Spectrum Culture MARCH 1, 2009 - by Nathan Kamal


Such an iconography has been built around U2 that it can become difficult to remember that there's a band behind the anthems and wraparound sunglasses. Since 1984's The Unforgettable Fire, their best work has tended to be their least polemic, but it seems that since their "comeback" album All That You Can't Leave Behind, the band has struggled between the classic sound that defines them and a desire to expand beyond it. Fortunately, latest album No Line On The Horizon is U2's least self-conscious release in years and consequently one of the best.

Coming off the misstep of 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, No Line On The Horizon finds Bono and the bunch returning to the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and (as ever) massively benefiting from the gauzy, sweeping sound. From the opening hum of No Line On The Horizon on, the epic sound both the band and its producers are known for has rarely been so refined and yet so powerful. Every sound is both distinct and difficult to separate from the whole, in part due to the Edge's famously delayed guitar work; keyboards and synthesizers are also equally prominent this time around, creating a sonic atmosphere both delicate and thunderous.

The lead-off track is carried by a wordless vocal hook - truthfully, Bono's vocals are amazingly clear and emotive, even after all this time. The man may get older and more irritating, but it's difficult to deny that he's still got some rockin' pipes. More than that though, U2's pointed politics that give most detractors ample ammunition are minimised. Instead, there's a return to the impressionistic, sometimes character-driven sensations of their earlier albums: "She said 'time is irrelevant, it's not linear' / Then she put her tongue in my ear" is far from a rallying cry. On Magnificent, the band stutters around a guitar riff that's as memorable as anything they've previously done, Bono intoning a chorus that's half bile, half benediction: "Only love can leave such a mark / But only love, only love can heal such a scar." The keyboards are perhaps most prominent on I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, the intro and bridges consisting of beautiful ascending pianos, while the chorus is one of their most impassioned in years. Awkward title, sure, but I guess the band's penchant for increasingly long album titles is bleeding over to the songs.

The album's two high points notably share author credit with Eno and Lanois; Moment Of Surrender starts with a shimmering organ and slow drums, before exploding into a quiet hand clap and keyboard, only to share a quiet junkie story. Bono sounds truly and authentically desperate as he delivers lines like "I tied myself with wire / To let the horses run free / Playing with the fire / Until the fire played with me." It's not only the best track on the album, but it also has a pretty strong claim to being the strongest of U2's latter-day career. The other standout track, White As Snow, is poetically pastoral, but with a trembling darkness behind the words. Melodically based on a medieval hymn, the song bears a resemblance to The Boatman's Call-era Nick Cave, but only benefits from that.

Unfortunately, there are some duds. Lead-off single Get On Your Boots was ostensibly chosen on the merit of its rock quality - yes, the guitars are huge and the drums are fast, but it's as unremarkable as the rest of the album is inspired. It's certainly noteworthy that it also contains the most overtly politic message, even if it's a dismissal. A few others, like Breathe and Stand Up Comedy, try to stick to the "we're rockers" concept a little too faithfully; on the former, Bono sounds atypically breathless as he stumbles over "I wasn't gonna buy just anyone's cockatoo" and the Edge is largely confined to a fuzzy riff that doesn't do him any justice at all.

No Line On The Horizon is U2's twelfth album, and they've come a long way since the simplicity and noise of Boy. Through the years of flag-waving, cowboy hat-wearing, audience-grabbing and such, they've always seemed to have a need to prove themselves as something. Sometimes it's as the voice of an angry peace generation, sometimes as pop stars, sometimes anti-pop stars; the thing is, by this point they have nothing to prove and need to stop trying. It seems the best things come when they don't.