We’ve been tough on No Line On The Horizon because, to be fair, “Get On Your Boots” is a bad song and the guys are performing it everywhere (and everywhere UK), so it’s become the flagship representative of U2′s twelfth album. But, no, it’s not the entire thing — there are ten other tracks on it; ten more chances for Bono & Co. to avenge their good name(s). Rolling Stone gave it five stars. There’s no way we’ll go that far, but we did approach listening to it with open minds, leaving our preconceptions and prejudices against lame lyrics (mostly) at the door. For instance, maybe releasing “Boots” was a bait and switch — you know, offering up the worst song first so folks would be pleasantly surprised once they heard the whole shebang. Good news U2 fans: It is the album’s worst song! Bad news U2 fans: There are close seconds.
Not all of No Line was a surprise: We’d heard those preview clips and the title track in its entirety. “No Line On The Horizon” is a more than serviceable opener, though — to use a Bono-esque simile — hearing Bono sing a love song at this point is akin to watching a mannequin try to put the moves on its shadow. At least we think it’s a love song. It’s hard figuring out just what this means: “I know a girl who’s like a sea / I watch her changing everyday for me … / One day she’s still, the next she swells / I can hear the universe in her seashells, oh yeah.” She also puts her tongue in his, or his character’s, ear. One of No Line‘s main problems is that the vocals are mixed so loud and clearly that you have to deal with each and every one of these clunkers. Bono was better when simply aiming to fill stadiums with his voice and not trying to stuff each line with some kind of pseudo-intellectual or poetic meaning. When he chants those “oh”‘s in the middle of the song, it’s triumphant. Which makes it hard to comprehend why neither Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, or Steve Lillywhite figured out it’d be best for Bono to obscure his lyrics a bit, maybe increase the drums and distorted guitars in the mix. For instance, “Magnificent,” a perfectly respectable, catchy mid-tempo U2 rocker that gives us a nice guitar texture from the Edge and Bono shouting to the cheap seats “I was born to sing to you.” Definitely one of the album’s strongest.
It’s followed by the lumbering “Moment Of Surrender.” Sometimes you get the sense that the band is trying to follow the gray color palette of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black and white cover photo too closely, as on the bland drum beat and synth wash that backs Bono’s soulful Meatloaf-esque exorcism on this almost 8-minute snore. The storyline isn’t strong enough to carry it that far, but we do get bits of Bono wisdom: “Playing with fire until the fire played with me, mmmmm mmmm” “the stone was semi-precious / we were barely conscious,” “I was pushing in the numbers at the ATM machine / I could see in the reflection a face staring back at me,” etc. Really? “Unknown Caller” is almost as long, but makes good use of a group-chanted chorus: “Restart and reboot yourself, you’re free to go.” Very Pet Shop Boys, guys. Also, it works.
“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is somehow reminiscent of Verve in its bridges, but then there’s the “Fight For Your Right To Party 2009″ chorus. More importantly: “She’s a rainbow and she loves the peaceful life / Knows I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight / There’s a part of me in the chaos that’s quiet / and there’s a part of you that wants me to riot / Everybody needs to cry or needs to spit / every sweet tooth needs just a little hit…” Please keep all this sage advice in mind the next time you know you’ll crazy if you don’t go crazy tonight. Again, decent song, bad lyrics.
Then we get to the centerpiece “Boots,” followed by a track that’s almost as bad: “Stand Up Comedy” takes “Boots” attempt at funkiness and piles on generic rock guitar riffs and more horrific one-liners like “stand up to rock stars / Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine do you care for a small man with big ideas.” At the end of the song, it turns out we should mostly just stand up for love, but not before seeing his ego compared to “a small child crossing an eight-lane highway on the voyage of discovery.” Of course.
good better news: The album wraps up with four decent tracks. “Fez – Being Born” opens with ambient cut and paste that recycles “Boots”‘s “let me in the sound…” and feels like ghostly cocktail music until the song itself starts, another pleasant anthem cut in the same general cloth as “Magnificent”: To the rafters chorus, propulsive instrumentation. All the electronic squiggles are pretty unnecessary, but so goes it when old bands try to remain relevant (hello, Axl).
“White As Snow” is a scaled down ballad — that blooms and makes a nice, understated use of horns and marching band snare — wherein Bono manages to weave a more interesting narrative. “Breathe” picks up the pace, one of the first speedier rockers in the realm of “Boots” or whatever that actually works: Old-school style U2 with some slight Gospel-esque backup vocals. The album closes out with the at first faint, almost Fennesz drones of “Cedars Of Lebanon.” After 40 seconds, drums and Bono enter the picture. Here he sings with an almost spoken-word intonation … in fact, it wouldn’t be strange to reference Daniel Lanois-produced Dylan (less so Lanois-produced U2, if that make sense). It’s a nice exit dance, where the spooky background accents make sense.
In the end, some of No Line On The Horizon works (especially that last part of the record) and too much of it doesn’t. The production team was excited to let us know that U2 reinvented themselves again, but by and large it’s the deviations from their classic sound that suck the life out of the record. Not always, but far too often. Along that line, the strongest material emerges when the band plays it safe, does what they do best, and creates anthemic arena rock.
Don’t forget U2′s upcoming Letterman residency. At least they’ll have to play more than “Get On Your Boots.”
No Line On The Horizon is out 3/3 via Interscope.