“We knew the world was ready to receive the heirs to The Who. All we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin, without a doubt.”- Bono
U2 had to become the biggest band on the planet, that much they were sure of. For how long, I don’t think any of them, in their wildest dreams, would have imagined that over thirty years later they would still be releasing music on their own terms.
“No Line on the Horizon”, the groups 12th album and first since 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, also happens to be one of their finest. Not bad for a group of guys, one of which has faced ongoing criticism for his outspoken views on world affairs, who are a lot closer to 50 than 40.
But U2 isn’t new to playing against conventions; despite becoming the dart board for post millennial cynicism they haven’t lost what made them great in the first place. In fact, they are still finding new ways to at least sound like the greatest band on the planet, a pleasant surprise given the stagnant content of their previous album.
Though it was a disappointment at the end of the day, “Bomb” contained one of the greatest anthems in their catalog, the soaring “City of Blinding Lights”. NLOTH never reaches the anthemic heights of that song or the glorious pop excess of 2001’s “All That You Cant Leave Behind”, but as a whole it is easily their most coherent album since 1991’s Achtung Baby. It also happens to be their best.
“Horizon” features U2 at the top of their form, helped in no small part by the superstar production trio of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite. Eno in particular has helped the band craft alot of their greatest work; most notably their two masterpieces, 1987’s The Joshua Tree and the aformentioned Achtung Baby.
Here he helps the band find sounds that must have surprised even themselves, in fact the repeating motif of the album is “let me in the sound, meet me in the sound”.
That lyric comes towards the end of their current single, the heavy dance track “Get On Your Boots”, as Bono wails against a mountain of drums and reverb. It was an odd choice for a single; it’s far from the albums best track and it’s really not even close to it’s most radio ready.
That honor would probably go to “Magnificent”. After about fourty five seconds of electronic buildup (oh yeah, theres a lot of that all over this album) the band jumps straight into one of the only song on the album that sounds like “vintage” U2, whatever that means.
On the opposite side of the experimental scale is “Fez-Being Born”. Named after the city in Morocco where the recording sessions begun; the song starts with an ethereal choir with Bono repeating “let me in the sound” way back in the mix, before a descending synth riff destroys it all so the band can re-build from the floor up. Revolving around a non-chorus of wailing and loose playing all around, it’s the freshest the band has sounded in years.
But the entire album is filled with great moments like that. Be it the unexpected arena rock detours on the chorus of “Breath” or the equally surprsing electronic flourishes tucked away in every fold of this album, “No Line on the Horizon” is the U2 album U2 fans have been dreaming about for a very long time.
Than theres “Moment of Surrender”, a nearly eight minute slow burner that occupys the place on this disc for that one U2 song that nearly breaks your heart every time you hear it. The song was reportedly done in one take, with production effects added in with the mix later on.
“It’s not as I believe in love, it’s that love believes in me. At the moment of surrender, I fold onto my knees. I did not notice the passers by, and they did not notice me.”
U2 has gotten lot of flack over the past decade. Cynical hipsters scoff at their classic rock earnestness, and audiences as a whole seem to find the pill tougher to swallow than when they did in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the band truly sounded vital.
But isn’t a group who’s been around for more than thirty years, hasn’t suffered a single lineup change, produced numerous classic songs, and a couple truly great albums still vital?
I believe so, especially when they just released their best album in nearly two decades.