U2: “No Line on the Horizon”
From Bono waving his white flag of surrender in the early 80s to the gaudy, decadent irony of the PopMart tour in the late 90s, U2 has long been a band well aware of the power of image, to the extent that it’s genuinely difficult to think of a particular U2 era without being immediately reminded of the associated image, be it something purely cosmetic (Bono’s wrap-around shades) or cosmically significant (the scrolling text displaying the names of the 9/11 casualties, displayed during live performances of “Walk On”). They’re a band that’s nothing if not keenly aware of image, and that extends to a sometimes crippling obsession with the way in which the public perceives them.
Within that context, new album No Line on the Horizon just might be the grandest gesture of pure artistry and musical trickery ever made by Dublin’s favorite sons, an album that was preceded by an outright litany of opposing narratives– some suggesting that it was a startling reinvention, others that it was a stilted attempt at image make-over, still others that it was simply classic U2– and ultimately proves why the masters are still on top: As it turns out, the record is a sly subversion of every one of those narratives, an awesomely confounding exercise in one-upsmanship spearheaded by first single “Get on Your Boots,” a bizarre, red herring of a song that is both everything and nothing like the rest of the album. No, Horizon is not, save for the single, an exercise in goofy, fuzzed-out rock; but yes, Horizon is a tricky, elusive piece of work from a band who has spent enough time crafting their own image that they’re now in the position where they can masterfully exploit it, and now that the single has given way to the full album, one thing is clear: Bono and the boys are still more than capable of stealing the last laugh.
A band skilled enough to pull off dupery on the level of “Get on Your Boots” simply has to be a band with instincts refined enough to learn from their past mistakes and know where their strengths lie, something that this record demonstrates with true mastery. A new peak of wisdom and craftsmanship, Horizon doesn’t bother with the grand dictomies expected by the band’s critics– it is neither as simple as a retreat to the 80s or a continuation of the 90s, nor is it in any way of a piece or a repudiation of their retro-minded rock from this decade– but, rather, it invites a seamless merger of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”‘s gospel overtones and Pop‘s wanky trip-hop (“Moment of Surrender”), a resplendent marriage of Joshua Tree-style euphoria and All That You Can’t Leave Behind‘s soulful pop (“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”), a careful hybrid of 80s earnestness with 90s elusiveness (“Unknown Caller”). The Unforgettable Fire‘s atmospherics are wed to Achtung Baby‘s techno-leanings, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’s plainspoken confessions to Zooropa‘s roleplay. They show us just how much they’ve grown by incorporating a country element into “White as Snow” that’s exponentially more artful and complex than any of their Americana endeavors on Rattle & Hum, and they perfect previously-pioneered terrain on “Cedars of Lebanon,” which sounds like a smoother, more fully-realized update of “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.”
And yet, for all their sophistication, U2 is still very much a band in love with broad strokes and grand gestures; the difference is that here, their broad strokes are so artful that they’re almost easy to miss. The record’s most theatrical flourish is the inclusion of a clearly distinct middle section; after the moody, atmospheric opening numbers, the band takes a sudden but smooth left turn into big, brawny pop with the trilogy of “I’ll Go Crazy…,” “Boots,” and the slinky, 70’s-style rocker “Stand Up Comedy.” It’s a mini-movement that cleanses the palette and deepens the album’s complexity and resolve, and it’s also a very literal answer to the command given at the end of the preceding song, “Unknown Caller,” to “reboot yourself.” And when it’s over, a dark final act brings the album full circle and reveals that the middle section is anything but unfocused or random.
The call to “reboot yourself,” of course, has a special significance coming from U2, a band closely associated with the idea of reinvention ever since their landmark makeover Achtung Baby. But the masterstoke of No Line on the Horizon is that it is neither the reinvention prophesied by fans nor the holding pattern assumed by detractors; it is, rather, an album that finds U2 at their most uninhibitedly, unabashedly U2-ish, reveling in everything that makes them who they are but pushing themselves to take their music into new territories; in fact, it sounds as though the band simply lost themselves in the music, being swept up in an abandon of creativity and exploration that yields both the classic U2-isms of “Magnificent” and the strange, hypnotic experiment of “Fez – Being Born.” One feels as though this is the futuristic mash-up of rock, electronica, and soul that the band shot for with Zooropa and Pop— two underrated albums, in this reviewer’s opinion, but nowhere near as fully developed as this extraordinary piece of work.
Meanwhile, even amidst the album’s serpentine trajectory and subtle sophistications, Bono pulls off the neatest trick of all by reminding us that he’ll always be a poet and a rockstar first, a celebrity activist second, by making a political album of the purest, most revolutionary kind, by transcending politics altogether and framing his call to arms in the form of a spiritual travelogue, an album that considers our particular place in time and space against the backdrop of eternity, that contemplates the rock and roll song as a vehicle for the Divine, that understands social and spiritual movement each in light of the prodigal son scenario; the album beckons us to “return the call to home,” a metaphor that suggests both spiritual reverie and worldly engagement. By the way, Bono sings better here than he has since The Joshua Tree, hitting falsettos you won’t believe and doing his best Sinatra on the closing track.
It’s in that spiritual narrative that the real story is found, of course; more than any other band, from any generation, U2 is a band that speaks to the heart, with songs that– at their best– mix provocation with inspiration. They find the right balance on this record, perhaps more so than they have in a long time, and that’s reflected in the music, familiar and forward-thinking, comfortable and adventurous at the same time. In a masterful showing that belies a band going on 35 years of music-making, No Line on the Horizon is an album of astonishment and insight, song-for-song as strong as any album U2 has ever made, and a rejection of image and a consolidation of strengths that makes it, immediately, the quintessential U2.