Music Review: No Line on the Horizon by U2 (for real this time)

U2 - No Line on the Horizon Cover

U2 - No Line on the Horizon Cover

Now that it is officially their seventh No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200, forget what I said in my last post about Tweeting my responses to each individual track on No Line on the Horizon.  I doubt it’s going to happen.  First, I would need more than 140 characters per song, and I just don’t feel like it.    I’m going to sum up some things, and then I’d like to know what others think.

It is a good album, and I love most of the songs.  Just not together.

Tracks 1-4 are fantastic.  There’s something bizarrely wonderful about the title track, I think it’s that low end bouncy whirring sound, that’s kind of like some Australian instrument.   “Magnificent” is quintessential U2.  It is parts of all of their work up until now, from the electronic-tinged opening, to the “Pride (In the Name of Love)”-esque echo-delayed guitar licks, and more.  It’s awesome.  However, it is also derivative.  Therein lies my major complaint with this collection of tunes. As great as they are, it seems like they’re cribbing from themselves, only with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in on it.   At many times I find parts of songs to be too similar to parts of prior U2 songs (actually the only time I don’t feel like this is “Get On Your Boots”). “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” for instance, while I absolutely dig it, really feels like it should have been on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, replete with a bit of “Beautiful Day”‘s note progressions, and also just something about the vocals, and the overall feel of the song.  In general, there’s a sort of The Unforgettable Fire meets Zooropa aspect to the album, though unlike Passengers this still sounds like a U2 album.  They claim to have hit a “rich vein” of songwriting, but if rumors going into this album were right, some of these songs have been around for a while, and frankly, sound it, only with some added touches.

“Moment of Surrender” has been stuck in my head for days.  The vocals are great.  They lyrics fantastic.  And it features The Edge doing some cool slide guitar work.  I have a great idea for a video of this song, by the way.  It involves MacPhisto wandering the streets of NYC.  The band, including Bono as Bono, sort of follows him around, unbeknownst to him.  When he sees a “reflection” in the ATM, it’s a reflection of Bono (sort of a play on the famous MacPhisto picture), singing and the band playing.  Then on the subway the devilish figure goes unnoticed by the crowds of people of all walks of life, gives up the battle with God, finds some redemption, and Bono is the one left sitting on the subway, MacPhisto gone (hey listening U2??, let me direct!).

“Unknown Caller” brings to mind Zooropa the most to me, and I love it.  The technology-references in the somewhat off-putting, but wholly addictive, shouted choruses especially seem to reference that period of songwriting.  Though, it might be the Eno/Lanois showing.  One of my favorite songs on the album.

Tracks 5-7 are all cool on their own, but should have been on other albums.  “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Stand Up Comedy” are both just fun, rock songs.  “Boots”…it’s a dirty, swanky, rock song.  It’s fun, and powerful, though the lyrics are Bono at his most throwaway.  Listening to the album straight through, if I hit skip on “Get On Your Boots” I am much happier with the way the album plays out. It should have been a B-side.

And speaking of B-sides?  Where are they?  Where are the interesting covers that U2 has a habit of doing as B-sides?  “Neon Lights”, “Dancing Barefoot”, “Satellite of Love”, “Unchained Melody”, etc. (though NOT “Paint it Black” or “Fortunate Son”, ugh).  Or perhaps, some oddity, that is acutally good, but not album appropriate?  Can you imagine if “Big Girls Are Best”  which was released with “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was on All That You Can’t Leave Behind?  Totally groovy fuzzed out rock action, and lots of fun, but it would have been a disaster in the context of that album.  As a note, “Big Girls” will be following “Boots” on my new U2 mix I’m planning with earlier tracks, B-sides and unreleased songs  (“Mercy” why oh why weren’t you on the album?  There’s always Songs of Ascent, I suppose), and then probably “Holy Joe (the Garage Mix)”.

8 and 9 go back to what I think is the “vibe” the album started off with.  “Fez – Being Born”…man, that intro.  How disconcerting that must sound to the casual listener?  Totally a Passengers moment, but totally cool.  I love the use of the “let me in the sound” from “Get On Your Boots.”   This somewhat “Passengers Lite” aspect of the album leaves me surprised that Larry is so happy with what they’ve done here.

10 – “Breathe” – might be one of my all out favorite rockers they’ve done, but could have gone on the “other album” with 5-7.  There’s something Oasis-esque to the song when I listen to it, especially the latter half.

11, “Cedars of Lebanon,” is a great song for this album, but maybe not what I would have ended with (I would have ended with “FEZ – Being Born”).

iTunes bonus tracks included “No Line on the Horizon (ver. 2)” and “Get On Your Boots (Crookers remix)”.  The second version of the title track is cool, and I like it a lot.  It’s got more guitar, drops the brilliant deep thrumming found in the album version, though, and basically sounds like a song born of the void between Rattle & Hum and Achtung Baby.   The “Boots” remix… Ick.  U2 remixes are hit (Trent Reznor’s “Vertigo” remix) or miss (nearly all the rest of the remixes), and this is a big miss.  Don’t even listen to it.  It’s that bad.

I sound like I hate the album.  So untrue.  I love it.  It’s that I love it and can see these flaws that ticks me off because I don’t want those flaws in a U2 album.  Like many fans, I expect much more than what is realistic.  There will never be a perfect U2 album, the band is so ultimatley human.  It’s like how the songs from POP that were re-edited for the second greatest hits collection, were generally better edits of the songs, or how when you hear “Lady with the Spinning Head” you can see how that became much better songs on Achtung Baby.  Perhaps, they needed (gasp), more time?  To rethink the song choice for the album?  Something?  Maybe they are right, despite my initial reactions, to go back and revisit their earliest works and see what they come up with, making some of those songs better?

Some links:

Great interview from Canadian press with Daniel Lanois about the album.

If you don’t follow Neil McCormick or know who he is, it’s worth finding out.  He wrote a great book called Killing Bono:  I was Bono’s Doppelganger, which whether or not you like U2, is a great look at the music industry and documents how he grew up with Bono, wanted to become a rock star, and unlike Bono, failed.  He also was also, other than the band itself, the major writing component of the nice coffee table book U2 by U2.  Anyway, his music blog for frequently mentions sort off-kilter U2 things, and other music news.


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