"Maybe that is the step forward on this record, to be able to have the freedom to have humour sitting alongside songs that are deadly earnest, and the two actually balance out each other."
-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind
No Line on the Horizon is just possibly their best.
February 25, 2009
No Line on the Horizon Mercury Five stars
Brian Eno recently gave Q an insight into the method by which U2 make records. It was, he said, tortuous, since they rebuilt, scrapped and rebuilt every song, over and over again. At any given point during recording, a track was as likely to be a lost case as it was to be in match shape.
The quality of each album, Eno noted, therefore depended entirely upon how many songs there were in the latter of those categories when deadline arrived. And since there was no way of controlling such things, fate played a decisive hand in how good or otherwise a U2 album turned out to be. Fortune had evidently been kind for The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, less so for, say, Pop. With No Line on the Horizon, U2 are holding a winning hand again.
In many respects, it is Pop that has had the most influence on this record. Perhaps their most underrated album, it nevertheless amounted to less than the sum of its parts. Buoyed by the two years they spent touring Achtung Baby, and during which they also made the experimental Zooropa, on it U2 tried to stretch out further still and over-extended. It was, they are still wont to bemoan, never properly finished, the result of ridiculously drawn-out sessions and the never-to-be-repeated folly of booking a tour in advance of leaving the studio.
Upon release Pop was, as history has recorded, poorly received, no one entirely sure as to whether the U2 who were then poncing around the globe inside a giant lemon were playing an elaborate joke on them or not. Since when, the band who'd seemed blessed with an unshakeable self-belief lost the stomach for challenging both themselves and their audience.
All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb recovered any lost commercial ground (and Pop hardly left them on their uppers), but they're meat and potatoes records -- solid, reliable, a couple of rallying tracks apiece, otherwise unremarkable and unloved. No Line on the Horizon is a reaction against them in the same way as they were a reaction against Pop.
Clearly key to pushing U2 out of their comfort zone are Eno and his fellow producer Daniel Lanois. They arrived to steer the band through The Unforgettable Fire, the first great, questing U2 album, and stayed on board for The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. And if they were cowed as the band on All That You Can't Leave Behind, their absence for How to Dismantle... was keenly felt. Following an aborted hook-up with Rick Rubin (so obviously the wrong man at the wrong time for this record), they, and that other enduring U2 cohort Steve Lillywhite, are back here, their mission surely to prod, cajole and tease adventure out of their charges.
The extent to which they have succeeded in doing so is evidenced by the lead-off single, "Get On Your Boots." Here, once again, are Camp U2, missing presumed mothballed since the PopMart lemon went into storage. Here, too, is Edge's monster guitar and a Bono who can poke fun at himself. "I don't want to talk about wars between nations," teases the little fellow, "not right now. Hey, sexy boots...." The better that this all comes within the sort of big playful beast of a song they haven't gone near since the ill-fated, but really rather fabulous "Discothéque."
"Get On Your Boots" is located within the middle of No Line on the Horizon's three distinct sections (something perhaps befitting an album made in such far-flung locations as New York, Dublin and Fez) -- the one that has a mirrorball twirling above its head and a neon-lit dance floor beneath its feet. Here you will also find "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," their most unabashed pop song since "Sweetest Thing," and "Stand Up Comedy," wherein Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. bring forth U2's hitherto unrevealed funky side and Edge comes over all Led Zeppelin.
The first part of No Line on the Horizon contains the U2 of wide-open spaces, of sweeping mountain valleys, and of Edge's signature chiming guitar lines. It is home to the title track (Eno's gloops and loops, a swelling crescendo of a middle eight, "Magnificent" (a re-boot of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?") and "Unknown Caller" (icy piano lines, a naggingly effective repeating guitar figure). And to "Moment of Surrender," the first of two tracks Eno has stated are the best he's worked on yet. With Bono in blue-eyed soul man guise, a solo from Edge that sails deep into Pink Floyd territory and a seven-plus minute running time, it's this album's "One" or "With or Without You," with added bonus points.
"Breathe" is the other outright window of which Eno speaks -- it's all jungle rumble drums and crashing guitars, Bono negotiating a breathless jumble of verses into the mother of all emotive U2 choruses. "Breathe" arrives during the album's final third, which provides No Line on the Horizon with its twist in the tail as it heads down winding souks in the evening half light, the smells of incense and spices heavy in the air. Alongside it are the slow-burning atmospherics of "Fez - Being Born," and the hushed, gentle shifts of "White As Snow" and the closing "Cedars of Lebanon," songs as spare and still as U2 have written.
What else to tell? Edge, as suggested, is on fine form, Bono better still. Lyrically, he has reined in his tendency to the overblown and/or the wincing, with wit, warmth and some keen observation in their stead ("Cedar of Lebanon"'s story of a career foreign correspondent is especially acutely rendered). And vocally, with age has come greater control and craft; while he still activates that sermon-on-the-mount setting, he does so less frequently and with exponentially more effective results.
Simply, what all of this amounts to is the best U2 album since Achtung Baby. With time, it may prove to be better still
Download: Magnificent//Moment of Surrender//I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight//Get On Your Boots//White As Snow//Breathe
© Q Magazine, 2009.