"[I]n the early '80s . . . there was this rather ridiculous idea . . . that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis."
Blue Sky Thinking
February 25, 2009
Problem: you're the biggest band in the world but you really want to be the best. Solution: reunite with your old guru and dream it all up again. Has it worked? asks Keith Cameron.
When guitar-slinging ornithologists British Sea Power released 2008's Do You Like Rock Music, a statement on the band's website claimed it exemplified a dichotomy between things which are demonstrably "rock," and those with which are equally clearly not. Heading the "not rock" category, next to "Mussolini" and "tuberculosis," were U2.
Well, we've all done it, most of us not so cleverly. Ian McCulloch called them "spud-peelers." Big bands drive big cars, and if the singer in the band is prone to standing on the roof and yelling at people, that just makes him a more irresistible target. But it's testimony to U2's endurance that groups espousing elite aesthetics still feel obliged to take a pop at them. Of course, the problem is the singer, whose ability to walk while having both feet planted in his mouth has long confounded medical experts. In a series of recent interviews, even Larry Mullen Jr., U2's own drummer, admitted to cringing at Bono's fraternization with scummy world leaders, while Bono himself quipped: "I'm in a band with people who persecute me as a national sport."
Then again, U2 are not normal. Few bands, let alone a band as phenomenally successful, seek to re-evaluate themselves so regularly, while agonizing over the creative process so much. No Line on the Horizon, the band's 12th studio album, has been two years in the making. Both 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were modern rock retrofits of the perceived "classic" U2 sound, glossy exercises in retrenchment after the new model '90s U2 hit the rocks with Pop. Ship steadied, the remit here was to seek deeper waters; less instant gratification, more exploration. U2 again hired long-time creative foils Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and went to Morocco for compositional hothousing, giving the pair songwriting as well as production credits. The result is a collage of several kinds of classis U2 albums, one that has the beauty of their panoramic '80s Eno/Lanois recordings plus the synthetic experimentation and dalliances with pop merriment which revolutionised the band's modus operandi from Achtung Baby onwards.
Assessing the strategy's success depends rather on which U2 you like. If the notion of Bono in supplicating soul-singer mode prompts a gag reflex then "Moment of Surrender"'s gospel smoulder will be anathema. The Queens of the Stone Age-cover-"Pump It Up" hooley of "Get On Your Boots" might be manna to those who prefer U2 when they're not trying to change the world, but it does feature the words "Hey sexy boots" sung by a 48-year-old father of four. Still, both songs are graced by swaggering performances, which sets apart the album from its immediate predecessors where the emphasis was on evoking a collective, even homogenous sonic mood. "Moment of Surrender"'s languid guitar solo by The Edge is more clearly redolent of David Gilmour than his trademark ego-free geometrics, while much of "Boot"'s daffy appeal rests in Bono's bravura vocal sparring.
"Boots" is a keynote song, inasmuch as it's the first single but atypical of the album's overall contemplative tone. Having it appear halfway through -- on the previous three U2 albums the first single was also the first track -- also indicates a tactical shift. On its predecessors, the dialogue between band and listener was exhortative and welcoming, but here the invitation to join far more casual. No Line on the Horizon's opener is the title track, which with queasy drones and Mullen's nervy Krautrock motif summons echoes of "Zoo Station," before Bono, straining for dramatic tension, laspes horribly into Chris Martinese, both in his mannered vocal inflection and screeds of lyrical twaddle ("I know a girl with a hole in her heart/She says infinity's a great place to start."
As often in the past, here the ensemble Sturm und Drang rescues the singer from total calamity. But much of what follows vindicates Mullen's recent assertion that this album features "some of the best music we've ever written." For all the ambient noises-off there's a sense of space; not every corner has been neurotically filled with sound. On "Magnificent" the martial snare drums ratchet The Edge's vertiginous delayed guitar figures across a rock landscape that this band realised to near perfection circa The Unforgettable Fire and which they've now updated with no loss of awe. Bono, too, is at his best, the guileless naif lovestruck by a devotion that feels religious but deals in universal truths. The protagonist of "Unknown Caller" is not unusual in this record in being lost, spiritually broken, "In a place of no consequence or company," until intervention -- divine or otherwise -- from a voice dialling in scrambled self-help commands ("Restart and re-boot yourself"; "Escape yourself, and gravity"; "Shush now"). The refrain's mechanised chants recall Berlin-era Bowie (significally, Eno is credited with lyrics as well as music), as does the whole's evocation of both frigidity and tenderness, thanks hugely to Adam Clayton's remarkable bass perambulations: the final 90 seconds, featuring French horn segueing into a seemingly improvised Edge shred-up, is indeed as exalted as any U2 music gets.
Thematically, we have been here before: lives out of balance seek redemption, or just relief. Bono has talked of this album's lyrical shift towards third-person characterisation, but given that Bono himself an assumed persona, the distinction hardly seems conclusive. Indeed, one of the "fictional" songs, "White As Snow," is the album's nadir, an overwrought folk ballad presumably inspired by a war in the East ("only poppies laugh over the crescent moon"), and the music is as lumpy as the words. Better by far is "Cedars of Lebanon," the album's low-key but tense closer: over acoustic guitar patterns Bono mutters what is obstensibly the narrative of a hard-bitten war correspondent ("I'm here 'cos I don't want to go home"), but could equally be the wee-hours reflection of a peripatetic rock star-celebrity-campaigner: "Choose your enemies carefully, 'cos they will define you."
More efficacious than either, though, is "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," a superficial pop anthem formed around a dainty kernel of pure melodic gold. So cumulatively devastating is the band's delivery that it enobles the succession of cute self-referential Bono homilies ("The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear"). Eno-free, it's produced and arranged by Steve Lillywhite and will.i.am.
That Eno should be absent from one of the album's defining moments is apt, as the notion of him waving his wizard's wand is too glib to explain No Line on the Horizon's overall success. This band apparently feels compelled to atone for whatever forces turned them, and not Echo and the Bunnymen (or Teardrop Explodes, or Magazine), into superstars. And for all its flaws, No Line on the Horizon suggests that if you like rock music, you have to deal with U2.
© MOJO/Bauer, 2009.