Chicago Tribune FEBRUARY 21, 2009 - by Greg Kot


U2 return March 3 with No Line On The Horizon, their twelfth studio album. Until then, the album is already all over the Internet, and available on the band's MySpace page for a free preview.

The good news up top: the band's sense of adventure is back. The blatantly retro feel of the Irish quartet's previous two albums, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004), takes a back seat to a more ambitious and certainly more esoteric approach. What's lacking are the immediate melodies that defined those previous albums.

Longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Danny Lanois are more intimately involved, not only as producers but as songwriters and musicians. "Meet me in the sound" is the album's key lyric, taken from the single Get On Your Boots. It suggests an album more about atmosphere and sonics than songs. Steve Lillywhite, another long-time collaborator, was brought in for a couple of tracks, presumably to provide a stadium-rock safety net. His contributions are my least favorite moments on the album.

Here's a quick rundown of the songs after a few days of listening:

No Line on the Horizon: Love the introduction. Makes me feel like U2 have stopped with the pandering and mean business. Fond memories of Achtung Baby-era aggression and menace with overdriven instruments, and Bono wailing torn and frayed about the limitlessness of imagination in all human endeavor, including the erotic. More like this, please.

Magnificent: Electronic percussion breaks into a gallop with Edge's guitar ringing out. So far, Adam Clayton is having a great day at the office with his bass lines. Simple statement of purpose: Love leaves you batter and bruised, but it's why we were born. Best candidate for a radio hit on the album.

Moment Of Surrender: Hovering organ, speaker-rattling bass, Bono doing his soul-singer wail. Seven minutes long. Gospel feel on the chorus with layered harmonies. A song about disconnection. He sees his reflection in an ATM machine, and doesn't recognize it. Hypnotic.

Unknown Caller: The vaguely stoned, exhausted narrator returns. Rumbling percussion . The wordless vocal. A horn fanfare. A heroic-sounding Edge guitar solo. And then just when I started to enjoy things, some silly lyrics: "Restart and reboot yourself." Oh, jeeez. A promising start that overstays its welcome.

I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Crazy Tonight: U2 could write this song in its sleep, and, in fact, it has on its last two albums. The most blatantly buoyant pop-sounding tune yet, with Steve Lillywhite handling production. Bono tries to convey breathless urgency with falsetto leaps, but the song feels forced and obvious. Bring back Eno.

Get On Your Boots: A curious choice for a first single, though I like the rhythm-heavy approach. "Meet me in the sound" is the relevant lyric. But the melody got dropped somewhere on the way to the final mix.

Stand Up Comedy: A more pronounced groove with Edge riffing heavy on guitar. U2's version of funk. Stop laughing. Gets more than a little self-referential when rock's very own Napoleon urges, "Stand up for rock stars, Napoleon in high heels." A sense of self-deprecating humor not heard since the Zoo TV tour?

Fez - Being Born: The title references the Moroccan city in which some of the album was recorded. An extended introduction as if we're listening to a city awakening from the next block, with Bono referencing Get On Your Boots when he intones, "Let me in the sound." Then a pulsing splash of electronic percussion, chiming Edge guitar, and a wordless Bono wail. Impressionistic seascape lyrics: "Atlantic sea, cut glass / African sun at last / Lights flash past / Like memories." A melody enunciated on keyboards finally is spread atop the rhythmic churn like a string of tiny white Christmas lights. This is Eno/Lanois at the top of their game.

White As Snow: Another low-key song with Bono musing in a relaxed voice. He's a soldier dying in Afghanistan and these are his final words. The melody is borrowed from the twelfth Century hymn Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel. A chilled stunner that probably should've ended the album.

Breathe: All coiled tension, relieved by some guitar power chords. Another would-be stadium-rocker, with the ham-fisted Lillywhite at the producer's wheel. Edge gets bombastic on guitar, tries to play the blues, and sounds clumsy doing it. Bono tries to channel Patti Smith and babbles on about "JuJu men".

Cedars Of Lebanon: Ending with a whimper. It feels like 3 a.m., and everyone is asleep, including most of the band. Bono's voice is muted, conversational. He's trying on his Sinatra In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning voice. He's also impersonating a journalist, a war correspondent looking for redemption where none is forthcoming. As unpromising as it sounds.