No Line On The Horizon

So far 2009 has been a bad year for big bands, with Imogen Heap’s new album being endlessly delayed, and Franz Ferdinand’s comeback proving to be something of a damp squib. And then we have No Line On The Horizon, U2’s twelfth album and their first in five years.

Let me say at the outset that I like U2, and that I don’t particularly care if that makes me a pariah. Sure, I’m as sick as everyone else of Bono’s political posturing, but they’re four highly talented musicians who have produced, if not some of the best albums ever made, then some of the most culturally significant. Can you imagine a world without The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, or All That You Can’t Leave Behind?

Enough bootlicking. The single ‘Get On Your Boots’ – see what I did there? – has been around a while now, and every time I hear it I feel a little more embarrassed. It’s very badly written, with verses overloaded with syllables all crashing into one another. And am I the only one who doesn’t find it slightly disturbing to have a 48-year-old man singing about ‘sexy boots’? We’ve already got one Rod Stewart, we don’t need another one. Worst of all though, in the last minute it completely breaks down, with Bono chanting ‘Let me in the sound’ in a complete rip-off of ‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld (‘Lager, lager, lager’ and all that lot).

When you’ve listened to the whole album, you get the impression that ‘Boots’ was written to prove that that the band can still right pop songs. Almost everything else on here is distant and quiet. Take the title track. This opens the album and sounds like Achtung Baby Redux. To some extent that’s not surprising, because it’s produced by the same people: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite.

Achtung Baby was distinctive for combining distant electronica with subdued rock to create subtle anthems like ‘Mysterious Ways’. You get the sense with both this and ‘Magnificent’ that there is a genuine rock song which has been buried under layers of complex production. It’s like putting a pillow over an alarm clock.

One thing that Achtung Baby was largely without, however, was inexplicable sound effects. These crop up time and again, for instance on the off-beat percussion in ‘Moment Of Surrender’. Elbow attempted a similar technique on ‘Starlings’ off The Seldom Seen Kid, which is a very good song. This however is too long, too loose and too lacking in discipline.

Nowhere is this album messier than on ‘Fez – Being Born’. It begins with a decent sound collage before two segues, first back into the end of ‘Boots’ – when will it end?! – and then collapsing into the second half via what sounds like an 1980s arcade machine, complete with bland lyrics and pointless high chords.

There are some good songs on here though, if you know where to look. ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’ is as well written as anything on Rattle And Hum; think ‘Desire’ crossed with ‘Lovetown’ and you’re about there. ‘Breathe’ takes a long time to get going, but when it does you get all the brutal lyrics, soaring guitars and dynamic drumming which made their past two albums such a joy. And then there’s the closer, ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’, which Bono sings an octave lower, almost breathing and croaking lines across a desolate landscape. It’s head and shoulders above everything else on here, albeit spoiled slightly by tape loops lifted from the bowels of Zooropa.

In the final verse of ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’, Bono whispers ‘this shitty world sometimes produces a rose/ The scent of it lingers, and then it just goes’. That kind of sums up where U2 are at now. The rose was All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the scent lingered on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, and now it’s just gone. No Line On The Horizon is not a poor album, or a forgettable one, it’s just incredibly frustrating. Where the previous two albums could at least be tolerated by the unconverted, this is an album for the fans; anyone else will loose patience before they get to the single in the middle. It’s a shame. I just hope that the next time U2 take five years out, they use the time a little more wisely.


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