U2 Review: No Line (Change?) on the Horizon

Amazon-iTunes_packshot2In an interview at the start of this year, U2 announced their return to the rock arena by saying that if they got No Line on the Horizon right, then 2009 would be theirs. After listening to the new album by the Biggest Band in the World, the likes of Coldplay and Radiohead have – sadly – nothing to worry about.

U2 have always been about passion; passion for people, passion for causes, passion for music. Even when their vision was wayward and their tunes overblown, the belief and energy behind the band was enough to raise their output above mediocrity. No Line on the Horizon lacks anything that could pass as genuine passion and quickly descends into pastiche and parody, and not in the self-deprecating, ironic way which has been the case in the past.

The Irish rockers attempt to make a U2-by-numbers record with their 12th studio album but totally get their sums wrong. All the components are here; the chiming guitars, the heartfelt vocals, the cod-philosophical lyrical content, but it sounds as though each has been programmed into a computer and selected at random. It’s a choppy, ill-paced effort which lacks any genuine emotion and as a result is a huge disappointment.

The album begins with the title track, a reheated Kings of Leon B-side which is bereft of the impact of previous barn-storming openers like Where the Streets Have No Name or Vertigo. It starts encouragingly but gets stuck in a recurring riff which holds the song captive, preventing it from becoming a fully-fledged tune. At least it sounds contemporary.

Next up is Magnificent, which isn’t but at least it’s on the right path. U2 dig deep into their own back catalogue to create a competent and mature update of their early 1980’s material. The Edge’s guitar sounds full of adolescent fire as it chops through the verse and spirals energetically during the chorus while Bono wails over the squall. It’s a song which wouldn’t sound out of place on Boy or October but from a band which prides itself on pushing boundaries, shouldn’t we expect a little more than warmed-through nostalgia?

Moment of Surrender is aptly-tilted as it appears that this is the point when U2 decide they can’t be bothered any more. Borrowing Noel Gallagher’s “if it rhymes, then it’ll do” ethos from the mid-90s, Bono rattles off a number of badly-conceived non-sequiturs over an anorexic backing track. It sounds like it wants to be one of the band’s heart-rending anthems but it lacks any real conviction and substance.

Unknown Caller follows; a mish-mash which sounds as though U2 are trying to rope together all the threads of their previous successes but ultimately end up tying themselves up in knots. It’s a clumsy and shallow parody with the ubiquitous vocal acrobatics, soaring guitars and lyrical imagery but without any soul.

I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight as a title already suffers from unintentionally echoing Spinal Tap’s Tonight I’m Going to Rock You Tonight and unfortunately, this moment of knowing amusement is about as good as it gets. It sounds like one of those insipid chart-toppers from Rod Stewart or Tina Turner from the time when U2 were actually edgy and on the brink of eclipsing the dinosaurs of rock back in 1987.

Get On Your Boots, the first single off the album, promises redemption by opening with some down and dirty guitars with Bono free-styling over the top but all credibility is lost when the singer camps it up with a line about “sexy boots”. The song lacks a decent chorus when a booming refrain would have drowned out that heinous miscalculation. Bono keeps going on about “I don’t want to hear about wars between nations” in an attempt to convince us that he’s now concentrating on being a rock star rather than a peace envoy but if this is the best they can come up with, the band may be better served by letting the singer follow his quest to save the world while they go off and redecorate their castles.

Again, Stand Up Comedy starts encouragingly with a grungey riff which stirs memories of Jimmy Page and, more recently John Squire’s post-Stone Roses work, and manages to maintain its momentum throughout to deliver one of the album’s few highlights. It isn’t rocket science but at least it’s a genuine song with a bit of gumption behind it.

Fez – Born Again has the potential to be one of those soaring epics which set U2 apart from other rock behemoths but it never really gets going and once more, it is a song that lacks heart. For all its echoed, distant voices and mystical, swirling guitars, it never reaches the heights of similar experiments which graced The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree.

White as Snow passes almost unnoticed, a classic case of album filler which might have been found on Neil Young’s cutting room floor. It neither enhances nor further condemns those songs around it.

Breathe has been tipped by many critics to be this album’s One. Okay, if you had to pick one song from every U2 record to compare with one of their classics, then fair enough but in reality this song is not in the same league as Achtung Baby’s stand-out track. With Bono rattling off stream-of-consciousness social commentary while the band plods along underneath, it would, at best, tower above the majority of Rattle and Hum’s excessive Americana but it still lacks subtlety. It would have provided the album with an adequate closing track but U2 perversely decide to close with the soporific Cedars of Lebanon, an apparent concession to Bono’s eternal need to include a serious, political song at every opportunity.

No Line on the Horizon is disappointing because after rediscovering their form with All You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000 and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it seems that U2 have run out of ideas as to how they can move forward and remain relevant. One wonders from the majority of this record whether they have the desire to even try.

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