"You've got to balance being relevant and commenting on something that's happening today with trying to attain timelessness," said U2 guitarist the Edge back in the 1990s. And he's right- that's exactly what such a powerful, classic, monumental rock band needs to do: find a way to always sound the same, yet experiment with new musical ideas and trends. And with No Line On The Horizon, U2 continues their long, loooong streak of making this formula work. They make the music both timely and timeless.
No Line kicks off just like any other U2 album would- a building drum beat, swirling, epic noises, and Bono's wail over it all. The titular track is filled with "woah-a-woah-a-woah-ohs" and a memorable, sing-along chorus: "No line on the horizon, no, no line."
"Horizon" goes straight into another vintage-sounding U2 track, "Magnificent." With it's soft guitar backdrop and Bono's overpowering vocals, "Magnificent" feels like it could be from one of U2's "Best of The 90's" albums.
But as a foreshadowing of things to come, "Magnificent" becomes a little bloated at the end as it pushes past the five-minute mark. This gives way to "Moment of Surrender," a slow, organ-led anthem that builds its way through seven minutes and twenty seconds. This is not a terrible problem, as the extended songs are solid enough to make sure you don't skip- but you're definitely tempted. "Surrender" is a bare, soulful song, improvised for most of its seven minute length with just a hypnotic drum beat, beautiful organs, and Bono's haunting voice. But while Pitchfork's reviewer saw this improvisation as lazy indulgence, I find it to be a telling sign of U2's immense talent. One of my favorites on the album.
"Unknown Caller" is also bloated, with an intro that runs well over 2 minutes, but its gorgeous, anthemic feel redeems the song. Bono sounds like a melodic drill sergeant at times as the lyrics toy with goofiness: "force quit and move to trash," and "password, you enter here, right now." But more "woah-s" power through the tune and kind of redeem the song yet again (by the way, No Line's first four songs all contain some kind of woah-oh, but who's counting).
"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" definitely grew on me- at first I really disliked it. But the song is bouncy and the melody is breezy: "Crazy" is probably one of the album's more radio-friendly tracks. In fact, I heard it on the radio yesterday and initially thought it was an old song!
Later in the album, we are treated to the fun yet serious "Stand Up Comedy," which comes in with a groovy beat that sounds like "Get On Your Boots" redux. But when the guitar and chorus kick into the song, you realize that Bono is taking himself a little (OK, a lot) more seriously with this one. "Stand up for your love," he sings generically. But who cares- I'd run out of things to say after so many years, too. Cut him a little slack- he still finds ways to say new things: "I've got to stand up, to ego, but my ego's not really the enemy."
But the album's second half doesn't compare to the rollicking first act. "White As Snow" is a touching song, but never reaches the emotional high that it strives for. "Breathe" is a very good track, but nothing special, with Bono just talk-singing over grungy guitars. Album-closer "Cedars of Lebanon" takes the same stripped-down approach that "White As Snow" does, and still never becomes the great, chilling song that it aspires to be.
Through the entire album, Brian Eno's production is well-felt and well-utilized. On "FEZ- Being Born," he squeezes in "let me in the sound" from "Boots" at the beginning, and pushes the song forward with a crescendo of noise. "Unknown Caller" is also driven by Eno's impeccable skills.
My problem with with U2 has always been that all of their albums end up sounding repetitive. I much prefer listening to their Greatest Hits than their albums in full. And the same goes for No Line: while it is a solid, consistent, and very good album throughout, I can't see myself just sitting and listening to it in its entirety like I do with Merriwether Post Pavillion or Neon Bible.
This is still the U2 we know and (maybe) love. They've experimented- as "Get On Your Boots" well-proves- but for the most part, this is Bono and crew doing what they do best. No Line is filled with stadium anthems, soaring power chords, "important" lyrics and polished production. If you love U2, then you'll love this album. If you hate U2, this record probably won't change that. If you're somewhere in the middle, No Line On The Horizon is certainly good enough to earn a few spins on your turntable (especially the first seven songs).
Key Tracks: "Moment Of Surrender," "No Line On The Horiz0n," "Get On Your Boots"