The commentators are saying that Ireland needs an Obama-like icon to lift us out of our current economic and social gloom; a figurehead to inspire celebration, to provide a pointer to a new and promising horizon. Well, wherever there’s a cause, there’s usually Bono and co. providing the timely, rousing, crowd-pleasing soundtrack. They’ve got the whole world in their hands, after all. Could U2’s 12th studio album be that flagship of hope, sailing us bravely away from these troubled waters?
Sadly, it just doesn’t sound that way. If anything, it’s as hesitant and directionless as the rest of us; in that sense, they’ve hit the zeitgeist square on the head. But, as an entity, No Line On The Horizon may be U2’s most disjointed album yet.
Perhaps too many songwriters and producers spoiled the broth (Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have their hands in practically everything here); maybe jumping from studio to far-flung studio got in the way of continuity; or it could be that the world and all its woes provided Bono with too many distractions from the day job. Whatever the reason, this plays like a record without a real master plan.
It certainly begins positively enough. The title track cries ‘we are back’ from the rooftops with its cinematic bravura, kitsch 1960s’ piano, rumbling bassline and its shoulder-shimmying, air-punching rhythm, which distantly recalls -The Fly’; if only this had been the last Bond theme. Better still is track two, -Magnificent’, an archetypal U2 thriller/stomper with one of the best riffs The Edge has produced in aeons, complete with Chris Rea-like guitar solo. It’s a mighty opening brace, but it’s also the point at which the plot starts to lose its way.
The effortful -Moment Of Surrender’, at over seven minutes long, is a strained ballad with gospel aspirations that suffers badly from delusions of grandeur and cod-religious preaching. The similarly grandiose -Unknown Caller’ also thuds along under swathes of worthy lyrical emptiness: ‘On the edge of the known universe where I wanted to be/ I had driven to the scene of the accident / And I sat there waiting for me’. Quite.
There’s momentary respite on the Steve Lillywhite-produced -I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’, a Joshua Tree-era standard where, despite his cringe-inducing falsetto, Bono gets almost charmingly self-deprecating: ‘The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear’. He repeats the trick on the otherwise banal -Stand Up Comedy’, with the line “Napoleon is in high heels/ Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas”.
But it’s the album’s latter half where the big ideas fail to reach constructive conclusions, and where production appears to plug the staggering dearth of melody. First off, the clumsy and hasty lead single -Get On Your Boots’ is easily amongst U2’s most forgettable moments. However, far more aggravating is the presumed notion that the wearisome, Eno-centric filler -FEZ – Being Born’ is somehow overtly experimental. It’s certainly spacey and dreamy but it’s completely without context on this album. And, with Bono’s relentless “ohs” becoming more emphatic and, as a consequence, less meaningful, it raises more awkward questions than it wants to ask. -White As Snow’ takes a traditional melody into pleasantly explorative territory, with some success; but -Breathe’, the other Lillywhite production on here, is a messy piece of stadium-rock melodrama, which only menaces the listener into indifference.
Finally, ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’, a semi-spoken, Lanois-produced mood piece with obliquely political aspirations, falls prey to some woeful rhyming-dictionary couplets – who will fail to wince each time they hear ‘Now I’ve got a head like a lit cigarette/ Unholy clouds reflecting in a minaret’? As an album closer, it leaves something of a sour taste.
There’s no doubting that U2 devotees will still lap this album up and that it’ll fly off supermarket shelves like freshly baked doughnuts. But after a four-year wait, is this really the best record the world’s biggest band can make? If No Line On The Horizon had been the -difficult’ follow-up to an NME-hyped band’s over-achieving debut, we’d be gleefully dismantling their atomic career and waiting for them to bomb. The truth is (and -Magnificent’ proves the will is still there), U2 need to take a “never mind the bollocks” approach and rediscover their knack for memorable, timeless classics. At least until then, there’s no end of filled stadiums on the horizon.