by Mike Chen on 03/04/09 at 11:17 PM ET
From time to time, I’ll post fanboy reviews of different new releases in entertainment. In most cases, it’ll either be music (mostly notable indie rock releases) or geeky genre movies. If none of this interests you, feel free to politely ignore these posts.
However, if you need a break from the madness of trade deadline day, this might be a breath of fresh air.
It’s really hard to review anything by U2 objectively. Just about any music fan, from indie rock nerds to people who just catch pop music on the radio, has some history and some opinion on The Biggest Band In The World. It’s also hard to separate out Bono’s split personality—the guy who sings about searching for, well, just about anything and the guy who preaches about AIDS and foreign debt.
So the first thing I recommend you do prior to listening to No Line On The Horizon is forget anything you’ve read or heard by or about U2 in the past year or so. Because the band and its producers (god-like geniuses Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno) have talked this album up so much that it’s hard to take it seriously. If you cut-and-pasted select clips from their cumulative interviews, you’d probably think that this new album would rewrite the dictionary definition of “Rock ‘n roll” while curing cancer, figuring out Sean Avery’s mental state, and buying everyone in the world a new 50” LCD TV.
And it’s not that. No Line On The Horizon isn’t the sonic reinvention of music, nor is it even the seismic shift that the band underwent from Rattle & Hum to Achtung Baby. But it is good, in some cases experimental and in some cases familiar, but much better and much more substantial than the throwaway U2-by-the-numbers of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
The first two tracks, the title track and Magnificent, tell you right away that this isn’t the U2 we’ve seen in the past decade. No Line On The Horizon sounds like the bastard child of Zooropa and The Unforgettable Fire after being painted with Radiohead’s Planet Telex. Magnificent features the standard Edge (TM) guitar, but trickled over a diverse range of sounds and effects. Things go more towards the Zooropa end of experimentation with the FEZ-Being Born, a highly successful combination of ambiance and driving rhythm, while Cedars Of Lebanon and White As Snow recall the more subtle and introspective moments on The Joshua Tree.
There are areas, though, where the experimentation just didn’t add up. Moment Of Surrender is supposed to be the emotional core of the album akin to One, Bad, or Stay. It’s U2-meets-prog rock, at least musically; the odd juxtaposition of Bono’s gospel-style vocal delivery proves to be too jarring for the whole thing to come together. Lead single Get On Your Boots, with its staccato rhythm and sharp musical shifts, was a good indicator that the band was moving outside their comfort zone; however, when compared to some of the more grounded elements of the album, it becomes an afterthought (though it does work as a slight breath between the heavy-handed songs).
The only real weak spot on the album is the by-the-numbers pop tune of I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight. It’s the U2 Music Generator song, with everything fitting into a formula and painted over with cheesy “hopeful” lyrics.
Of course, a review of a U2 album would be incomplete without looking at Bono’s lyrics. At one point, this was a key strength of the band. Now it’s almost a detriment—especially when Bono’s activist side runs over his creativity with preaching— and while No Line On The Horizon helps redeem some of the wordplay atrocities of the past decade or so, it still has its share of stinkers. If you’ve seen Mystery Men with Ben Stiller, there’s a character called The Phoenix whose double-speak mesmerizes everyone except for Stiller’s Mr. Furious.
The Phoenix: “You must master your rage—”
Mr. Furious: “Or what? My rage will become my master? You were going to say that, weren’t you?”
The Phoenix: “Um…not necessarily…”
Unfortunately, Bono’s fallen into some of that convention here. Things that could destroy him can give him life, or something along a dozen variations of that. That stuff’s brilliant when you’re 12; after that, you realize that it’s all formula. Other times, Bono’s activist side gets the better of him, and he goes back into the “Peace On Earth” motif sans any metaphor or eloquence. It kills songs in their tracks, despite the best efforts of the other band members.
Despite some of these awkward moments, No Line On The Horizon succeeds at showing a willingness to return to creativity and experimentation. It’s unfortunate that some of the true beauty of this album will be overshadowed by the pop-culture joke known as Bono’s ego because No Line On The Horizon often replicates (but never exceeds) some of U2’s finest moments. Welcome back, boys. You’ve re-connected with this cynical ex-fan. Viva U2, go away Bono the Activist.
Best tracks: No Line On The Horizon, Magnificent, FEZ-Being Born, White As Snow
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