U2 has been a band for a very long time. Slowly but surely, they've become the new Rolling Stones - a sonic empire, filled with sights, sounds and flavors for all tastes, whose speeding bullet-train image builds upon itself again and again on a seemingly endless track into the future.
With their latest outing, the little band of mates from the Emerald Isle have released an effort that both confuses and delights. No Line On The Horizon, U2's 12th studio album in 28 years (yet only the 3rd this decade), finds them once again at a new peak of competence and confidence. Not since their phenomenal 1991 pop-rock bombshell, Achtung, Baby!, have U2 boasted with such angst, enthusiasm and optimism.
The opening title track hits a reset button on your ears by displaying a sonic experience not unfamiliar but still alien to U2 fans. The slate, having been wiped clean, is set for a track that sounds like the musical equivalent of a brilliant statue that has lain dormant in a block of marble for years until it was finally carved out by the only artist who could ever bring it to life. "Magnificent" is the kind of song we have always expected and wanted from this band. "Only love can leave such a mark," croons Bono in a romantic howl of a higher caliber than we've heard from him since the '90s, "...but only love can heal such a scar." It's an instant classic.
Without being as timeless and perfect, "Moment of Surrender" (whose lyrics seem to express the majesty within the act of surrender to a higher power) is this album's "One"; a down-tempo track both beautiful and melodic, yet brooding, bluesy, and passionate. It stands out undeniably amongst its peers and deserves it's spot in the first three tracks of the album. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is a poppy, bright and upbeat mid-tempo tune with a driving beat that leads to a predictable "U2-ish" chorus, but is definitely catchy and never without its charm. The first single from the album, "Get On Your Boots" is a fuzz-boxed rocker with an electrified flamenco chorus, and has met with less-than-favorable reviews from almost everyone I've talked with about it... but I still enjoy it! It stands alone as the only piece of overt-but-meaningless sugar-rock supplanted firmly in the middle of the album purely as a fun song.
But it's the quirky, competent and inspired composition, "Stand Up Comedy", which strikes at the heart of what every U2 fan has been waiting for with this new album. With some of Bono's better lyrics to date, ("I gotta stand up to ego but my ego’s not really the enemy / It’s like a small child crossing an eight lane highway on a voyage of discovery" and "God is love and love is evolution's very best day"), "Stand Up Comedy" does not disappoint.
As the album begins to wrap things up, the listener is slammed with one of the cooler songs in the band's entire library. "Breathe" is almost entirely unlike anything we've ever heard from U2, and it's a pleasure! Bono raps his lyrics as two characters - a door-to-door evangelical and his cynical prey. "Coming from a long line of traveling salespeople on my mother's side, I wasn't gonna buy just anyone's cockatoo..." the narrator tells us before informing the man at his door that: "there's nothing you have that I need" and further declaring, "I can breathe." For my money, there has never been a more beauteous and enjoyable song about finding grace where it isn't being sold. "We are people borne of sound/The songs are in our eyes/Gonna wear them like a crown".
Then again, the album does have some valleys in between all these peaks. "Unknown Caller", although not a complete disappointment, simply bores me with a monotone, irregular chorus and lyrics that sound as if a computer program had written them. Even if I'm missing the message of this song, the performance sure didn't save it for me. "FEZ-Being Born" (although a great song) is a more sonic experience, both lyrically-minimal (or lazy) and easily skipped, and "White As Snow" is just a sleepy, little ballad - nothing much happening there. But the closing track, "Cedars of Lebanon" is very reminiscent of the experimental sounds the band had tinkered with in the '80s and early '90s (with N.L.O.T.H. producers, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite), and is a dark and serious ode to war and poverty through the eyes of a foreign news corespondent - a very cool ending to a great album.
No Line On The Horizon is one of U2's best albums simply because it feels as if they've gotten a certain groove back that had been missing for over a decade. If you're a fan, you'll love this album. If you're not, you'll still enjoy about half the songs.
Although the future is curious for U2, one thing does seem certain - they have absolutely no intention of ever stopping; they will continue to progress and evolve as a band as as a musical statement on the face of Rock & Roll. They may have been slowing down in their aged-rocker years (all members fast-approaching 50), but it's easy to tell they want to ride this train until the very end. And if the Stones are still doing it, who knows how long U2 can go?
(P.S. - In case you missed it, U2 was on The Late Show with David Letterman all last week - 5 days of performances and a few goofy skits. Check it out here.)