No Line On The Horizon (2009)
No Line On the Horizon is such a frustrating experience. Not because it’s bad — it’s actually quite a bit better than a lot of people (well, critics, at least) seem to believe — but because it could have and should have been so much better. Maybe it was partially a matter of expectations. The press cycle preceding No Line On the Horizon was the first time I’d paid attention to such a thing leading up to a U2 album release, and as we get the first bits of it for this next album, I’m beginning to recognize the patterns. Someone promises it’s “as much of a left turn as Achtung Baby!”; Bono goes on about how “The Edge is on fire.” After a few weeks recording in a riad in Fez, Morocco, the band began going on and on about how experimental the new album would be, how they were picking up all this influence from the streets musicians and the Arabic scales they’d hear echoing in the markets. And, well, No Line on the Horizon is weirder than its two immediate predecessors, but it’s not as adventurous as we’d been lead to believe, and ultimately that proved to be its detriment.
Where U2’s previous stylistic change-ups had been severe to the point of “let’s just push this thing off the cliff and assume it’ll fly,” No Line on the Horizon seemed to hedge too much, and the result is that it never quite coheres even as all the songs do roughly make sense around each other. At one point the band had toyed with the idea of releasing two EPs entitled Daylight and Darkness, and you get the sense that they sort of did that anyway. The first four tracks of No Line on the Horizon work well together, the last four work well together, those two sets more or less make sense together, and then there’s this three song run in the middle that destabilizes the core of the whole thing and pretty much demolishes any chance of the album having a consistent flow or character.
Two of these — “Stand Up Comedy” and “Get On Your Boots” — actually had roots in those Morocco sessions, but make no sense on the album. The former isn’t terrible but was subjected to dozens of different versions, and the hodgepodge of a final cut still shows it. “Get On Your Boots,” on the other hand, was the lead single that marred the whole experience of No Line On the Horizon, a complete mess of a song whose driving riff seemed both a crass attempt at another “Vertigo”-level rock hit as well as a foreboding signal that each subsequent U2 album will now be obligated to have such a track. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” isn’t as demoralizing, but it clearly has no business being next to these other songs and begins to feel like another cynical attempt at a hit as well. Those latter two tracks received Fish Out of Water remixes that essentially did away with their instrumentation and stuck Bono’s vocal melody over entirely different backing tracks that, though synthier than most of No Line On the Horizon, would have fit more logically into the album. At any rate, they were infinitely better.
Elsewhere, the supposed experimentation is evident, but you can’t help but wish the band had pushed further. The album does have some great moments though. Eno played a large role in writing and arranging this album, and nowhere is his presence felt more than on the dark, churning “Fez -– Being Born,” one of the highlights here that makes me wish we had gotten an album full of this kind of stuff.
“White As Snow” suggests that once U2 gets the urge to maintain their world-conqueror status out of their system, they could make a convincing go at a spectral folk turn for a late-career mortality meditation. Stuck towards the end is “Breathe,” a moment where U2 write a classic U2 song in a way we haven’t quite heard before. It’s bittersweet to hear this material this good still fall short of the promise the album seemed to hold before its release, especially when there are songs out there that could’ve brought it closer something of a concerted whole. The eerie then triumphant “Soon” (also known as “Kingdom” or “Kingdom of Your Love”), a song the band used as entrance music during the U2 360 tour, and “Every Breaking Wave” seem as if they could have filled out that middle section properly. The latter’s only appeared in a stripped down live version, but it’s one of the better latter day U2 songs lyrically and melodically. No Line On the Horizon had disappointing sales by U2 standards. It remains to be seen what effect that will have on this next album — whether they’ll continue pulling their punches, or whether they’ll learn to go all-in again.