buy the full audio quality CD instead of doing the iTunes thing, especially for a record I care about. Yeah, I know. iTunes Plus, 256 kbps, yada, yada, yada. But what if they come out with a better encoding codec in the future? I’m stuck with 256 kbps AAC files! Tragic.)
I’ve listened through the record for a week now, and certainly haven’t mined everything that No Line on the Horizon has to offer. So, if you have thoughts to add to the discussion, please post them below.
Early reviews have ranged from “best record since Achtung Baby” (Rolling Stone) to “they’re trying too hard” (Time). Lots of people are saying the album is a grower. That either means 1) it actually does take a few listens to “get” what the band is up to, or 2) people are afraid to say it’s bad, but it is. So far, I’d have to say the former is more true for me than the latter. But it did take a number of listens. Here’s my track-by-track analysis:
“No Line on the Horizon” – I gotta say, this just isn’t that great of a piece of music. The chorus fails to soar, the chord changes are uninteresting, and the arrangement is mediocre at best. If there’s one thing U2 has done well over its career, it’s open an album well. Think of all the great tunes: “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “Vertigo”, “Zoo Station”, “Beautiful Day”, even Bono saying, “This song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we’re stealin’ it back.” Needless to say, this is not a good sign.
“Magnificent” – Ahh, now here’s some decent arranging, and proof that no matter how much U2 changes their sound, when we hear Edge’s classic delayed guitar sound, we know we’re listing to U2. And that’s a good thing. Bono hands us a song of praise (either directed to his wife or God, I would guess, but using Biblical terms like “joyful noise” and “justified” makes me lean toward the latter. I’m open to debate, here.) My one problem with the form is that the guitar solo seems misplaced. It lacks a lot of the great energy that the chorus provides, and feels like it should appear earlier in the tune as a result.
“Moment of Surrender”/”Unknown Caller”: It really surprises me that I’ve yet to read a review of No Line on the Horizon in which the reviewer realizes these two tracks go together. A cursory reading of the wikipedia article on the album tells us that Bono decided to write a number of songs from the point of view of various characters (as opposed to his own point of view), and that these two songs are written from the viewpoint of the same character, a junkie. (For what it’s worth, Bono has successfully used this technique in the past: “Babyface”, “For the First Time”, “Until the End of the World”, not to mention his stage personas of the Fly or MacPhisto.)
I’m impressed by the way “Moment of Surrender” manages to be a long song and a slow, long song at that, but somehow remains musically interesting throughout. In this track, our junkie has an existential crisis amidst an urban landscape. Bono nicely captures the ability for a person to have such an introspective experience of crisis despite being surrounded by others: “I did not notice the passers-by/And they did not notice me.”
What took me a while to recognize was how well “Unknown Caller” provides the second half of salvific arc to this character’s story. I mean, it’s kind of weird piece of music. You get a sense of dawning, a new day, from the opening tones, and suddenly the out-of-place “Sunshine, sunshine” in the lyrics starts to make sense. Our junkie gets a mysterious call on his cell phone (from the “Unknown Caller”—God, perhaps?), and this plot point explains the weird, semi-shouted, techno-positivism of the chorus that just doesn’t work musically without recognizing the scenario at hand. Heck, there’s even a churchy organ and brass instrumental section coupled with Edge’s guitar solo near the end to consummate this struggler’s transformation. (Thanks to my wife, Mandie, for helping to point this out.) So what used to be a really strange tracks 3-4 on a record really works, and works stunningly well.
“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” – Edge, what were you thinking? Thank goodness the most stock pop lick EVER (“mi-re-fa-mi”, for you music geeks) only lasts four measures, and moves into a only mildly interesting ditty, both musically and lyrically. But at least it makes a nice lead into…
“Get On Your Boots” – We all heard this song before the record came out, and I, for one, wasn’t really sure whether I liked it or not. Heard in the context of the record, I have to say it works really, really well. Thanks, boys, especially for letting the distorto-bass and drums drive the verses. I also like the continuation of Satan-as-terrorist imagery that was found on “Vertigo” on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. What does Bono mean when he says, “Let me in the sound?” Beats me. Ideas, anyone?
“Stand Up Comedy” – I really think that this song is about Bono’s interaction with evangelicals over his last few years. If that’s true, then what a song this is! Bono both laughs at the church’s inaction and implores them to action. (Although not implicit in this song, he’s presumably talking in part about the AIDS crisis in Africa.) Look at these bits of lyric from that standpoint: “Stand up/This is comedy/…/Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady/Out from under your beds/C’mon ye people/Stand up for your love”, and a really great couplet “God is love/And love is evolution’s very best day.”
“FEZ-Being Born” – This was supposed to be the album opener, and dang, it totally should have been. It’s certainly better than “No Line on the Horizon”, but I also understand that it’s not as much of a rocker. But still, Eno-esque though they might be, those first 35 seconds would have made an amazing soundscape to signal U2’s newest transformation. But they wimped out. Hey, I understand you gotta sell records and all that, but c’mon guys, take a risk. Of course the problem with starting the album with this track is that there’s not enough sonic experimentation like this elsewhere on the record. Dare I say, I wish there were even more Brian Eno on this record? (Gasp!) What a great impressionistic lyric, too: “A speeding head, a speeding heart/I’m being born, a bleeding start/The engines roar, blood curling/Head first then foot/Then heart sets sail.”
“White as Snow” – This is another of the songs written from the point of view of someone not named Bono. In this case, wikipedia tells me it’s a dying soldier in Afghanistan’s final thoughts as he’s been hit by a homemade explosive device. He thinks back to his days as a (presumably Christian) God-loving youth in middle-America (“Once I knew there was a love divine”), and now finds himself dying in an opium-selling Islamic country that wants no part of him (“Only poppies laugh under the crescent moon/The road refuses strangers/The land the seeds we sow/Where might we find the lamb as white as snow[?]”). Forgiveness in this scenario is only God-given (“Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not/Only the lamb as white as snow/…/If only a heart could be white as snow.”) So, what’s the connection to all of this with the tune to “O Come, O Come Emmaunuel?” I have a hard time believing that melody wasn’t chosen on purpose.
“Breathe” – This is a great U2 tune. Maybe not in the top 5 ever, but it’s pretty high up there. It rocks, the arrangement works, and U2 just killed playing it on opening night of Letterman week (http://www.youtube.com/wat
“Cedars of Lebanon” – The last “character” song, about a war correspondent in the Middle-east. Bono beautifully gets inside this worn, battered character’s head, who’s equally conflicted and wiser for the wear: “Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline/…/Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you.” Musically, the sparse textures work wonderfully, and we even get a little more Brian Eno soundscaping (yea!). A good song, and a solid album-closer.
In summary, yes, there’s a few clunkers on No Line on the Horizon, but the good far outweighs the bad here, with U2 putting forth another solid effort. It’ll be interesting to see if the record of B-sides (think Amnesiac, Radiohead’s follow up to Kid A) tentatively titled Songs of Ascent will ever see the light of day, which wikipedia tells me will be a “more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage”. Sounds interesting to me!