Revisiting Disguised As Radicalism.

U2's No Line On The Horizon.

It goes without saying I love U2 and am aware that much of their music takes repeated listens to really get the gist of what they're doing. Certainly Achtung, Baby was like that and rewarded in spades all the time it took to get into it. One of the greatest records I've ever heard and one of the most important records of my life.

That said, I have listened to No Line On The Horizon about twelve times now all the way through, and while much of it has grown on me, as all their stuff does, it is not one of their stronger collections. By this point in the process, Achtung, Baby was stuck in my head and would stay there forever, changing the way I thought about most everything. That's the one where they really did do something different, reinvented themselves, broke the rules and dreamt it all up again, and still, amazingly, kept their audience and even expanded it. It is a rare achievement for any band. I can only think of The Beatles in 1967, The Who in 1971 and Led Zeppelin in 1973 pulling off the same accomplishment.

I keep referring to Achtung, Baby because it is the album this one wants most to be like. The sounds, the dark mood and themes of the music and lyrics, the sequencing of the songs, the overall pervading statement of "We're changing and developing and experimenting!" But the fact is what U2 is doing here is really just revisiting past glory. Which would be fine if the SONGS were stronger. Don't get me wrong, they're good songs, some very good, but nothing here is great. Nothing here stands with the best of U2.

The first three are a direct recapitulation of Achtung’s opening format. "No Line On The Horizon" is a noisy shocker, a combination of "Zoo Station" and "The Fly." And it's cool, but it's nothing new, not as good as either of those classics, and it features the most hysterically off kilter vocal performance of Bono's career. He shouts the whole song in a desperate upper register that makes him sound almost afraid. And that's one thing I've never heard him sound. It's weird. Maybe it's an attempt to shock us. I don't come away shocked though. Just a bit confused as to what he's going for. In the past, he would have toned it down a bit in spots, made it more diverse and dynamic. It comes off a one dimensional introduction, trying too hard.

"Magnificent" is a pale rewrite of "Even Better Than The Real Thing" and retraces familiar themes which have been covered better and to more stirring effect before. It strains for MAJOR STATEMENT status but fails to get there. No doubt, it will rock everyone in concert, but won't be remembered the next morning the way "Beautiful Day" or "Elevation" are.

The beautiful and moving "Moment Of Surrender," perhaps the album's best song, holds the three spot here because it echoes U2's greatest single work, "One." Only this time, it's twice the length and half the invention. An elongated gospel tune, and a good one at that, it too features a desperate, over-sung vocal from Bono. He's straining for very high notes here, and there is a ragged, overwrought passion to the singing, but again, it comes off forced, like he's just trying too hard. Less would be far more here. Compare the vocal on this to the vocal on "One" and you'll hear what I'm talking about. There's no real nuance in the new performance. It's got a real desperation but sounds more like someone struggling to sing than someone struggling to find God and singing about it. I'm not happy with the overall way Bono's voice sounds either, it's thin and harsh throughout, not recorded or mixed well or carefully enough. Amazingly, the same can be said for the guitar and the drums.

Only Adam Clayton's bass has any fatness or real sonic depth to it. Which is a shame, because Larry is playing especially well here. But he always does.

The best of U2's music and the sound of Bono's voice has always been BEAUTIFUL on record, no matter what the subject they're tackling. The Edge's guitar sounds are crystalline and ethereal, creating an otherworldly soundscape for Bono to do his magical thing in. It's one of the most blessed combinations in Pop Music. But this time out, neither ingredient has been rendered or captured with much attention to the beauty of it. The whole seems harsher to the ear, but not in the way that Achtung, Baby was. Because again, that album is incredibly beautiful sounding. That's how they got away with such a shift in what they were doing. This time, it sounds like the harshness is not the vehicle to the message, but the message itself. The world is far too harsh for U2 to not be beautiful every time out. It feels too much like they’re saying, shouting, “Hey, we’re off experimenting again, we’re radical! Just listen. We’re as radical as Radiohead! Really!!”

If the songs were there, that would be fine with me. But they're not.

My favorite is next, the interesting and mysterious "Unknown Caller." I don't know what it's about, I’m guessing The Good Lord, and why wouldn’t it be, Bono’s favorite subject and all, but I like the musical construction and the BrianEno/Talking Heads monotonic chanting of the chorus. This one would have been the best song on Zooropa and it belongs there, in between “Numb” and "Lemon."

Things take a turn for the better on the next three tunes, all up-tempo and brash, verve and melody, some good old pop tunes, which there is always no shortage of need for. This trio constitutes the “goodtime middle section” of the album, and good thing. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Crazy Tonight" combines classic Edge arpeggios with a clever lyric about life, sex and politics, and the need for everyday people to just let it all hang out and have a GOOD TIME. Nothing wrong with that, and you can bet Bono is going to play this one to the hilt in concert. Some good lyrics here, most notably "Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot." No coincidence that the bridge features Bono singing "Baby, baby, baby..." twice, a direct nod to Achtung's other masterpiece, "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)."

The most daring song on the album is "Get On Your Boots." Not nearly as good as "Vertigo" or "Elevation," it's still pretty good, and stands as the one song where they have actually moved a little farther down the road from their hallowed past. It's fun, funky, sexy, and kinda cool. But it ain't great, just pretty good. And with expectations as high as they are, given the last two grand slams of All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, pretty good just doesn't cut it anymore with these guys. If U2 were to be compared to The Beatles, which they want to be, and let's not deny it, this, their 12th proper studio album, would line up with ABBEY ROAD. Now it's not fair to compare anything to that monster, but the last two U2 albums are argument enough that the boys belong in such rarified company, so that's why I bring it up. But there's no development here that lends itself to such a ridiculous comparison. So forget I even did. But that's where I place these guys. It's tough to be the best, the biggest band in the world, it's tough to be The Yankees of Rock. You're just expected to WIN all the time, every time out. U2 is still winning, just not the world series this year.

"Stand Up Comedy" is the best of the three, with a joyously rocking riff, and a straight from the pulpit refrain of "Come on ye people, stand up for your love!!" It will play well live, which most of these songs will, that's the point after all, what with all the talk of taking it back to the stadiums this year, and good luck with that, I say. Aim high, Bono, aim high! The world needs you now more than ever.

And then it's back into the darkness on the edge of town. You can keep “Fez - Being Born.” It’s something that belongs on the Passengers album and reminds you of the few times U2 purposely lets themselves become pompous and pretentious. “Elvis Presley and America” or the stuff from the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack comes to mind. Again, not bad, just not good enough.

“White As Snow” tells you it’s pretty, but it doesn’t ever really show you until the last three lines, which is a little late. To think this is the best emotional ballad the guys could come up with is confusing to me. I say, if it’s not as good as “Running To Stand Still” or Zooropa’s “Stay,” write another one quick. Of course, it does grow on you and reveals a mature expression of longing on Bono's part, who continues to come up with interesting and candid lyrics. In fact, it should be mentioned that one of his most moving phrases appears on this album, in "Moment Of Surrender." The image of a "vision of invisibility" appearing to the singer is certainly one of the most beautiful poetic conveyances of God I've ever heard.

“Breathe” is epic U2 which also gets better and better with each listen. It doesn't ultimately scale the heights of their best work, but would easily have been the best song on POP, just as "Unknown Caller" would have taken Zooropa to another level. And “Cedars Of Lebanon” ends the party, mostly political, somewhat personal, with the feeling of an open-ended question. Where do we go from here? The conclusion is uncertainty, which certainly fits the shape right now. So maybe the new U2 album is better than I think, and acutely reflective of the world at this moment. Unstable, chaotic, desperate, harshly leaning toward something unknown but falling back on a nagging awareness of past triumphs; maneuvering unsteadily in the middle of a drastic shift, not without hope for the future, but clearly unsure of itself. Great artists reflect the world. And God knows U2 are just that.
 Maybe I’m just a little sad and afraid of what they are reflecting. Here's hoping it’s all a bit brighter the next time round.