Wall Street Journal MARCH 3, 2009 - by Jim Fusilli


As its new album, No Line On The Horizon, demonstrates, U2 is the only rock band of its stature and authority that is so willing to toy with its formula for success.

By the standards of today's iPod shuffle mentality, No Line On The Horizon is a great album, though it has no consistent flow and no musical arc. Rather than presenting a cohesive statement, it's a collection of songs held together by an effective and slightly experimental sound. It tops the band's most recent recordings, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) and All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000). But, like them, it features memorable performances alongside others that fall a bit short.

No Line On The Horizon also fits in the continuum of U2's recorded work, which now stretches back almost three decades. The band has always experimented - sometimes tweaking its approach to pop music, other times just about discarding it altogether.

The album The Unforgettable Fire (1984), best remembered for the stirring Pride (In the Name of Love), is characterised by a brooding underpinning. Opening with three monster rock hits, The Joshua Tree (1987) also contains songs that seem to borrow from South African mbaqanga and the music of the American West. U2 adds dance beats to fatten the groove on Achtung Baby (1991), home to the masterpiece One, a simmering down-tempo ballad. It marries rock and electronica on Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997), and with Rattle And Hum (1988) takes on The Beatles, Bob Dylan, gospel and the blues.

All this is accomplished with one of rock's most inventive rhythm sections: bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., and the guitarist known as The Edge - a distinctive musician capable of playing exactly what the performance requires. Bono's soaring voice and tenacious personality give the band its operatic qualities and superstar status.

Working again with long-time collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois - and with Steve Lillywhite contributing to three songs - U2 on No Line On The Horizon has a new sound that is dense, almost cluttered at times with the bottom bleeding into the mid-range, yet thoroughly appealing. The band's customary chiming brightness appears infrequently, most notably on I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight and Unknown Caller. In some songs, the most prominent lines are played on synthesizers rather than on The Edge's guitar or Mr. Clayton's bass, and at times Bono seems like he's fighting the tumult rather than gliding through a cleared, shining path. It's controlled chaos, and when all the pieces fit - as in the cleared, shining path. It's controlled chaos, and when all the pieces fit - as in the extraordinary Magnificent - it's exhilarating.

The title track, which opens the album, is a charging piece of rock that explodes rather than develops, and Get On Your Boots and Stand Up Comedy place the band in context: During the verses of the former, the melody mimics Mr. Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Elvis Costello's Pump It Up until it slides into a slinky chant-along; on the latter, The Edge seems to draw inspiration from The Beatles' late-period guitar sound. A powerhouse rocker, Breathe, kicks off with heavy percussion and metal-like guitars; Mr. Clayton, who excels throughout the disc, gives it a formidable spine.

Ballads provide the CD's high points. In Moment Of Surrender, a cello yields to a bubbling synth riff and a choir formed by Bono's voice and The Edge's sustained guitar. Unknown Caller develops patiently to a big chorus, as Bono sings over raw, echoing guitars and a syncopated percussion pattern. Cedars Of Lebanon is whispered and spoken by Bono over snappy drumming by Mr. Mullen and whistling strings.

It's easy to comb the lyrics of "No Line" for allusions to Bono's globetrotting political adventures. They're there in small doses and as often as not are self-deprecating. When the subject of No Line On The Horizon isn't love, lust and assorted other good times - still the meat of the rock'n'roll vocabulary - it's not geopolitics. It's spiritual exploration, even if the song's subject is derived from a geopolitical event, as in Cedars Of Lebanon and White As Snow. Throughout the band's career, U2's songs have referenced a spiritual journey inspired by its members' Christianity.

Here, the exploration continues. In White As Snow, based on a hymn inspired by Isaiah 1:18 and with new lyrics by Bono, Mr. Eno and Mr. Lanois, Bono sings: "Once I knew there was a love divine/Then came a time I thought it knew me not / Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not / Only the lamb as white as snow." Said to be the thoughts of a dying soldier in Afghanistan, the song concludes with "If only a heart could be as white as snow." In Breathe, he writes: "Sing your heart out, sing my heart out/I've found grace inside a sound."

Even when the reference isn't explicit, the words can be interpreted as spiritually minded. In I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, whose lyrics open as a standard slice of rock rebellion, Bono asks, "Is it true that perfect love drives out all fear?" Moment Of Surrender may be about romantic love, or about man's eternal link to God, or a tribute by Bono to his late father, who was a singer: "I was born to sing for you / I didn't have a choice but to lift you up / And sing whatever song you wanted me to / I give you back my voice / From the womb's first cry, it was a joyful noise." Is the "3:33" mentioned in Unknown Caller a reference to a Bible verse or merely the time on a clock?

A dozen albums into its career, U2 shows no signs of complacency. With an abiding commitment to substance and an admirable taste for adventure, the band provides a new work that offers much to enjoy and deliberate over.