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U2's 'No Line on the Horizon': Three stars


"No Line on the Horizon"
Three stars

When he was 20, Brian Eno scribbled a phrase in a notebook that later proved relevant to his entire career: "The edges around nothing." As the writer and Roxy Music biographer Michael Bracewell has noted, the approach Eno would develop in that band and as a mastermind of art rock centers on devising formulas that "reconfigure subject, concept, material, purpose and process" -- methods for drawing lines around the "nothing" experience of random sound or half-formed self-expression and giving it meaning.

Or, to put it another way, tools for finding lines on the horizon.

A decade later, teenage guitarist David Evans developed a nickname -- the Edge. It suited the sound he was creating with the band he'd signed on to for life. U2, like its eventual producer Eno, always has approached rock as a tradition worth honoring through acts of reconfiguration and renewal; Roxy Music, in an early song, dubbed this process "Re-Make/Re-Model."

Or, to put it another way: Draw new lines on the horizon.

U2 has become such an edifice in pop that it's hard to remember its emergence at the dawn of the 1980s, all knees and elbows, startling our ears with guitar drone, delay and those slightly stoned yet bracingly direct rhythms, topped by the unhinged yelp of Bono, a born believer following Ezra Pound's modernist dictum to "Make it new!"

From the first, U2 was more fervently reckless than any classic rock band yet more respectful of its roots and determined to be part of a lineage than the art punks with whom they'd started out.

The sound the band hit upon, which became transcendent on the mid-period albums Eno co-produced, is big enough to contain rock's historical essence and overshadow it. "No Line on the Horizon," which is due out next week and currently is available for streaming on the band's MySpace page, celebrates, dissects, reconfigures and sometimes pokes holes in that sound.

The band's 12th studio album, it comes 30 years after those first face-slapping singles. It's a pilgrimage -- the religious metaphor is inevitable -- along the path forged by U2 itself.

The title track starts things out and shows the road. One of seven not only produced but also co-written by Eno and fellow senior team member Danny Lanois, it's built on a multilayered drone that recalls the peers of U2's youth, especially Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, when psychedelia went post-punk.

The limitless sky doesn't signal hope but the need for a map. Bono's typically semi-surreal lyric evokes nonlinear time and the need for, and peril of, change. We are in a dream time.

Dream time is a mythical force that governs internal quests, not social movements or festive gatherings. Despite the playful exhortation of the first single, “Get on Your Boots,” "No Line on the Horizon" is mostly reflective. Lengthy songs grow up around lyrics that read like cinematic flashbacks and unspooled skeins of guitar and keyboard effects.

This music doesn't always land softly -- on "Moment of Surrender" and the Steve Lillywhite-produced "Breathe," the band reminds us that its roots include 1970s heavy metal -- but it's still a fairly gentle ride. No song is focused enough to be an instant anthem, unusual for a band born to raise cellphones and consciousnesses. Hooks aren't what make U2 special, however, even if they've crafted a ton of them.

Rapture is a U2 fan's essential experience. The band creates and communicates this enmeshed emotional state through insistent repetition of imposing musical elements (that guitar delay, Larry Mullen Jr.'s unwavering beats) paired with the wafting, waning, swooningly human sound of Bono's voice.

"No Line on the Horizon" doesn't aim for the headiest transport U2 can muster; Eno and Lanois slow things down and make the players examine the ways they get there, each, including the producers, adding their own touches to the mix.

One notable motif on "No Line on the Horizon" is a huge instrumental build followed by a single word or phrase in adulation of the music surrounding it. When Bono moans "magnificent" in the track that bears that title, sounding rather like Donna Summer, or he murmurs, "Sunshine . . . sunshine," in a slow-motion falsetto at the start of "Unknown Caller," he's expressing a rapture well-known to U2's devotees.

"No Line on the Horizon" contains some evidence that Bono might have been the U2 member most in need of this hajj. His exhortations aren't as sticky as usual, except for one -- "I'm running down the road like loose electricity" -- that owes two words each to Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. And at times, his vocals sound alarmingly raw.

The references to singing that pepper the album seem partly inspired by anxiety over the state of his instrument, so who can blame him for savoring what beauty still comes?

U2's celebration of life has always also been a celebration of itself, and Bono still has a gift for radiating joy in a way that feels inclusive, not egotistical. At the same time, "No Line on the Horizon" is most interesting when the band and its producers let their well-deserved wallowing become a drift down the river toward something different.

"Fez -- Being Born" will only sound experimental to those who haven't heard Eno's other collaborations (he pulls a sample from one, his exquisite 1984 collaboration with Lanois and pianist Harold Budd, "The Pearl," on "Cedars of Lebanon"), but the song's Radiohead-style cutting beats and dusty undertones work productively against the band's instinctive upward thrust.

At the other extreme, "White as Snow" and "Cedars of Lebanon" are monologues, simply rendered and grounded in the present-day realities of war in the Middle East -- one gives voice to a soldier, the other to a journalist. Both nicely bring this cloud-busting album down to Earth.

In recent years, the romance of U2 -- the quadrilateral energy the four members generate, the love so many have for its music and its redemptive effect, not just for fans but for the whole silly, serious project of rock -- has sometimes overshadowed its music.

"No Line on the Horizon" partakes of that romance by trying to expose its inner workings. It's risky to expose those delineations; as the band said long ago, it's like trying to throw your arms around the world. But the effort has its payoffs. An edge discovered is an edge that might be moved.

--Ann Powers

Albums are rated on a scale of one to four stars.

Photo credit: EPA

Related: 'Spider-Man,' with music and lyrics by Bono and Edge, gets opening date

Comments () | Archives (18)

Nice review. I have streamed the album since Friday and love it. I really, really can't wait to hear these songs live.

Their best album this decade,it blows away the last 2 albums by a country mile.

One big question: How is the near Adult Contemporary Moment of Surrender (which I love) influenced in any way by heavy metal?

I like the album, but nobody else I know seems to.

An excellent review of a record which continues to blossom with each listen. What a pleasure to read a reviewer who has an artistic sensibility and a thoughtful approach to the critical evaluation of modern popular music.

This is a great album. Bono's voice sounds great, Edge creates a sonic wall with his guitars, and Adam and Larry are as tight a rhythm section as any in music. The songs sound fresh and although lyricism has never been U2's strong point, the messages are poignant and relavant.

Overall, a great release and welcomed album! We need U2, not the same garbage that plays on top 40 stations like the new Amped radio (old KLSX).

I have been a fan of their music for quite some time and this has got to be one of their best. It's right along with "The Joshua Tree", "Achtung Baby" and "All that you Can't Leave Behind". But this one seems to be what "Zooropa" was intended to be. You have to listen to it more then once to really appreciate every song. The textures they have layered is amazingly refreshing. Hopefully it stands the test of time and it seems that it is better then its two predecessors. It'll be interesting how they sounds live but the stand out tracks for me are "Magnificent", "Moment of Surrender", "Unknown Caller", "White as Snow", "FEZ-Being Born" & "Cedars of Lebanon"

i dont understand this review. You gave the album a glowing review and then gave it 3 stars. Is that a 3 out of 3 starts per chance? This is by far the best U2 album of the decade in my humble opinion. It seems to me that this is the culmination of the sounds they have been tinkering with over the past three decades. It has the best elements of everything from Achtung through HTDAAB. It also doesn't play it safe which the two previous offerings have been guilty of in some respects. This is a band that has fallen in love with their sound and at this stage of their career are making music that i think they truly love. This album is deep and layered, which allows the listener to grow more attached with each listen. It is not an album filled with radio friendly singles, in fact it could be argued that "Get on your Boots" is one of the weakest tracks on Horizon. I think it is trendy to bash U2 because of their mass appeal and Bono's rock star/ global humanitarian persona. Many people have given this album a half hearted listen and rushed to judgement on their reviews. I hope you are not in this population.

You seems to like this record, then why are your giving only three stars ?, please explain it ...

it would be nice if this album was good -- if it was even worthy of three stars -- but it's not. it's awful. i'm afraid that's not going to change no matter how many times people insist it's a "grower." sorry.

everyone has their opinoin. But to see a band learn more about themselves and have an impact toward how your views in life are-thats what it is about! and you know their music always rocks but most importantly connects toward any aspects in your life-thats U2 for you

I agree with Johnny Barry. Very positive review and 3 stars? If you think it's only "okay" fair enough, but please describe what you think is missing.

I couldn't agree more about the star rating. The review glows, yet the final assessment doesn't reflect that. What gives? And Beto - I'd be curious how exactly you think this is 'awful.' This is an incredible piece of work.

I also agree about the star rating. Being a U2 fan for 26 years now, I have to say that this is one of those staples that I hope people associate with the band in the future. Like Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, I think this album marks a new stage in the evolution of U2 and the sound of their music. Compare the music alone to recent albums and, in my opinion, NLOTH blows it away. A true U2 fan expects to be challenged by a U2 album, expects to listen more than once to get it and expects U2 to evolve with every new release. They understand where the band is coming from and what it's all about.

In my opinion, anyway.

I really wish Robert Hilburn would have written this. Damning with faint praise and praising with arched brows is very post-modern, I'll grant you, but means nothing measured against the true power to move, to render, to seduce. to elevate. No Line on the Horizon proves that rock and roll musicians can grow up and still be relevant. Bono's lyrical exploration, self-deprecation and ability to couch searching internal metaphors in the band's crafty pop hooks powers U2 beyond any other band in the world. Songs like Moment of Surrender, Unknown Caller and Cedars of Lebanon are so arresting if you stop for a moment and contemplate just what's going on there, while Magnificent is a hymn to a power greater than all of us, even Bono himself. Even the groove of Stand Up Comedy tosses in a fantastic line to stop helping God across the road like an old lady. Larry's drumming is powerful and incessant, Edge probes the boundaries of his craft and Adam has some of the meatiest parts on this record. It somehow manages to be introspective while tearing down the roof and opening up the sky. Man, this is gonna be some tour!

Well, I’ve listened to the whole album all the way through 3-4 times now.

First thought - the song order is off. I would have ended the album with White As Snow.

And it was mentioned that where they ‘experiment’ on this album they fall flat. Agreed.

Some of the songs have a tendency to ‘fragment’ - just out of nowhere - change up. In the past - they did this to great effect. On this album - it doesn’t work to the same effect.

Magnificent. Moment Of Surrender. White As Snow. These songs make the album. The rest of the songs - in my opinion - just don’t cut to the rather high U2 standard.

Pop is better. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is better. Even Passengers has more good tunes. Zooropa is more experimental - but smoother in it's transitions.

( From what I was hearing - I thought the album was going to be more like Passengers.) But there is no “Slug” on this. In some ways it is like Passengers - you have to keep the remote handy to skip over pure garbage.

Funny. Wire - on Unforgettable Fire - is thrilling. But on this album when they get ‘energetic’ they just pound notes. Boom Boom.

I’m going to buy it, but I give it only 2 1/2 out of 5. Too much filler. Not enough highs. Too many lows.

Sorry to be so critical, but I was expecting more after all these years.

"The limitless sky doesn't signal hope but the need for a map. Bono's typically semi-surreal lyric evokes nonlinear time and the need for, and peril of, change. We are in a dream time."

Congratulations Ann, you wrote a line that almost rivals Bono when he's on a pretentious bender.

Regardless of my opinion on the album (not bad, not great - "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is the highpoint), I'll just say I think the review is awful - written around the music rather than penetrating it, like a great review does.

Back to Semiotics class for you, Ann!

Been a huge fan for as long as I can remember. I have never been so disappointed. I can not weave words like Bono can in a song, All I can utter is dissappointment. The angels have fallen.

This is a very interesting album and I treated myself to the ltd edition box set.

I was worried that we would have a three-peat with All You Can't Leave and 'Atomic Bomb which I felt were very much doing it by numbers with no real diversity that I had come to expect from U2 and their previous work.

Whilst I thoroughly love the experimentation that was Achtung, Zooropa, Pop, The Passengers and the slightly skewed MDH Band, this album seems to go back beyond those. It is almost as if this is what U2 would have given us had they continued from the Joshua Tree without the aforementioned detour. Eno and Lanois contributions are clearly evident and there are some simularities with Lanois' Shine album in parts and the recurring choruses which you can faintly tell as Brian and Dan, and Eno's synths are everywhere on the album, as mentioned by others the layering is heavy and some vocal levels I thought were a little uneven.

It is a very absorbing album, particularly with Corbijn's footage to accompany the original track order (I watched this first before listening to the amended order on the album) being a real treat.
The book whilst very minimal does have some good photography, but it's a token gesture for a limited edition box.


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