A fine view of the ‘Horizon’
U2, No Line on the Horizon (Interscope Records, 2009)
Let me tell you, internets, it’s not easy being a U2 fan. I know what you’re thinking, “But, Gena, hasn’t U2 been one of the world’s biggest bands for the past twenty-five years?” Yes, but the number of their detractors is equal, if not surpassing their fans, and they tend to be more vocal. According to their critics, U2 represents the worst of mediocre, overrated pop-rock. Fans such as myself have “drank the Kool-Aid,” apparently convincing ourselves that what we’re listening to is actually good, falling for their curious combination of spectacle and somewhat dubious humility. Shots of fans tearily reaching towards Bono like Christ returned from the dead during last year’s dazzling U2 3D concert film don’t help much, nor does the fact that they were the first and so far only band to have an iPod designed in honor of them, containing virtually every recording they ever made up to that point, save for the drunken, bitter mumblings of Adam Clayton in a Dublin pub shortly after he broke up with Naomi Campbell. A lot of my fellow insufferable music snobs like to claim the invention of the iPod has rung the death knell on quality music, and U2 happily cashing in on it is one more sign that they are a band created by, meant for and maintained by “The Man.”
The potshots at U2’s fans tend to be harsh, but I try not to take it personally. It is, after all, really hard to understand why some people like the things that they like. After all, I assume that people who listen to groups like Hinder and the Pussycat Dolls must have suffered some sort of traumatic brain injury at some point, and that fans of Fleet Foxes smell like marijuana and armpits. I’m sure I’m wrong in some cases (well, maybe not in the case of the Pussycat Dolls), but let’s be fair and agree that not all fans of U2 have the sense and taste God gave a box of shoes either. I have room in my heart for the groovy, soul and world music indie harmonies of TV on the Radio and epic crowd-pleasers like ‘Pride (in the Name of Love).’ U2 has held a place there since I was 15. I initially only knew them from a few videos on MTV, such as the aforementioned ‘Pride’ and ‘New Year’s Day.’ An older classmate of mine in a music appreciation class brought in The Joshua Tree one day, just before it exploded and became one of the essential albums of the 80s, and I was immediately taken by the despondency of ‘With or Without You,’ the free-spirited hopefulness of ‘In God’s Country,’ the filthy, sexy pounding of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky.’ Up to that point the coolest records I owned was a 45 of ‘Rock the Casbah’ and Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, everything else tended to be stuff like K-Tel’s Super Hits of 1986, featuring ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ and ‘Party All the Time.’ Purchasing my own copy of The Joshua Tree was when I truly became a lover of music, with what I’d like to believe is discerning taste, despite contrary opinions.
That was two albums away from the release with which many music snobs like to claim U2 lost their way, 1992’s Achtung Baby, a decidedly different, darker, more techno sound than they had ever tried before. Interestingly, it’s to this day my favorite album from them, if not my favorite album of all time. Though they haven’t topped themselves yet, U2 continues to efficiently chug along lo these many years in the business, the sole exception being 1997’s Pop, which even I don’t know what they hell they were trying to do there. A fine addition to the catalog is their latest release, No Line on the Horizon.
Let’s get one thing straight before I go on: all the rumors about how this was going to represent a new and innovative direction for the band are a bit inaccurate. Even without Bono’s distinctive crooning baritone/swooning falsetto, you will recognize this as a U2 album immediately. The Edge’s jangly guitar riffs, Adam Clayton’s rumbling bass, Larry Mullen Jr.’s subtle rhythms, it’s all there. The first single (and arguably the weakest track), ‘Get On Your Boots,’ reminds me of ‘Vertigo,’ the first single from 2005’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The title track (and arguably one of the strongest) reminds me of ‘The Fly,’ the first single from Achtung Baby. They’re not mining new territory so much as polishing and embellishing the core sound that their fans love. I suspect they know that after performing for 30 years they’re not likely to win any new fans, nor is anyone who made up their mind a long time ago not to like them going to change their minds, so they might as well keep trying to please the loyal fans they already have. In short, if you love U2, you will at least enjoy No Line on the Horizon; if you dislike them you’ll blow it off as more derivative crap from a band who stopped making good music roundabouts 1990 or so. Blah, blah, blah.
Without question the most memorable tracks are the title song, the lovely, low-key ‘White as Snow,’ which plays almost like a medieval ballad, and my personal favorite, ‘Magnificent,’ reminscent of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ and a driving, upbeat classic in the making. It’d be a grave mistake if they choose not to perform that one live on their upcoming tour, as it seems almost tailor-made for a crowd clapping, foot-stomping singalong. Their biggest risk is taken on the dreamlike ‘Fez-Being Born,’ which starts out a bit disjointed before settling into more familiar ground. Despite the generally hopeful sound of everything that came before it, the final track, ‘Cedars of Lebanon,’ ends on a melancholy, pessimistic note: “Choose your enemies carefully/cause they will define you/make them interesting/cause in some ways they will mind you/they’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends/gonna last with you longer than your friends.”
There are a couple weak spots, predominantly ‘Get On Your Boots,’ the seven minute plus long ‘Moment of Surrender,’ which is pretty but lays on the pathos a little too thick even for Bono and could have easily been cut in half, and the unremarkable ‘Stand Up Comedy,’ which just left me cold. All of these tracks could have been dropped and the album wouldn’t have suffered for it. Other tracks, like the soaring ‘Unknown Caller,’ however, are just getting better with repeated listenings, so it’s entirely possible they might as well. As much as I would like to tell all the U2 haters to move to the motherfucking left, I’m going to choose to ignore the snipes and content myself with a pretty damn good album from a band who’s always loved their listeners as much as we love them. I don’t think you could say the same for Hinder.