This is a tough post. Not only has U2 been arguably the most significant band in my musical and personal life over the last dozen years, but the four-plus years they spend between albums amplifies the reaction it’s going to get, and the feelings I’m going to have about it. It’s hard to shrug off a mediocre U2 outing, since four or five years of your life may pass before they get around to releasing another one.
U2 has always worked for me because of a certain duality to their music. They’re a pop band in the best sense of the word. They write songs that fill stadiums with sound, soul, and sales in a way few others have managed, and their songs are melodic, straightforward, and catchy enough to transcend languages, cultures, and generations. At the same time, they make records full of intricate, dense textures and layers that continue to reveal themselves on every listen, which is why they’ve outlasted most of their contemporaries and spawned so many imitators.
However it is both of those factors working in tandem that makes a U2 record work, and while Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have created another interesting sonic palate, the songs themselves fail to live up to the lofty production and long waiting period that the album brings. There’s certainly some potential; the title track is possibly the most adventurous thing on the record despite it’s bummer of a chorus, and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is a fun slice of Edge-driven mid-tempo pop. (although doesn’t quite match it’s Spinal Tap-worthy title) “Breathe” is another nice adventure, and one of the few times on the album where U2 sounds like a real live band, with Edge’s guitar again driving a 6/8 groove that has been rarely tapped by Larry Mullen before. And “White as Snow” is the hushed, understated tome of the album that finally succeeds where “Grace” and “One Step Closer” didn’t.
But therein lies the problem with Horizon. There’s things that could be described as reasonably adventurous, nice, or any other pleasant adjectives, but nothing that touches on “amazing.” There’s nothing as uplifting as “Walk On,” as much fun as “Discotheque” or as mind-blowingly epic as “City of Blinding Lights.” There’s variety between songs, but nothing that truly stands out above the rest, and few, if any hooks to be found anywhere.
The problems start fairly quickly. “Magnificent” sets itself up to be the album’s high point: an energetic, four on the floor romp with a classic Edge guitar tone. But when the second verse begins, you realize that part you thought was the pre-chorus was it. The song builds up anticipation for a “Blinding Lights”-esque payoff that sadly never comes, although it does recycle the Edge slide solo from half the Atomic Bomb record. Still a solid song, but a frustrating missed opportunity. “Moment of Surrender” runs seven minutes without a single truly memorable moment; feeling a bit like a retread of every U2 ballad you’ve ever heard, minus the catchy bits. Elsewhere, “Stand Up Comedy” attemps to be U2’s take on a Zeppelin riff, but sounds like a Stone Roses Second Coming outtake, and “Fez – Being Born” is another chorus-free song (with a completely unrelated ambient Brian Eno introduction) that probably should’ve stayed on the shelf. “Get on Your Boots,” in context, isn’t any better than it was as a standalone single, but it’s short running time and direct delivery is almost a relief compared to the reach of the rest of the album.
The main offender, however, is “Unknown Caller,” a song with inexplicable lyrics and an even more inexplicably awkward gang vocal delivery. “Re-start and reboot yourself”…”Password you enter here, right now.” It was bad enough seeing U2 shilling for Apple, but now they have a song that sounds like Steve Jobs’ subconscious. Makes you long for the days of intellectual tortoises and newborn babies’ heads.
Throughout the album, Bono is wordier than usual, often hindering the song’s ability to weave a direct, memorable melody line. His vocal delivery, in stark contrast to the atmospheric sheen of the Eno/Lanois production is raw, and often strained, as if he’s attempting to reconcile the raw energy he had on Boy with the overblown universe they’ve created. Occasionally the juxtaposition works, but just as often, it distracts from the music, particularly given how Bono tends to over-emote and dramatize to begin with.
In the end, the success or failure of a pop album depends on the quality of the songs and their ability to make an impact on a large number of people. However, as with any band of U2’s status and longevity, there is an underlying subtext that may explain how they got here, for better or worse.
There's a certain contradiction to U2's development. For being arguably the biggest and most recognizable post-60's band on the planet, their entire career post-Joshua Tree can be seen as a direct reflection of the opinions of critics. When they were derided for tackling Americana head on in Rattle & Hum, they returned with the darker, revolutionary Achtung Baby. When they took their electronica influences and sense of irony too far for the critics with Pop and the PopMart tour, they returned to their 'classic' sound with the enjoyable but safe All That You Can't Leave Behind. But after their equally safe follow up was derided for being 'too' safe, Bono promised us a second reinvention of U2, equal to the dramatic shift the band took in the dawn of the 90's.
One thing the band can't be faulted for is it's determination in all these changes. They didn't just dabble in American musical forms in 1988, they went to Sun Studios to do it. Achtung Baby not radical enough? They followed it up with the challenging, dark Zooropa album. Electronica? Get Howie B and Flood to produce. A conscious return to their roots? All That You Can't Leave Behind was the closest you were going to get without a flying DeLorean. One can question the motives or sources of their musical evolution, but even a U2 detractor has to admit they've taken each musical step head-on, for better or worse.
And so perhaps the underlying problem of No Line On The Horizon, beyond it’s lack of hooks or a single, is that it represents an unsure, tentative U2, attempting to strike a balance between musical risks and keeping the “U2 sound” rather than fully embracing one direction as they had previously. While the deeper involvement of Eno and Lanois than on any previous LP ensures the album will be a departure from Bomb, it isn’t enough of one to sound revolutionary to anyone who’s been listening to U2 for more than two weeks, which I’m assuming is anyone who cares enough to listen to their new record.
U2 has the benefit of having watched their heroes grow old ahead of them, and are clearly trying to avoid becoming the next Rolling Stones, selling out stadiums but being labeled “dinosaurs” and, worse, irrelevant. Unfortunately, in that context, Horizon seems forced and deliberate, and less of an attempt to “remake” U2 as it is to simply not repeat the last two records or be “safe.” If they released albums more frequently, or it came earlier in their career, it would likely be seen as a transitional album, much like The Unforgettable Fire bridged the gap between War and The Joshua Tree. But a five year gap requires the end result to be a destination, not a pit-stop, but unfortunately No Line on the Horizon wanders aimlessly, searching for direction.