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

February 24, 2009 |  1:16 pm
U2__no_line_review

U2
"No Line on the Horizon"
Interscope
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

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