U2 - No Line On The Horizon
19th Feb 2009 | 14:47
MusicRadar reviews the new U2 album track-by-track
U2 are 33 years old now, and have spent more than half of that time as the biggest band in the world.
But you'd have to look back as far as 1991's reinvention on Achtung Baby for their last truly classic album.
So the return of that record's production dream team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (they also have co-writing credits on over half the songs here) with globe-spanning sessions in Africa leave for heavy expectation and intrigue, even by Bono-sized standards.
Bono himself hasn't helped matters by declaring that if this album "isn't our best, we're irrelevant". That may come back to bite him but after two albums reclaiming their signature stadium-friendly sound from the young pretenders snapping at their heels.
So, is No Line On The Horizon the crowning pay-off we've been waiting for?
Here's MusicRadar's thoughts on hearing the album.
U2 – No Line On The Horizon: track-by-track
1. No Line On The Horizon
If this is going to be an experimental affair, there's little sign of it here on this very direct rock song. Some of you may already have heard a leaked version of this title track, but the album take is slower to build into the groove. It's a promising enough start, a rocker reminiscent of '90s U2 (1997's Pop needed more songs of this calibre, that's for sure) with Bono sounding surprisingly youthful in his higher register with some trademark "Oohs".
The Edge keeps it simple with a memorable lead guitar line on the chorus, while Adam Clayton lays down a heavy groove. The Eno/Lanois touch is already in evidence with subtle ambience that works with the song rather than sounding conspicuous.
Even on first listen, Magnificent is an addictive U2 song. New Year's Day meets Zooropa?
We were waiting for this track - rumour says it is indeed magnificent. After some brief Eno ambience (many of the tracks kick in this way) it arrives in style. Yes, it's that trademark Edge crystal chiming delay and it still sounds thrilling after all these years.
As soon as Edge's riff kicks in it's obvious this is going to be an anthem for stadiums. Bono is in his element on the chorus singing, "Only love can leave such a mark". There's a majestic, driving feel to this song that gives it a sublime flow with Eno and Lanois' sonic trickery swirling around the band.
The Edge's solo is less-is-more, so no surprises there, but fans will notice the build into the chorus seems to be lifted from Pride (In The Name Of Love). Even on first listen this is an addictive U2 song. New Year's Day meets Zooropa? Perhaps...
3. Moment Of Surrender
Every U2 album has its epic ballad. Clocking in at 7:20 the vision for Moment Of Surrender is clearly on the scale of One and Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. Yet it falls short of even a Kite or Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own. It's a tale of spiritual awakening at an ATM machine (this is Bono after all), and takes time to build into a bass-driven mantra with added organ before moving into a chorus with a distinct gospel feel. But despite an impressive vocal performance from Bono it never takes off because melodically it's just not that special.
Nevertheless, Edge fans will enjoy his brief but dramatic Gilmour-esque slide solo. He's clearly still very much a player of taste, despite not showing any sides of breaking out of his stylistic box.
4. Unknown Caller
The Eno/Lanois touch again pays dividends here on this mid-paced song, adding textures that are very natural amongst the sound four-piece band's sound. It starts with birdsong and a burst of African instrumentation but a simple and effective delayed riff from Edge and some "Oohs" from Bono bring us back to the familiar. Nevertheless the chanting Apple OX-savvy chorus with Edge on backup ("Force quit and move to trash") is jarring to give a futuristic feel and Eno's synth break lifts the drama up another notch to lead into a surprisingly long solo from the Edge that closes the song in true guitar hero style.
5. I'll Go Crazy, If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
It's time to smell the glove. Although even Spinal Tap would probably reject this song title. No Eno or Lanois on writing or production credits here, the band are left to their own devices with old friend Steve Lillywhite manning the desk. The sound is more of a live dynamic as a result and this is an optimistic pop rocker sure to go down well in the stadiums. It's upbeat, everyman U2 but with enough dynamics to engage - despite Bono weighing in with some intensive lyrical sloganeering:
"Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot" - plus - "The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear" - AND - "There's a part of me in the chaos that's quiet". He really should consider putting some of these on bumper stickers.
6. Get On Your Boots
No hope on the horizon for this one. The single seems to be dividing opinion and it's easily the weakest song on the album. Bono's stream of consciousness is more substandard than Subterranean Homesick
Blues, sounding a little too close to grandpa at the discotheque.
"Get On Your Boots is the weakest song on the album"
It just doesn't suit U2 but tellingly, the song it most recalls - especially on the bridge - is Fast Cars. That was a superior song but one only deemed worthy as a bonus track on 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
7. Stand-Up Comedy
Another fun-loving rocker like the one before but this is distinctly '70s-inspired. The Edge has said his meeting with Jimmy Page for the It Might Get Loud film sparked his work on this song. The Zeppelin-flavoured riff is a highlight, but a forgettable chorus doesn't raise the song as a whole to the same standard.
A reportedly epic gestation period in the studios before completion doesn't show - it sounds almost too throwaway for all its funk and bluster, especially compared with the songs that follow.
8. Fez - Being Born
This is an interesting one - with Eno's paws all over it. Unsurprisingly for its title the influence of recording in Morocco (in an old Riad hotel) and very much apparent in the ambience of the first part before an abrupt end to break into Being Born's powerful Clayton-heavy groove.
This is the sound of a freewheeling U2, seemingly spurred on by the ever-experimental Eno. Indeed, the former Roxy Music man sounds like he's very much in the band on this. The melodies are unpredictable and the melding with electronics is almost the fruition of what they might have been aiming for in the Zooropa era. "A speeding head / a speeding heart" sings Bono, while guitars chime and fuzz and effects surge the music forwards.
Why don't they let go like this more often?
9. White As Snow
White As Snow shows how much this veteran band can still surprise
This may just be the standout song on the whole album - but it's a very different U2 to what you might expect. White As Snow's musical arrangement is based loosely on an ancient hymn; O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The hymn has been covered by Enya and Belle And Sebastian amongst others, but Bono's lyrical inspiration is from the perspective of a soldier's mind in his dying moments.
The lyrics are far more ambiguous than that may imply ("As boys we would go hunting in the woods / To sleep the night shooting out the stars / Now the wolves are every passing stranger..") while his vocal performance is the kind of confessional, stripped-down Bono we rarely hear.
Edge's odd-tempo and picked electric and acoustic guitars add to the powerful mood-led by the vocal with a cinematic build before coming back down. It really shows how much this veteran band can still surprise and impress in equal measure.
Brian Eno claims Breath is "the most U2" song the band have ever recorded
Eno claims this is "the most U2" song the band have ever recorded. He should know. Larry Mullen Jnr gets a drum intro before the Edge jumps in with satisfying overdrive crunch. Bono's stream of consciousness vocal approach work much better here than on Get On Your Boots but Breathe's chorus is big and unashamedly aimed at an enormodome crowd.
"Everyday I have to find the courage to walk out into the street with arms out / got a love you can't defeat".
U2's everyman-rock is the stick the critics often use to beat them with but although many other bands try, few can inject this kind of spirit and passion into stadium rock.
11. Cedars Of Lebanon
Like Love Is Blindness - the closing track on Achtung Baby - U2 choose to close proceedings with a slice of darkness. This time it's almost a 'film noire' atmosphere created with arpeggiated guitars and an incessant, but fitting drum part. It's subtly discordant and finds Bono in the third person again, now from the perspective of a jaded war reporter in, of course, Lebanon:
"Spent the night trying to meet a deadline / squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline". We know how he feels but there's something refreshingly atypical and poignant about the sound of the band here compared to the more commercial songs they're best known for.
Go easy on yourself, Bono. It would have been a very tall order for this to be U2's greatest album but it frequently showcases a band who are very far from becoming irrelevant.
A number of No Line On The Horizon songs make for a deeper, darker listen than 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb while the album's two weakest moments are arguably the most throwaway and pop-driven - Get On Your Boots and Stand-Up Comedy.
What's most interesting is how well the partnership with Eno and Lanois sounds here on their songs. The strongest songs are those where the influence is tangible, when before the band's experiments with electronic sounds on Pop and Zooropa Eno were sometimes forced and awkward.
The most intriguing moments here are where the Eno and Lanois team seem to be leading the band into new areas with their input as both musicians and producers, while U2's signature elements sound revitalised by added new soundscapes that fit into the sound to create state of the art pop.
Ultimately, No LIne On The Horizon is an impressive combination of the traditional and the future.