No Line on the Horizon
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2009, Volume 16, #10
Written by John Metzger
Mon October 19, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
With each passing album, it has become increasingly apparent that, when all is said and done, U2 likely will be remembered as the last truly great band to emerge from the rock ’n‘ roll scene. No Line on the Horizon, the outfit’s latest effort, also adds further proof to the argument that U2 deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Not only has the outfit maintained its artistic integrity for nearly three decades, but it also has become such a massive, commercial juggernaut that it now stands, perhaps, as the industry’s last, remaining hope for survival.
U2’s formative moments occurred at a critical juncture in music history. At the time, record labels still viewed their caches of artists as investments. These days, however, they turn their stars into commodities, thereby eroding their ability to evolve into durable, long-term acts. There is no reward anymore for constantly breaking down boundaries and challenging the established disposition of popular culture. Instead, the game has become much simpler: A band must find its niche and remain firmly entrenched within it, at least until its sales plummet to the point where it is released from its contract and allowed to flounder on its own.
Right from the start, U2 marched to the beat of its own drum. Although it clearly drew inspiration from outfits like The Clash, The Who, David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground, U2 also steadfastly refused to remain in the shadows of its heroes. Instead, the group took every opportunity to stake out its own terrain, and each move that it made was so successful that it eventually forced the rest of the industry to fall into line behind it. U2’s string of blockbuster successes in the 1980s — War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree — were the keys to everything. These three albums made it possible for the ensemble to continue to follow the lead of its predecessors by taking risks rather than fall prey to the current climate that has crushed other promising ensembles.
Over the years, there is no doubt that U2 has taken plenty of cues from the ever-changing music market. However, rather than trying to assimilate itself into a scene to which it didn’t belong, the band instead co-opted whatever it needed to push its work forward. In the process, U2 has expanded its audience without alienating the majority of its base of fans. There are strands within each of U2’s efforts that retain connections to its past. Yet, the ensemble also has never wavered from its goal of looking toward the future.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about U2 is that some how, some way, it has managed to avoid making two albums that share a personality. Instead of repeatedly walking across the same, familiar ground, rather than remaining tethered to ideas that previously had worked well, U2 has been constantly redefining and re-framing its sound. Even its least adventurous and most accessible albums — Rattle & Hum, All that You Can’t Leave Behind, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb — were formed from different sets of materials.
When it tapped into the resurgence of garage-rock on its 2004 endeavor How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it appeared that perhaps U2 was beginning to run out of steam. For the first time, it looked as if the band was chasing after a movement rather than leading the charge itself. In hindsight, the song cycle undeniably was a transitional affair, but instead of signaling the group’s downfall, it sparked another burst of creativity. With its new album No Line on the Horizon, U2 once again has clawed its way back to the top of the heap by refusing to relinquish its artistic relevance, let alone its hold over the charts.
In the past decade, U2 has spent a lot of time examining the arc of its career. The band still commanded the kinds of crowds that forced it to perform in stadiums and arenas, but everything from its stage show to its musical arrangements was constructed around the notion of getting back to its roots. In the process, the outfit dusted off some of its older songs, and it reissued the entirety of its back catalogue. It was within this air of reflection that No Line on the Horizon was born.
In effect, No Line on the Horizon is a summation of all of the places that U2 has been over the course of the past three decades. The garage-rock intensity of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb provides fodder for Get on Your Boots. Within Magnificent and Fez — Being Born, the youthful exuberance and intensity of the sessions for October and Boy are doused in the ambient effects of Achtung Baby. On I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, the ebullient, pop-oriented inflections of All That You Can’t Leave Behind are fitted with the types of production flourishes that allow the tune to merge seamlessly into its surroundings.
At the same time, No Line on the Horizon also is the most Beatle-esque effort in U2’s canon. Where many outfits might have pushed their music back to the 1960s, U2 had the temerity and the maturity to pull the Fab Four into the present. Consequently, the outfit is able to pay tribute to The Beatles without being sucked into the swirling vortex of its biggest influence’s legacy.
As easy as it is to see these connections lurking here and there throughout No Line on the Horizon, it also is clear that U2 didn’t just recycle a bunch of old ideas and call it a day. Although it completely disassembled its past, the band also soldered the pieces back together again in ways that allowed more room for it to express itself in a completely different fashion. Worldly rhythms, skittering electronic touches, and icy synthesizers line the title track, which opens the endeavor, setting the mood for everything that follows. In addition, where Bono’s vocals and lyrics typically have been the glue that binds the songs together, this time, The Edge’s guitar solos and accompaniments lead the charge. In the end, the mood that is created is unlike any that has ever graced a U2 album before.
If there are any lingering doubts about the state of U2 — and at this point, there shouldn’t be — one should look no further than the lengthy introductions to songs like Moment of Surrender and Unknown Caller, which unfurl quite naturally, at an unhurried pace. These alluring presentations exude confidence, and they are a sign of a band that is completely within its zone. Throughout No Line on the Horizon, U2 remains in touch with the universe at large as the musicians allow their bodies to become vessels through which the music can flow. For certain, it is an outing that will challenge fans, but as always, U2 deftly drops points of easy access into the environments it is exploring. Astoundingly, after scattering 12 studio albums over a span of nearly 30 years, U2 is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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