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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork MARCH 2, 2009 - by Ryan Dombal
U2: NO LINE ON THE HORIZON
Why U2? How did these four Irishmen become the blueprint for every band with stadium aspirations? The Edge's churchly guitar chime - which thrives on the same arena acoustics that can turn otherwise booming bands into mud - is certainly a factor. So is their weakness for the big gesture - whether it be a giant lemon, heart, or mouth. And Bono's cathartic mix of modern panacea - love, God, mass culture - gives them a reach to the back row and beyond. But, perhaps above all else, the band's restlessness and willingness to challenge both themselves and their patrons is why The Killers, Kanye West, and Coldplay want to be the next U2 and not the next AC/DC. It's why these four Irishmen still represent the punk spirit decades after they emerged from it.
"You've got to balance being relevant and commenting on something that's happening today with trying to attain timelessness," philosophised The Edge in the early 1990s. The quote sounds like rock star bullshit... until you realise that's pretty much what U2 did for twenty years. From 1980 to 2000, it was difficult to tell exactly what the next U2 album would sound like. Briefly: They added atmosphere to new wave, looked for God and found hits, exhumed their rock'n'roll heroes, sent-up those same heroes while losing their religion, and punctured pop via mutated techno. Each move was more audacious than the last - even 1997 knee-jerk victim Pop saw the world-beating act taking completely unnecessary musical and financial risks in the name of Warholian post-modern pastiche. They then also managed to surprise on 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind by successfully returning to form after shrugging off the notion for so many years. But 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and its subsequent tour were troubling.
That record saw four guys famous for dabbing classic rock into all sorts of impressionistic frames (or dismantling it entirely via Village People costumes) uncomfortably grasping for old-fashioned riffs, when they weren't mindlessly feasting on their own past. It was completely predictable (City Of Blinding Lights), canned (Vertigo), and depressingly Sting-like (A Man And A Woman). But the group did little to hide the fact that they were basking in their early-century comeback's afterglow; in concert, in place of the All That You Can't Leave Behind tour's heart-shaped runway was a, um, circle-shaped runway. Still self-aware enough to sense stagnation, the quartet began to work on what would become No Line On The Horizon with new producer Rick Rubin and an imperative to break all those piling U2 trappings once again. As Bono told The New York Times this week: "When you become a comfortable, reliable friend, I'm not sure that's the place for rock'n'roll."
Sixteen years ago, U2 worked a snippet of Public Enemy's Don't Believe The Hype into their technologically prescient Zoo TV tour - perhaps fans should heed that bit of sampled advice right about now. Because while this group of slick talkers may have set out to expand their own definition once more, they've ended up with old collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois - along with an album that's neither relevant nor timeless.
First single Get On Your Boots is a worrisome harbinger - to call it a mess would be generous. The song combines sub-Audioslave riffs with Escape Club's Wild Wild West and sounds more disjointed than the worst Girl Talk rip off. "I don't wanna talk about wars between nations - not right now!" claims Bono on the song, before extolling the virtues of tight leather boots. His off-the-cuff attitude and delivery suggests a cheekiness missing from U2's music for more than a decade, but it's a red herring. While other tracks like I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight and Stand Up Comedy feature knowing lines that examine the singer's faults and hypocrisy, the album is heavy on half-arsed word-salad characterisations and the sort of meaningless platitudes Bono used to be so great at (barely) avoiding. And there's a strong theme of resignation running through the record; whereas many classic U2 tracks have come from Bono's struggle with faith and certainty, he seems content to give up agency on songs like Moment Of Surrender and Unknown Caller. "I've found grace inside a sound," he sings on Breathe, and the line seems like a cop-out from a man who spent so much time struggling with salvation.
Meanwhile, the album's ballyhooed experimentation is either terribly misguided or hidden underneath a wash of shameless U2-isms (the three-note ring Edge nicks from Walk On for Unknown Caller, the "oh oh oh" outro from Stay apparently copied and pasted into Moment Of Surrender, etc.). While Eno used to work his unique sound-bobbles and ambiance into the fabric of U2 songs, he seems content to offer spacey intros totally disassociated from their accompanying tunes here (see: Fez - Being Born, Magnificent). And oftentimes the band mistakes risk-taking for ill-fated arrangements and decisions. Moment Of Surrender - reportedly improvised in one seven-minute take - comes across as lazy indulgence, and the title track's hard-nosed verse is torpedoed by its deflating fart of a hook. As the go-to sonic innovator of the group, The Edge dials in a particularly dispiriting performance throughout; his rare solos usually pack in enough panache to fill stadiums but his bluesy blah of a spotlight on Moment Of Surrender would barely satisfy a single earbud.
"It keeps getting harder. You're playing against yourself and you don't want to lose," Adam Clayton told Q last month. And he's got a point. After nearly thirty years of chart crashing and sell-outs, starting afresh can't be easy. There's only one One. In a way, U2 spoiled their followers by consistently questioning themselves while writing songs that straddled the personal and collective consciousness. But No Line On The Horizon is clearly playing not to lose - it's a defensive gesture, and a rather pitiful one at that.