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"One part of his brain is a genius, but he can only focus on one thing. He wasn't able to negotiate his way through school, but he can sit and read seven books in a day." — Ali, on Bono

@U2 staff reflections: 10 Years on the Horizon

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Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto is known for his stark seascape photographs in which the horizon bisects the frame. And that's all you see: sky and horizon. But there's so much more.

And so it goes with No Line On The Horizon, U2's 12th studio album. Sugimoto's photograph "Boden Sea, Uttwil" adorns the cover of the album, released 10 years ago on Feb. 27, 2009.

The @U2 staff, to celebrate the album's 10th anniversary, compiled these reflections on the multitude of horizons that lie beneath that deceptively simple cover. Here are our thoughts on the 11 songs from No Line On The Horizon, in track order.


 

"No Line On The Horizon"

In many ways, No Line On The Horizon's title track is a perfect encapsulation of the album itself. It's melodic, complex and fresh, with catchy phrases and a signature U2 sound. But it's also a bit of a meandering, jumbled mess. I still don't know exactly what Bono is singing about. Why is infinity a great place to start? If I ever meet the man, I'd like to ask him what that line means because it's been bugging me for 10 years.

I'll always remember the first time I heard the song. I was scheduled to teach an SAT prep course at another school after work and popped the CD into my car's stereo for the ride. Even now I can picture the snow on the ground as I drove past the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, and Bono sang about hearing the universe in a girl's seashells. I didn't want to get out of the car after that.

Of all the songs on this album, this one has stuck with me the longest. It's not necessarily my favorite (that title belongs to "Breathe"), but there's something about the way the sounds build on one another that's peak U2. I was a little disappointed in how it came together live, so I'm not surprised it didn't survive the early legs of the 360 tour. But it would be really great if the band could trot it back out on the next tour. With a little room to grow, it could find new life all these years later.

— Brian Betteridge

"Magnificent"

I vividly remember rushing to Best Buy 10 years ago to purchase the No Line On The Horizon deluxe box set as soon as it was released, then playing the songs nonstop for months. I'm a huge fan of this album, and one song that sticks with me is "Magnificent."

The music, lyrics, rhythm and groove of "Magnificent" meet at the center of my soul. The opening bass-and-percussion interchange build beautifully to the crescendo of Edge's brilliant guitar melodies, and the opening lyrics — "Magnificent, magnificent, I was born, I was born to be with you" — lure me into a song that holds some sadness but mostly surrender, hope and belief in love's enduring healing power.

I was separated from my husband at that time and wondering how to work my way out of a tumultuous marriage, so it was easy for me to internalize the refrain "Only love, only love can leave such a mark." But then the beauty of the song shines through with the promise of redemption: "But only love, only love can heal such a scar."

I love how Bono croons to his Magnificent Creator, that he was "born to sing for you" and his first cry was a "joyful noise." The music is joyful, too. The playful interaction between The Edge's melodies, the slick rhythm section and Bono's singing makes my heart smile.

During those difficult times, the lyrics of this song kept me afloat, especially "Only love, only love can leave such a mark. But only love unites our hearts." Today, the song is simply magnificent.

That last lyric will be my first tattoo, should I ever be brave enough to get one.

— Becky Myers

"Moment Of Surrender"

I've had countless conversations with people who want to know what my favorite U2 song is. The only consistent thing about those conversations is the surprised response when I say this is my favorite, and my inability to explain why that is the case. It could be the spontaneity of the recording, the spiritual desperation of the lyrics or the intensity those elements create.

But I think the biggest reason I find it amazing is I've never heard a song quite like it, in their discography or any other. For a band with such strong punk roots, "Moment Of Surrender" is a powerful piece of abstract songwriting that feels like it lives in an alternate universe where Pink Floyd was the band's biggest influence instead of The Ramones.

The song title is borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, signaling the point when addicts admit their helplessness in the face of their disease. The song takes a more abstract approach to that moment, specifically hinting at the lack of control we have to move our lives where we want them to go, and why that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I should also mention the live version of the song performed on the 360 tour with Bono's rap. The added lyrics "God is a mirror in which each man sees himself / Hell is a place where you don't need any help" have been a guiding light for my often complicated relationship with spirituality.

— Mason Merritt

"Unknown Caller"

Upon first listen to this album, by the time I got to Track 4, it was apparent the U2 I once loved had returned triumphantly after a creative drought with their previous album/tour (further compounded by another greatest-hits album, U218 Singles). The members of my once-favorite band had returned to making music that challenged their fans and themselves. Brian Eno's contributions as co-songwriter on this album cannot be underestimated.

Like Eno did with his solo work, Bono wrote less about himself and instead became a storyteller, while occasionally dropping in names of obscure travel destinations. Best of all, the collaboration brought about this gem in which the chorus is made up of fragmented phrases that never jell into anything resembling an actual chorus (also a staple of Eno's songwriting), instead sounding more like the best song Yes never made. It all culminates into an expanded outro that gives me chills every time I hear it.

I have no doubt Arcade Fire's Neon Bible album inspired some of this (just listen to the church organ at the end). As for the live performance, I wish Bono had let himself at least pretend to play guitar on this one. Picturing all four of them jamming at the end of this would have been a joy to watch, like the end of "The Fly" on the Zoo TV tour, only longer. Oh, well. I'm glad they gave it a go regardless.

Without question, my favorite song on the album. Big, bold, beautiful and the reason (one of many reasons on this album) I came back to being a die-hard fan.

— Collin Souter

"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight"

There's a part of me in the chaos that's quiet
And there's a part of you that wants me to riot

So when this idea of looking back at No Line On The Horizon went out to the @U2 staff, I thought, "Yes — I'd like to be part of that." The album intrigues me because I'm not entirely sure where or how it fits in U2's offerings to the world. Is it U2's alternative album, perhaps sitting in the same bucket as October? I'm still not sure.

But then comes the contradiction in my thinking in the form of "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" — the poppiest of songs and a total curveball on the album. It doesn't fit, and to be honest I don't really care for the song.

So here is the next contradiction: My least favorite song on the album becomes a live highlight! U2 do it again! When U2 performed this song it felt like they were rioting, enjoying the chaos they created with the funkiest/rockiest/trippiest live production ever. ("Mofo" Pop tour running a close second.)

Larry swaggered around the walkway with his bongo; Adam looked cool (never!); Bono did his best (worst?) Bono dad dancing; and Edge turned the song on its head as only Edge could, his guitar taking the song to another level. Just after the "sing for your sanity" section when Larry returned to his drum kit, I felt a final musical surge through my veins as the song kicked in to a full-on speed of sound. Full-on exhilaration.

A highlight on the 360 tour. I still don't get this song, but with the buzz it offered live, who cares?

— Kenny Irwin

"Get On Your Boots"

Edge and Adam get the sneakers. Larry gets the slogan-laced T-shirts. Bono gets the boots, usually with a bit of a heel.

And then he tells us to get them on. In "Get On Your Boots," I like to think Bono's talking to women (or men) who, like me, before this song, shied away from such brash, flashy footwear. Boots to me were something only sophisticated, daring, stylish women wore. I'm more of a Keds or ballet flats girl. Shy, quiet, understated, demure, timid, flat-footed.   

I'm giving the one-line title and lyric a very literal reading that might at first seem to ignore the song's bigger meaning. Bono has said "Get On Your Boots" is set at a fair in France where he and Ali took their family, and the narrator is a man addressing his first love. But in the background at this real-life fair, the Hewsons heard fighter planes on their way to the Gulf War.

"It's simple and playful, but in the peripheral vision of it you get the sense that there is a danger, a ghost train ride, a hall of mirrors," Bono said. "We were around the corner from the house of horrors in this happy place."

Rockets are at the fair along with candy floss.

But who can make it all better? "Women of the future." It's an early incarnation of "Herstory." Go girls — and especially girls with boots on who are ready to step up, stomp out and share some "bossy" female energy in the best way: laced with "love and community."

I bought my first pair of black boots after hearing this song and wore them a bit hesitantly at first, then got brave and eventually bought another pair with heels.

Do they make me bossy and sexy? No. But I stand a little taller, and stronger, when I wear them.

— Karen Lindell

"Stand Up Comedy"

I write a lot about the technical aspects of U2's music. I'm interested in how it's constructed and how various elements come together to form the band's unique sonic signature. Because of this, my work is often misconstrued as clinical or too academic. But make no mistake: My analytical work always starts with how a song makes me feel. I use my musical instincts to guide me to something interesting first, then use my training to break down what I hear.

"Stand Up Comedy" appealed to me almost immediately. The hard-driving Led Zeppelin-like character (no doubt influenced by Edge's work in the excellent documentary It Might Get Loud) exudes more of the funkiness that I thought was missing from "Get On Your Boots." It's a straightaway rock song with a relatively simpler texture than most of the other tracks on NLOTH, lending it an October-esque style. It simultaneously sounds familiar and fresh.

It's not a perfect song, though; I'm not even sure it qualifies as one of U2's all-time greats. For me, the text is arguably the weakest aspect; it lacks the poetic elements usually present in Bono's lyrics. Lines like "Where a lovesick eye can steal the view" and "It's like a small child / Crossing an eight-lane highway / On the voyage to discovery" sound cumbersome and contradict the bare-bones aesthetic created by the instruments.

That said, "Stand Up Comedy" is still one of my favorite tracks from NLOTH. It's a shame it didn't get more of a chance on tour. I can imagine "Stand Up Comedy" rocking the stadium as the concert opener or as a mid-set injection of soul.

— Christopher Endrinal

"Fez — Being Born"

"FEZ — Being Born" was the most ambitious song U2 created in the '00s. The "FEZ" component is the strangest thing they had done since Passengers, devoted to atmosphere and staging. It was Zooropan in its execution, devoted to capturing a moment, capturing an idea. Bono has always said U2 are about capturing a feeling or a moment, rather than telling a story, and "FEZ" is entirely a conceptual audio experience.

It has a lyrical throwback to "Get On Your Boots": "Let me in the sound" felt like a very misguided attempt to create a catch phrase for the album. It was the first instance in U2's career where it really felt like the culture had passed them by, that they would try to make an album landing place out of a clunky phrase like that.

The transition to "Being Born" delves right back into the "Zooropa" transition, both awkward and perfect. We're transported to driving along a seaside highway, the sun clear, the ocean bright and shining, our motorcycle racing as we try to escape Europe for Africa. A European performance for an African goal. They never quite reach Africa in the song. "FEZ — Being Born" is about the journey, even though it declares it's about the destination. No Line On The Horizon never quite escaped Europe for Africa either.

It was the most bold U2 song of the entire decade, but it didn't quite hit the mark because it couldn't decide if it was a song about leaving or going. But even with that baggage, it's one of the most ambitious songs they've ever done, in the midst of a decade of unambitious U2 songs.

— Ian Ryan

"White As Snow"

NLOTH, as U2's only experimental record since 2000, contains several tracks some fans skip on the second half of the album. "White As Snow" may be the most forgotten song in this group. It isn't as polarizing as "Boots" or as hated as "Stand Up Comedy." Still, I find that this reworking of the traditional Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" into an autobiographical story of youth fits nicely in its place in the track listing.

Many of the songs on NLOTH are location-specific — a result of the album's almost being a concept album. In this vein, "Snow" has lyrics that are very landscape-based as the singer recalls growing up in a desolate, cold and unwelcoming country. The lyrics tell of looking for a place or people who are pure and clean, untouched by a painful history.

"White As Snow" paints a picture that is most like the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Zooropa's "The Wanderer." Compare the verses Johnny Cash sang in 1993 with bleak lyrics from this song like "who can forgive … when forgiveness is not," "this dry ground bears no fruit at all" and "now the wolves are every passing stranger."

Still, I find the song comforting and moving even as it evokes a barren winter scene. As you make your way through your 10th anniversary listen of NLOTH, take a moment to ponder how it makes you feel as you allow "White As Snow" to slowly wash over you.

— Eric Gifford

"Breathe"

From the moment Larry's drums invite us inside the sound to the literary lyrical reference that kicks off the story, "Breathe" immediately envelops you in its fold.

As the narrator starts his journey, we're immediately in Dublin, on the day Ulysses by James Joyce takes place. Chant-singing over a killer guitar riff, the singer won't be easily swindled in this life, and the focus shifts to a deeper philosophical recitation.

References range from the Bible (St. John Divine of the Book of Revelations), to literature (Middlemarch by George Eliot), to voodoo (Ju Ju man), and culminate in a stream-of-consciousness release that embraces a newfound peace. All the while, the tune's well-constructed twists and turns mirror the emotional build-up of the singer.

It's a perfect song, in every respect.

The music here soars so beautifully; when our storyteller commands us to "Walk out, into the sunburst street" and sing our hearts out, it's all we can do not to obey him. He "found grace inside a sound" and shared that grace in the most raw, intimate fashion.

— Tassoula E. Kokkoris

"Cedars Of Lebanon"

U2 have always paid strong attention to the final songs on their albums, just as they have done with their introductory singles.

For this album, the closing song is "Cedars Of Lebanon," and unlike most other songs in the U2 repertoire, Bono created lyrics that are effectively a poem — softly half-sung and half-spoken, perhaps in a nod to Lou Reed  Furthermore, the lyrics are very much written in the third person, not the first person that dominates the majority of U2 songs.

This final song, co-written by Bono, Edge, and producer Daniel Lanois, starts with the ambience of a sample of the Eno/Harold Budd 1984 composition "Against The Sky," and sets a perfect mood for what follows.

"Cedars Of Lebanon" follows previous themes of songs on the album, such as "Fez — Being Born" and "White As Snow." In this song, the character is a war correspondent, backed by music that is relaxed and muted. It includes a sublime guitar performance by Edge, with a wonderful drum part by Larry that cleverly maintains the mood and creates tension as the song builds up to a final offering by Bono, a devastating closing verse:

Choose your enemies carefully 'cause they will define you
Make them interesting 'cause in some ways they will mind you
They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last longer with you than your friends.

— Aaron Govern

(c) @U2, 2019.