U2 have never been big on subtlety.
Anyone who was lucky enough to see the band on their PopMart tour knows that. Anyone who’s listened to U218 all the way through knows that. Hell, anyone who’s heard a single song on the radio by Bono & co. in the past two decades knows that. U2 songs — at their most basic level — always have their intentions drawn in bold, the emotions all writ-large and ready to fill massive stadiums five times over. Though rock cynics may scoff at such obvious gestures, the truth of the matter is that the Biggest Band in the World know exactly what they’re doing: big songs get lots of attention, and few people can write songs as epic as U2.
So why, then, is No Line on the Horizon so damn quiet?
To answer this, you have to go back a few years. When U2 released All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, it was hailed as a triumphant return-to-form for the band, and for good reason. After the breakthrough 1991 album Achtung Baby, this group of working-class Irish lads slowly began losing themselves in the pre-millennial dance-rock craze, culminating with the disappointing (though not altogether dismissible) 1997 effort Pop. What made All That You Can’t Leave Behind such a joy wasn’t just the fact that the group had rediscovered their love of guitars; what made it work was the band’s realization that bigger didn’t necessarily mean better. Though “Beautiful Day” is arguably their greatest post-millennial single, it was smaller, simpler tunes like “In a Little While” and “Wild Honey” that made Leave such a divine pleasure to listen to. Even when a band as triumphantly huge as U2 turned things down a notch, they proved that — against all odds — they were still capable of crafting perfect pop songs.
This “back to the basics” approach resonated with fans and critics alike, which is why 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was more of a holding pattern than an evolution. After all, the band wasn’t in any sort of post-Pop identity crisis, so why would they want to tamper with the winning formula? Some critics were willing to hail Bomb as a classic on the same level as The Joshua Tree upon first release (the Grammy Recording Academy certainly thought so), but some said the same thing about All That You Can’t Leave Behind as well. While Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby have been truly defining pop records of their respective decades, a glance in the rearview mirror shows that while U2’s post-Pop output has certainly been respectable (especially on the singles front), there is not a single person alive that will stand up and say that Bomb is even in the same echelon as either of those towering achievements.
With that said, the hotly-anticipated No Line on the Horizon has had much to weather through from the get-go: aborted sessions with Rick Rubin, release-date delays due to the band needing more songs, the entire album leaking weeks before its release, etcetera etcetera. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that Horizon sounds so world-weary and defeated, coming off as the moody polar-opposite of the distortion-fueled Bomb. Yet while Atomic Bomb managed to cleverly hide Bono’s impressionistic, personal lyrics about the death of his father behind stacks of guitar amps, Horizon tries hard to be everything to everyone, both musically and lyrically. Though many of the band’s familiar tropes are in place (the paeans to both love and God, the Edge’s ever-present echo-y guitar licks), the band champions mood over melody this time around, as if sparse atmospherics will somehow give weight to some of Bono’s most downright-bizarre non-sequiturs to date (“candy floss ice cream”? Anyone?), and, in the process, we get the sound of the world’s mightiest pop craftsmen finally coming up short.
Though the texture-heavy Horizon ultimately demands more than one listen to fully cement itself in the listener’s mind, the first few songs play it safe, making us believe that that “classic U2” sound is firmly in place. The rumbling, surging title track may not try to do anything remotely new, but that’s because it doesn’t need to: the moment that Bono unleashes his impassioned full-throttle wail for the first time, it’s impossible to turn away. The Fly’s voice hasn’t sounded this good in years, but instead of using his pipes to grant us some massive group catharsis, Bono instead uses the opportunity to eloquently describe a girl who reminds him of the sea, changing for him every day.
Though this lyrical concept may sound silly on paper, “No Line on the Horizon” manages to pull it off with ease, largely due to the song’s positively propulsive melody and the band’s unquestionable commitment to the material (the rhythm section in particular sounds like they’re out for blood on this one). For a moment, it almost feels as if the band has recaptured that aura of invincibility that drove them to make such lovelorn classics as “With or Without You” and “Pride”. Best of all, the disc actually delivers a bit of that promise, as Bono’s romantic streak continues to run through the album’s best moments (the joyously love-drunk pop of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”, the readymade hit that is “Magnificent”), setting us up as if we’re going to get that crowd-pleasing full-length that All That You Can’t Leave Behind almost was.
Yet as Horizon marches on, things get increasingly more surreal and frustratingly less memorable. “Restart and reboot yourself” the band shouts on the heavy-handed “Unknown Caller”, somehow demanding that we change our lives for a greater good, even if that good is never completely defined. What stings most about Horizon is how there is absolutely no thematic cohesion to the album as a whole — no unifying concept that makes these songs work in tandem with each other. Though some may argue that any given U2 album is “just a collection of songs,” no one can deny that their best works have at least some sort of common, driving theme about them, whether it be in the realm of outspoken political mantras (War), knowing winks of media-age irony (Achtung Baby through Pop), or grappling with the death of a loved one (Atomic Bomb).
No Line on the Horizon, unfortunately, has no thesis statement to speak of, something which is best evidenced by the awkward lead single “Get On Your Boots”, a confused rambler of a rocker that is unsure of its own lyrical identity. At one point Bono tells us that he “[doesn’t] wanna talk about wars between nations”, which he then proceeds to not do and instead compliments a woman on her sexy boots before screaming “let me in the sound” over and over again during the bridge, hoping that the music will save him in his time of need. Unfortunately, the music isn’t saving Bono at all: Adam Clayton’s fuzzed-out bassline is trying so hard to be cool that it forgets to be effective, the same of which can be said for the Bomb Squad-beats that pepper the song’s jerky middle section. When Bono’s own “let me in the sound” vocals are echoed two tracks later during “FEZ-Being Born”, it sounds as if his pleas for musical salvation are doing nothing more than bouncing off the walls of Horizon‘s murky interior, going completely unanswered in the process.
At times, Bono’s self-referential nature gets the best of him, most notably on the turgid “Stand Up Comedy”, a tired guitar number that could easily be mistaken as a Zooropa-era B-side. On it, Bono “stands up” to his own ego, then defends it by proclaiming that his ego is not the enemy, then advises others to stand up to their rock star icons in a similar detached fashion. Much like “Unknown Caller”, we’re never sure if Bono’s directions are meant for himself or the listener, thereby making statements like “stop helping God across the road like a little old lady” all the harder to decipher. Though no track on the album is as deliberately alienating as, say, “Numb“, the semi-coherent speed-talking of “Breathe” comes in pretty close, with Bono almost pulling off his own “I am the Walrus” lyrical moment right in the middle (“Ju Ju Man, Ju Ju Man! / Doc says you’re fine or dying”). As Bono tells us that the band in his head is playing a striptease as sawing string sections dancing around him, we realize that this song — like the rest of the disc — is trying to do too much at once.
Yet the worst part about these moments isn’t just how they fail to stack up next to achievements past: the worst part is that they distract from the positively stellar, utterly breathtaking songs that anchor the best parts of Horizon. “Moment of Surrender”, in fact, may very well be the best song that U2 has made this decade, as it’s the closest thing to a full-fledged spiritual number that the guys have written since the Johnny Cash-assisted “Wanderer” back in 1993. Though it clocks in and at a very radio-unfriendly seven minutes, what makes “Moment of Surrender” stand out so much is how the band never overplays their hand: the Eno/Lanois production is sparse and minimalist because it has to be — overblowing it would make this heartfelt confessional feel far too grandiose, like an intimate kiss between loved ones projected on a stadium JumboTron screen. “It’s not if I believe in love / It’s if love believes in me” Bono cries, passionately conveying a sense of spiritual detachment that outstrips Atomic Bomb‘s pseudo-religious closer “Yahweh” without even trying. One passage sums up his isolation perfectly:
I was pushing in the numbers
At the ATM machine
I could see in the reflection
A face staring back at me
At the moment of surrender
A vision of invisibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me
The whole thing is accented by one of the Edge’s most beautifully understated guitar solos, giving the song majesty and grace without a hint of pomposity. “Moment of Surrender” is undoubtedly one of U2’s most powerful post-millennial moments, though it’s matched in effectiveness only by the bleak closer “Cedars of Lebanon”, wherein Bono quietly walks us through everyday observations of an eternally pessimistic narrator deprived of simple things like love and hope (“This shitty world sometimes produces a rose,” he notes, “the scent of it lingers, and then it just goes”). For what feels like the first time in a long time, U2 have rediscovered the art of subtlety, and — as these two songs evidence — they have made some of the most powerful music in their 30-year career because of it.
Yet two flawless songs do not make a classic album, and as much as fans and critics will want to rush out and declare the markedly different Horizon as the best thing that the band has done since Achtung Baby (as some people already have), the truth of the matter is that no one will be singing “FEZ-Born Again” or the drab “White As Snow” from memory five years from now. Even though some of the disc’s poppiest moments (“Magnificent”, “I’ll Go Crazy …”) fall short of our usual expectations for the Biggest Band in the World, they’re still solid tunes, even if we’ve grown to expect more than songs that are just “solid” from a group that has released some of the most iconic music of the past three decades. At the end of the day, No Line on the Horizon is an easy album to dismiss and an even harder disc to love, and some people will be ready to call it a masterpiece just as others are ready to deem it an outright failure. Neither assessment is correct, but that doesn’t mean that each argument is without its merits: U2 may have rediscovered the art of subtlety, but when it comes to triumphantly uniting the world behind them, small gestures have never gone very far.