Album Review: 'No Line on the Horizon' by U2

Thematically, "No Line on the Horizon" is about love, war, redemption, religion -- and the ridiculousness of being Bono.
Thematically, "No Line on the Horizon" is about love, war, redemption, religion -- and the ridiculousness of being Bono. (By Dave Hogan -- Getty Images)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"I was born to sing for you," Bono intones on "Magnificent," one of the standout songs on U2's at-times-magnificent new album, "No Line on the Horizon." "I didn't have a choice but to lift you up."

Oh, stop rolling your eyes.

In considering U2's music, it's important to remember that there are two Bonos. There's the soul-searching poet-singer who is forever fascinated with love, salvation and the human condition. And there's the self-appointed, self-righteous soapbox-mounting global savior.

Although the latter Bono is seemingly well-intentioned, he can be kind of insufferable; as a result, it's becoming increasingly difficult to hear U2's music without filtering it through your feelings about the other Bono, that strident, sanctimonious swirl of idealism, agenda and ego. And yes, the two Bonos are sometimes one -- but they're almost always conflated, making the singer the Sean Penn of rock-and-roll.

As it turns out, his band is still worth hearing on occasion, if you can set aside that filter.

Streaming this week on U2's MySpace page and scheduled for release March 3, U2's latest studio album is (mostly) a winning set whose centerpiece lyric can be found on "Get on Your Boots," the slashing, buzzing, bad choice for a lead single in which Bono sings: "Let me in the sound/Let me in the sound/Meet me in the sound."

For the album is more of a textural triumph than anything, with the Dublin quartet reuniting with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, with whom they've had a little bit of success ("The Unforgettable Fire," "The Joshua Tree," "Achtung Baby") to craft a thickly layered soundscape in which the overall feel of the music is more important than Bono's words themselves. Which is why the band scrapped its early sessions with super-producer/song doctor Rick Rubin, who tends to stress melody, musicianship and lyrical construction and intent; this album is more about atmospherics and rhythms than standard songcraft. That's true even melodically, as some of the album's tunes, including "Get on Your Boots," feature fairly weak melodies.

Thematically, "No Line on the Horizon" is about love and war, about feeling disconnected and discombobulated, and about redemption, religion and the ridiculousness of being Bono. Indeed, on "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," a warmed-over arena-rocker from the band that perfected the rafter-reaching form, Bono sings that "the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear." And in "Stand Up Comedy," over a heavy guitar riff and lumbering, pseudo-funk groove, Bono takes a self-deprecating swipe at his somewhat diminutive self, singing: "Stand up to rock stars/Napoleon is in high heels/Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas." (Glad to know he's in on the joke.)

The standouts, though, are the songs with the more textured and adventurous music and arrangements, such as "Magnificent," which opens with a growling guitar riff, pulsating electro-beat and some synth flourishes before the Edge's chiming guitar and Bono's soaring voice ring out and Larry Mullen's steady, whip-sharp drumming transforms the rhythm into something truly invigorating.

"Moment of Surrender" is another highlight, an entrancing seven-minute epic anchored by a video-game bass line and a steady drum pattern accented by twitchy, rhythmic sound effects and lifted by cello, organ, a few bluesy guitar licks and Bono's soulful wailing as he plays the role of lost soul. The vocal harmonies on the choruses sound like something out of a church in some distant, dystopian world; the woozy, slightly detuned piano adds to that impression, even if it's a Coldplay trick. (Not that U2 shouldn't be able to borrow from a band that's taken so liberally from U2, even enlisting Eno to produce its most recent album.)

In "Unknown Caller," Arcade Fire seems to be the lender on both the chanted, multi-voice chorus ("Go! Shout it out! Rise up!") and the bridge, what with its pipe organ, horns and xylophone/glockenspiel accents. The somewhat obtuse song opens with the sound of chirping birds, includes a Middle Eastern flourish, some wordless vocals and also one lyric that threatens to ruin the whole enterprise: "Restart and reboot yourself/You're free to go."

Bono isn't exactly in peak poetic form throughout the album. For every sharply written song, a la the contemplative "White as Snow" -- written in the voice of a dying soldier to the melody from "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" -- there's a loudly barking dog, such as the distorted, driving garage-rock title track that opens the album and the lead single, "Get On Your Boots," which sounds like a "Pop" B-side. At its worst, "No Line on the Horizon" sounds like a collection of songs scrapped during earlier album sessions.

But at its best, it's the sound of a band pushing itself forward, figuring out a way to remain relevant while its frontman soap-boxes and saves the world.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Moment of Surrender," "Magnificent," "White as Snow"

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