MR|Review – U2, "No Line on the Horizon"

“No Line on the Horizon” realizes a nearly-complete synthesis of “The Unforgettable Fire”’s aching, open-skied soundscapes and the amped-up, cut & pasted “…Atomic Bomb.”

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Walking a middle line critically, I find “No Line…” to be a good album both in context of the band’s discography, and the current state of rock music. It hits the right touchstones and pushes some boundaries, though individual listeners seem to be hearing more of either one or the other.

The opening title track matches an ominous “Achtung”-ish verse with a neo-classical-U2 chorus organically, sounding vastly better than it looks on paper. “Magnificent” succeeds almost in spite of demo-level lyrics and melody – a bit more revision would have gone a long way – yet this is the familiar story of much of U2’s best work. Producer Brian Eno’s famous preference for early takes and spontaneous performances shines through, and generally works, the fact that it’s been five years since U2’s last album notwithstanding.

To the record’s vast credit, seven of the eleven songs have lodged in my mind for whole days in the week or so since I picked it up. Nothing galvanizes a universal moment quite like “Beautiful Day” did; nothing tries; “No Line…” generates its glimmers of infinity in the particulars. “Moment of Surrender” finds its connection standing at the ATM, “I’ll Go Crazy…” in self-deprecation, and the impeccable “Breathe” in simply surviving from one second to the next.

I fully expect these songs to gel further on tour, in the tradition of “Bad,” “A Sort of Homecoming,” “In A Little While,” and “New York.” “No Line…” isn’t as self-contained as the band’s essential “Achtung Baby,” with its de- and re-constructed edgy pop, or the eternal anthems of “The Joshua Tree.” It wrestles with uncertainty. It swaggers (“Get On Your Boots”) and stretches (“Unknown Caller”) and asks if that’s what we want from U2 in 2009.
Can we stand it?

Bono shapes insights like “The stone was semi-precious/We were barely conscious/Two souls too smart to be in the realm of certainty/Even on our wedding day,” vivid images (“She said ‘Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear’/Then she put her tongue in my ear”) then climbs up to the pulpit crying “Soul rockin’ people on and on/C’mon ye people/We’re made of stars… Stand up for your love” – do we need him to choose? Contradiction, imperfection; forces in a tension that, for the moment, produce magic.
I was prepared to love this record and, accordingly, bought it on vinyl. It was the right choice; songs that variously soar, burn, and pummel are predictably over-compressed on CD and digital.

“No Line on the Horizon” is a rewarding listen, becoming more substantial with time. It sits comfortably with “War,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” “Pop,” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” in U2’s second tier of studio efforts; perhaps, rather than the gushing of fans and griping of haters, the range of critical responses is a solid indicator of U2’s improbable relevance.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.