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What I’m listening to this week: U2

June 1, 2009

No Line on the Horizon – 2009

Anytime you listen to a U2 album, you have to expect a certain amount of bombast.  There are going to be the requisite vocalizations: “OH, OHs” and “AH, AHs”…that’s just what Bono does, because he can and because he does it better than most almost anyone else.  Some people see Bono as a self-serving, righteous ass because of his outspokenness and seemingly endless confidence in all that he does and says, even when it reeks of rock star pomposity.  Even those people will find something to like about No Line on the Horizon.  The record is a marked improvement from the middling stadium rock of the majority of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with Horizon finding U2 returning to their widescreen grandeur of their earlier works.

The first track, “No Line On The Horizon”, pretty much lays it all out there; power vocals, driving beats, and the “oh ohs!”.  It’s a bold way to begin the album, laying out the band’s philosophy clearly.  The next track, “Magnificent” is a total standout, even if those Bono-isms tend to needle at you: the second verse features the lines, “I was born to sing for you” and “My first cry – it was a joyful noise”, not to mention the entire chorus is Bono crooning out “Magnificent” over and over.  Still, for the detractors, there’s the Edge’s jangly guitar line, and the soaring melody that make it such a satisfying listen.

The third track, “Moment of Surrender” is probably my favorite song on the album; U2 doesn’t really do “subtle”, and even though the musical arrangement is brooding and atmospheric, Bono’s vocals are twisted and tortured.  The lyrics, emotion, and the Edge’s bittersweet guitar solo are so heartfelt and tender in a poignant description of a drug-addled breakdown.  Meanwhile, “Unknown Caller” straddles the line between pretension and brilliance; the good: the Edge’s spacey guitar solo and the chanted, made-for-the-i-Pod-generation chorus; the bad: the lyrics of the verses and the completely out-of-place synthesizer and Phil Spektor-inspired musical interlude.  The enjoyable “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is more familiar territory for U2, with it’s stadium-ready panoramic chorus, and the line that throws a wink to critics: “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear”.

Now it’s time to talk about the much-discussed “Get On Your Boots”.  The first time I heard this song was when they performed a ramshackle version of it at the 2009 Grammys.  Honestly, I thought it was terrible and I didn’t get it (or Bono’s perplexing man-liner) at all.  Having now heard it in the context of the album numerous times, I don’t necessary think it fits that well on the album, but I’ve come to appreciate the driving guitar work and music.  U2 sounds really good as a band on this track, although I’m still not that fond of the songwriting itself.  It’s downright amazing though compared to the track that follows it, “Stand Up Comedy”, a funk-inspired mess that doesn’t really go anywhere.

There are several other songs on the album that feel sort of half-finished in the splendor of the first several tracks.  Out of the last half of the album, “Breathe” is the exception to this, with Bono’s half-spoken lyrics, the sparkling keyboard and guitar work, and the classically U2 chorus.  But even the tracks that don’t quite match up are interesting, especially the last lines of “Cedars Of Lebanon” before the album ends, “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you…Gonna last with you longer than your friends.”

No Line is the best U2 album in years, and despite some minor weaknesses, it proves that U2 still has it; that indefinable chemistry that makes them an iconic band…the ones that laid the groundwork for the bands that are now called their contemporaries.

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