I should begin this review with a disclaimer. In 1998 I bought my first U2 record, the ill-fated Pop album. In spite of its critical drubbing and mediocre sales, I came to love it, quickly buying up any other U2 album I could afford. Since then my love for this band has only increased.
With that autobiographical note said, what do I make of their new album, No Line on the Horizon? Quite simply, it is the strongest set of songs the band has released in nearly two decades. Sure, the record is imperfect and no, it is not another Joshua Tree. Yet the drive to experiment along with an ear for great melodies remains as strong as ever. Mistakes and all, U2 has no business making music this good 33 years after its inception.
The new album is a departure from this past decade, though not one of the magnitude separating their 80s and 90s work. The back-to-basics, straight ahead rock/pop sound no longer dominates. Instead, experimentation re-asserts itself. The title track opens the album with a pulsating beat and driving, fuzzy guitar work. The chorus doesn’t explode; it forms more of a bridge between the passionate, hard-hitting verses. In tracks like “Get On Your Boots” and “Stand Up Comedy,” the Edge plays slashing riffs not normally heard on a U2 album. The feel on these tracks is fresh-echoes of Led Zeppelin or the White Stripes-but familiar at the same time.
“Fez-Being Born” then takes the prize as the most ambitiously un-U2 track. Shunning traditional song structure and taking a lyrically minimalist approach, the song sets a lingering, contemplative mood. Here one can acutely feel the imprint of Brian Eno, who helped produce this as well as older, classic U2 records.
Yet the album is not all about breaking ground. It maintains many aspects that made U2 so commercially successful during this third decade of their careers. “Magnificent” is U2 indulging every last urge to blast a stadium-filling anthem. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” with production credits from will.i.am, is pure pop gold. Together, these disparate sounds form a meaty plate of new and old that should make any U2 fan happy – at least some of the time.
The album’s lyrical content is similarly diverse. On one hand, the album contains a playful, self-deprecating awareness. Bono, certainly thinking of his own ego, sings, “Stand up to rock stars/Napoleon is in high heels/Josephine be careful/of small men with big ideas”. Such lines show U2 not trying to take themselves too seriously, though this approach provides some of the weaker points of the album. Try otherwise as they might, U2 will always do earnest and yearning better than anything else.
And earnestly yearn they do. The record is their most overtly religious since Pop. However, while that record expressed anger and doubt about God, No Line contains a much stronger perspective of faith. Themes of praise, deliverance and redemption recur throughout. “Magnificent” only makes sense as a hymn of praise to God, who Bono calls “The Magnificent” and declares, “I was born/I was born/To sing for you.”
The imagery continues on the seven plus minute “Moment of Surrender.” Yearning for deliverance – seemingly from materialism and a heart of stone – Bono sings, “I was speeding on the subway/Through the stations of the cross/Every eye looking every other way/Counted down til the Pentecost”. It appears that an act of God-like Pentecost-is needed to drive people from their self-absorbed commercialism to some sort of true community.
Yet for all of these lyrics, one of the most poignant spiritual moments in the album comes on “White as Snow.” Singing from the perspective of a dying man, Bono asks “Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness there is not.” His answer inescapably designates Christ, “Only the Lamb as white as snow.” We are a people in need of forgiveness in a world that does not forgive. Only in the perfect Christ may we find that forgiveness we need.
Overall, this album is a fine musical achievement. The song “Breathe,” though not the album’s best, serves as a great summation of the record. Having spoken of love, comedy, forgiveness, and redemption, here Bono sings “I found grace inside a sound/ I found grace, it’s all I’ve found.” More than twenty years ago, U2 told us that they still hadn’t found what they were looking for. Here, in the grace of forgiveness, realized through “the Lamb as white as snow,” Bono shows us in whom we can find it.