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“Hold the big revelations,” Bono warbles on U2’s latest single, the fun but overworked “Get On Your Boots.” And with this, the charismatic frontman offers an all-too-appropriate appraisal of “No Line on the Horizon,” the band’s highly anticipated twelfth full-length release—an album with a few solid rock cuts but no instant classics or spiritual transcendence.
The five-year buildup to “No Line” has been long and labored, including terminated sessions with Rick Rubin at Abbey Road Studios, an extended visit to Morocco, and the enlistment of longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as not only producers, but fellow songwriters. What makes this album so disappointing is that the past half-decade has ultimately yielded a cohesive and dense group of songs, but not an exciting record.
The churning title track opens the album with a catchy, upbeat riff over a wash of twinkling electricity, providing a level of intensity the subsequent tracks fail to maintain. The song explodes over pounding drums that grow more distant behind the whirling backdrop of fuzz. The lyrics, punctuated by Bono’s floating woah-oh harmonies, get sillier, hinting at the rest of the album’s lack of depth: “She said, ‘time is irrelevant, it’s not linear’ / Then she put her tongue in my ear.”
Attempts at musical experimentation—electronics, techno sampling, and global influences—have yielded U2’s best (“Achtung Baby”) and worst (“Zooropa”) efforts, and the results here are middling. Their only “experimental” album that can be called an unequivocal success was 1991’s “Achtung Baby”—and nothing on “No Line” is as rocking as “The Fly,” as unexpectedly joyful as “Ultraviolet,” or as beautifully distorted as “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” Here, the electronic ornamentation sounds rich and layered on some songs, but jumbled and confused on others.
One manifestation of this is found in the ambient intros that sound so disconnected from their respective songs. Some tracks, such as “Fez—Being Born,” recover from this, while others aren’t as fortunate. One such track, “Moment of Surrender,” is much too slow and labored to occupy its seven minute length; the drums sound overly monotonous and lifeless, and there’s an unnecessary, unbelievably boring guitar solo in the closing minutes. Bono yelps in an admirable attempt at soulfulness, but it sounds forced and disingenuous.
The grinding intro of “Get On Your Boots” is catchy, but gives way to awkwardly tossed off verses within a handclap-filled massacre of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” complete with puerile rhymes like “I got a submarine, you’ve got gasoline!” With several stilted shifts in tempo and wobbly Guns n’ Roses-esque guitar flourishes, U2 display their weakness for over-embellishment, foregoing the fun for a scatterbrained collage.
The lyrics certainly don’t compensate for these shortcomings, sometimes serving to preemptively bar songs from brilliance. Admittedly, U2 is famous for writing verses of the “uno-dos-tres-catorce” variety, but they’ve proven capable of penning lyrics that match the sweeping grandeur of their most epic singles or, alternately, create a stark and touching vulnerability—as seen in the humble musings of “Achtung Baby.” Many of the songs on “No Line” have compelling rhythms and development—take “Unknown Caller,” a long track employing recordings of birdsongs, chiming guitars, and shimmering organs. But electronic blips become self-parody when paired with lyrics about computers, and it’s beyond laughable to hear Bono and the Edge employ the inspirational “Force quit and move to trash” in an otherwise quality song. “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear,” Bono sings on another track, and it shows.
The best songs retain their spontaneity despite the layered production and forgettable lyrics. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” redeems its dopey title with swelling violins, a soaring chorus, and an impassioned falsetto turn from Bono. On the lively “Breathe”—a contender for the album’s best song—he spits the lyrics with so much snarling fervor that when he shouts “I found grace” in the song’s final lap, it’s wholeheartedly convincing.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album seems lost in a muddled haze, the result of Eno’s overstuffed production coupled with the band’s own overindulgence in their ambient inclinations and goofy lyrical tendencies. The addition of “No Line on the Horizon” to the band’s impressive and tremendously varied catalog surely reinforces their willingness to take risks, but some of their choices elude rather than elucidate. U2 may move in mysterious ways, but they’ll need a return to basics if they hope to recapture their former mastery.
—Staff writer Jessica R. Henderson can be reached at email@example.com.
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