Let’s be clear. If you don’t like U2, this album will not make you change your mind. With No Line On the Horizon, the three-decades-old Irish quatuor, definitely comes back to their senses—a slow recovery initiated more than nine years ago. In fact, far from being an “eclectic disaster,” No Line is U2’s best album since the 1990s. In fact, probably the best since Achtung Baby. It has enough of U2’s arrogance to bear their trademark, enough of U2’s inner strength to be listened to, and enough of U2’s unusual vision to be optimistically relevant, for that is what is always at stake with the Irish band. “They’re being cautiously optimistic these days. But really, have they ever been anything else? That’s something they’ll always carry, that’s their trademark. That’s why everyone still listens to them—and that’s why they always will.” And so are we given, among others, “Magnificent,” “an instant U2 anthem”
What‘s Wrong with the Critics
Of course, you will always find some cynical critics all too ready to bring down with them and their cultural death-wish the least second of proper lyrical musing. Some have said that in No Line, all you get is U2. Don’t expect any surprises. Nothing fancy, nothing different, nothing exceptional. It’s only U2. If you were expecting a musical revolution, a life-changing apparition, forget it. So, it’s a U2 album, and all we get is U2. Well, I guess that’s the point!
Others have said that Bono’s bothersome presence on the humanitarian frontline (and more) transformed U2 into his own musical militant platform, and that it is impossible to hear U2 performing without some of Bono’s activist speeches. Political U2? Only if you have a personal grudge against Bono. And only if you don’t really care finding out what apparently went wrong with these guys. There’s no denying that Bono has been everywhere, even places he obviously does not belong. Is Bono too much? At times it certainly looks like it. Let’s face it. But this is not about Bono, thank the Irish muse! If he’s “tired of Bono, and Bono is him,” some of us feel like it too. But guess what? No Line is not a Bono album! So maybe people have a bias against U2 because of Bono. It is actually not a surprise. In an age of cynicism, nobody is willing to recognize that some people still do what they believe and believe what they do. Not everybody is an expert at double talk, even in the entertainment business. And not everybody is coward enough to live blindly. This is difficult to accept, but so it is, even if we cannot relate to everything they say and believe.
Is U2 on the verge of being overwhelmed by Bono? No danger. U2 is Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. And trust me, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton have the edge … because they are as aware as Bono and The Edge that they are individuals, sure, but they are U2, and U2 is them. Even The Edge is aware that U2 and U2 only holds them together. So, be reassured, U2 is not Bono. Moreover, even if Bono was this self-appointed, self-righteous guy that he is made out to be, this would not be U2. U2 is not Bono … what a relief! And you can count on Clayton and Mullen to remind us all of that. To quote Spin: “Sick of Bono? Maybe. Sick of U2? Not yet.” No, not yet.
Others have said that U2’s status allows them to release pretty much whatever they want, or quite, almost comparing No Line to the commercial disaster of Pop. Very well, that might be. But of course that is totally irrelevant. Judging a band’s project in light of its relative failure is to say nothing or so. Moreover we would have to first defend that No Line is a failure while being no.1 in 30 countries. And in this precise case, it could be true only if Pop was a musical and U2esque failure—a conclusion I am personally ready to challenge. Again, has U2 just sold out its spirit to the spirit of the age? Is this alleged sloppy work the fruit of their lazy carelessness? I doubt it. If there is a certain initial uneasiness about No Line, it certainly is not due to U2’s “absence.”
Now at this point you might be tempted to put my positive appreciation of the Irish’s latest release on my personal fascination with this popish band living out their name. This might well be, but if this album really is not worth listening, it might not be even be worth continue reading. At some point it would be almost wisdom to tell these critics that if, really, No Line is such a failure, an interesting piece of Irish self-indulgence, then certainly it is not worth reviewing. Apparently it still is.
We should better hear some of the best reviews out there. Rolling Stones labels No Line the best U2 since Achtung Baby. Knowing the legendary aura of the 1991 album, this tells you how valuable this new U2 exploration is. To Spin, “U2 still inspires flashes of elation, awe, and yes, hope like no other rock band.” Sure. And there are quite few reasons for that. It certainly is the case, and thank God for Spin’s perceptivity. In Line we continue to see U2 on their spiritual journey. Not a mystical Christian journey, but one in search of the soul of their sound. They continue to explore the meaning, the sense, the relevance, the inspiration behind their sound. This unique sound’s soul, has come back from the 1970s to haunt those who run away from the Irish band. With No Line, U2 has maybe finalized the fusion of its thirty years of experience. From the choice of their name to the genres explored, U2 is and always is its own. Following the trend or running on top of the wave could be in their minds. Granted, at times U2 wants to be the best band in the world. Granted, at some point, it had been.
This seems to characterize U2’s journey: to be sojourners in the land. To have no place to stay, no place to rest, no line to stare at and no horizon fixed in front of you. There is no comfort zone because U2’s journey is one that never ends. No comfort zone to the risk of getting us out of ours. This is not a new generation for U2, and it is not properly a transformation. Or rather it is all that, because U2 has always been all of that. Of course on a purely musical level, No Line might not be the ultimate revolution we were expecting. U2 actually continues on a long line of experiments and that is why many have sounded the alarm bell: “Danger! Danger! U2 are experimenting again!”
As far as experience is concerned, “the new album signaled an exciting departure for the band. It was much more experimental than their last two offerings.” Maybe the sound is not the reinvention everybody was expecting and looking forward to. As Bono said: “We’re gonna continue to be a band, but maybe the rock will have to go; maybe the rock has to get a lot harder. But whatever it is, it’s not gonna stay where it is.” Agreed, some of the eclectic contribution of the band’s newest album is hardly consistent with the project of a unified album, and Bono is not at his lyrical best. For example these lines from “Unknown Caller” do not really fit the Bono we knew:
Restart and re-boot yourself
You’re free to go
Shout for joy if you get the chance
Password, you, enter here, right now.
For others, “each time Bono slips out of the Everyman first person (“I know a girl”) and into the specific (“I was born to sing for you”), the effect is jarring enough to raise the question, Is he trying to speak for us or to us?” Or again, both. Of course if you still ask yourself the question, it is better to quit even trying to understand what they’re trying to do. Just quit bothering about U2.
On the other hand, there is a very obsessing dimension to No Line, that demands only to be spread out. Most of the tracks have their own internal beauty and demand a certain dose of listening commitment before releasing their magical spell. I personally cannot really see the essential gospel-like nature of Moment of Surrender and its choir. Rather, U2’s experience of Sufi singing during the recording sessions in Morocco let itself discover only after few re-listening. In fact, Rolling Stones’ comment that “Surrender” is “merging a Joshua Tree-style gospel feel with a hypnotically loping bass line and a syncopated beat” is almost off mark, but that barely matters. There is a lot of merged influences in this latest album, and U2 is not ashamed of you find out. Some would of course complain, trying to hear the “worst” possible influences: “There’s not a song on Horizon that hasn’t been heard in the latest Coldplay record, or even through the likes of Snow Patrol, The Fray, and, heaven forbid, Keane.” Well, I am not sure about the last one. Coldplay? Why not. U2’s unusual musical humility this time draws on more recent rock (or not) bands. There is something of the Fleet Foxes in “White as Snow,” and something of the White Stripes in “Breathe.” There’s definitely a need to go beyond the first reminiscent feeling. A musical album is reminiscent of another one. This in itself should not be a surprise. U2 sounds like the Red Hot, Coldplay, and, for U2’s sake, Brian Eno! But, one might wonder if we’re still listening to U2. Are we?
Line Towards the Horizon
Maybe then U2, who has been aiming at being The Most Important Band in the World (since, well, since U2!), has just found its inspiration in other bands. U2 has not what it takes to make something new and needs other bands, younger bands, visionary bands. To some, “U2 has clearly found itself stuck in a very strange moment of self-reckoning. And a great band’s horizon has never looked so close.” Others have said that “it would appear Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton have reached the ultimate plateau in a band’s life — the magical place where fame meets irrelevance.” The Toronto Sun reviewer goes on with his own carefully planned “evolution of a musical band:” Baby StepsHitting Your StrideAt the SummitMissteps & Stumbles. So No Line would be of the Missteps and Stumbles stage. U2 is not relevant anymore. They are finished, they are dinosaurs and belong in a museum with the skeletons of past pop/rock. They might be a nice band to listen to and relax, but not if you’re on a quest. Nobody though, tells us how relevance is measured. Is it measured by what we expect? Well in this case no band will be relevant for long, because the greatest ones do not try to please us, but to capture us. So is relevance measured by the same level of musical and lyrical excellence. Here again, it is not the case. It would be great it this could be the case. Imagine the most excellent music, the most inspired lyrical creation, for decades! No, U2 seems different. It certainly has its flaws. And what flaws! But it is still relevant; and relevance is not measured by the public’s expectations or by mere musical excellence, as can be seen in this reaction to “Get on Your Boots:” “From Larry Mullen, Jr.’s ridiculous drum roll to The Edge’s confused and uninspired guitar riffs, the whole thing sticks out like a sore thumb.” And to continue: “Can anyone really handle listening to Bono reel off trash like, “Hey, sexy boots”? No.” Well, yes, and here’s the proof:
Hey, sexy boots
Get on your boots, yeah.
Even if it was nonsense lyrics, nonsense writing has never been just about the nonsensical words used. To bring this criticism would be proof of short-sightedness, to say the least. No. Even alleged nonsense is made specifically to bring out the unnatural in every bits of ordinary naturalness of our lives. In our world there is a necessity of seeing the supra-natural in the too far ordinary. In “Fez—Being Born,” the lyrics work in us by and through evocation:
Lights… flash past…
A speeding head, a speeding heart
I’m being born, a bleeding start
The engines roar, blood curling wail
Head first then foot
Then heart sets sail.
To be honest, I have my issues with this track, but personal feelings cannot get in the way of an overall evaluation of the album. Beyond the likes and dislikes, what we must be concerned about is communication. Music, lyrics, feeling, meaning. All of that. So what about relevance? It is measured by internal inspiration and meaning or by external criterion? In fact we need to maintain a careful balance between these two elements if we want to avoid making our musical reviews the mere platform for personal taste. Externally, we have seen that there are two radical and opposite evaluation of U2’s No Line. Internally, the intended goal is that of, first, a band renewal and that came with a great reward: the renewed sense of U2 being their own. U2 is that kind of band, one that has a high level of self-awareness, everybody knows that. And by that I mean that they know they work as U2. And being U2 inspired, No Line does not accept being reviewed by anything else than U2 standard, and the main U2 standard is music, lyrics and plunging deep into the meaning of hidden things. At the end, No Line is an album that does not accept unfaithfulness easily:
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise …
U2’s repetitive lines, their howling, and Bono’s rough tone does not stop until they have been heard. And obviously they need to, since they’re not being heard yet. Line is this kind of album that grows on you until you get it. Ironically the conclusion of The Guardian’s review is right to the point: “a person of a certain disposition might feel the will to live seeping from them.” In fact, it is all about the texture of the album rather than the instant appreciation: “It’s finding that soulful moment when something has an unstoppable vibe to it. I remember the six of us sitting in the studio, and that happened with Moment of Surrender.” If, rightly, it is so with U2, it is because U2 is about vocation, “I was born to sing for you.” A vocation turned outward, thus going far beyond U2’s oftentimes criticized self-indulgence. And much of this vocation is also turned against the conventions of the time, thus leading easily to Bono’s activism.
Much of this aspect of their work is about the ridiculousness of selfish religion—be it personal or corporate religion, a civil religion sometimes turning men into wolves:
Now the wolves are every passing stranger
Every face we cannot know
If only a heart could be as white as snow.
Beyond the drama of human life here, there is a purity, suspended in mid-air, as a white line pointing to another world behind the veiling fog. No Line on the Horizon? Sure. But there is more to it than you can see. The only thing is that it takes more than listening just once to it. As I said already, it demands an awareness of the vocative nature of U2, this album, and the obsessive nature it conveys. It functions almost like a surrendering of our musical will:
At the moment of surrender
Of vision of over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me.
The strange attitude of the reviewers might be due to the very peculiar nature of U2 itself. “Never has any rock’n’roll band been so polarising an entity, so adored and abhorred, so blessed/cursed with the ability to inspire and capacity to infuriate, as U2. For every one of the millions who’ve been roused, thrilled and moved by them, there’s at least one other, whose life’s experience of popular culture has been partially defined by how very, very much they hate this group.” This comment certainly is the most clairvoyant of all that has been written in the reviews.
At the end, a lot could be said. But the most important thing is this: the songs in No Line reflect the album title. No line. They do not follow any linear direction, to use the title of the companion movie to No Line. The lyrics and songs are written in layers, they are not linear:
Infinity is a great place to start.
Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear.
It is all about texture, about layers of music, melodies, lyrics. It’s about the album itself. Words and notes; rather than times and places. Tones and feelings; rather than opinion and accepted worlds. No Line does not point to a line, they point to a necessary horizon. And beyond this horizon, heroes die, bards sing, and the world moves on while U2 sings.