It is generally in poor form of a reviewer to write about the work in the shadow of a non-existent product that they wished the thing have been. Expectation is a crucial element of perception, but a review should really focus on the item in question, what they see it communicating and how it goes about achieving it. Also, wishing for a different product does not in turn usher that thing into being by sheer magic of your words.
This is a long way of saying that I find No Line on the Horizon an incredibly frustrating record to review, because in my head it is a whole bunch of possibilities that do not form together in the way they should. The album took a long time to make, in part because the first attempts to record with producer Rick Rubin in 2006 proved famously unfruitful (hopefully one day those tracks will be released and we’ll get to hear for ourselves). But attempt number two was a concept that ushered in a realm of possibilities; with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois back at the helm, the group travelled to Fez, Morocco for a series of writing and recording sessions, upon which the environment and musical culture they worked in would bleed into No Line on the Horizon. Conceptually this sounded like an incredibly interesting prospect. This technique is very similar to how The Unforgettable Fire was birthed, and that record ended up one of their greatest releases. And bringing another culture into the music pot was instrumental to how Eno’s work with Talking Heads incorporated the bands interest in African polyrhythms to produce Remain in Light, one of my all time favourite records.
As we will explore soon, No Line on the Horizon is not in category, but then it didn’t necessarily have to be; after How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb it would have been nice to hear a sincere, unified project from U2 again instead of a collection of songs. But Ol’ Sourpuss Eno himself argued against this, saying that the experimentation on the original recordings sounded too “world music” and “synthetic. And whilst even on the best tracks there is an element of truth to this, could they not have least kept to the initial concept? The one they ended up marketing the record as? Listening to No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH) is listening to a record find a groove, then faltering a little, resulting in it completely giving up on itself, before remembering what it originally was and finding a landing. It has the beginning and end of a really good album, but the centre collapses on itself in favour of the hits, because as with Bono’s comments on Zooropa the band cannot let go of the idea that U2 is about the anthems.
But enough of my whining, let us talk about the positives of this record, and this album starts off strong with the title track. “No Line on the Horizon” shares qualities with that album’s opening song, specifically a floating sensation in the chorus caused by ambient chords and bright guitars and an opener that wishes to focus on move. Though this song is much heavier on that guitar, and the song is more focused on a rock sound akin to that of Innuendo era Queen, with guitars whose tones seem to reflect this cultural direction that the album was sold on. The lyrics touch on ideas on infinity and the sea (probably , the “Boden Sea” picture which makes this Rothko like cover), and the only truly weird lyric is to do with a woman putting her tongue in Bono’s ear, and after the baby’s head stuff from the last album that is basically “Ozymandias”.
And we continue strong and rock oriented with “Magnificent.” Barring a MIDI sounding synth tone for the intro it sounds great and follows on the musical ideas of the first track, adding ambience to the picture in the introduction and mixing all that into the structure of traditional U2. At that this point I should mention that the percussion for these songs by Mullen is great throughout, experimenting with polyrhythms and different sounds; as members of the Larry Mullen Fan Club (when he isn’t being a grouchy git) this is some of his best work.
Speaking of best work, the next song is the best on the album; Lanois and Eno even said that this was the closest song to the albums concept of “future hymns”. And it really possesses that quality, as “Moment of Surrender” takes elements from The Unforgettable Fire (particularly “Bad,” which carries the same subject matter of someone addicted to drugs), the gospel of a song like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and presents it in the package of the traditional U2 ballad. The song is elevated by both the organ chords, the sections of string and a really atmospheric solo from The Edge. Overall this was a great representative for the album in being the first single…what’s that? It wasn’t a single? Boy, that means that they’re going to be great!
After this the album starts to dip into further ambience with “Unknown Caller,” and it is to a somewhat mixed effective. The music starts off as interesting, almost instrumental piece, and that on its on could have been could. But then it moves into a pattern that is way too similar to “Walk On”, and doesn’t have the substance to last the whole six minutes. It also carries on from the drug addict character from the previous song, which conceptually fits in so much more the themes of their 90’s work; most of the previous song was so vague that you didn’t have to read it in any particular time, but the mentions of passwords and numbers make it hard to get any timeless interpretation from.
So, there was a slight stumble in the songwriting/themes. With that slight stumble you can literally hear the record scramble for a safety net. The safety net here is named “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” To be fair it at least follows an aesthetic that at least follows the album so far, having been initially based on a piece by Eno himself, though it is definitely closer to the poppier moment from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Apparently perennial pop android Will.I.Am 7.6 had a hand in the production of this track, and with that title you’d be forgiven for forgiven he was part of the lyric process as well. All the worst traits of the last album come back in the words, with lines like “Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot” (no they don’t. Beautiful ladies, if you learn anything from this review, please: date smart people) and how we should listen to the children dammit! It also doesn’t help that Bono delivers some of these lines with a falsetto that I honestly don’t know how anyone in the production of the record didn’t tell him to stop it. Still, at least it was like the more pleasant moments from the last record. At least they are not returning to the garage rock sound. Right?…
…Oh fuck me, “Get on Your Boots” is just the worst single that the band have ever released. Combining all the worst traits of “Vertigo” with none of its charms, it is a whole bunch of different musical ideas smashed together that don’t fit at all, be it the cock rock, muted atonal picking or bridges that actually do seem to sound like they fit on the record. If they had focused on one of these ideas there is every possibility this could have been decent. The lyrics do actually seem to be picking up on what the rest of NLOTH was talking about, relating to infinity and so on, but by the time Bono sings “Sexy boots” I just about give up. If it wasn’t for “Elvis Ate America,” and “The Playboy Mansion” and I would go so far as to call this the worst U2 song. At least Clayton’s bass is particularly good on this.
Oh, and the bad doesn’t stop with “Stand Up Comedy.” It has the fortune of being better structured than the previous song, but doesn’t stop it just being another example of terrible (as Dan Abormal put it) “rawk” music. Apparently the original Fez version of this track had mandolins on it, which I would like to have heard. Sadly instead we get another showcase for Bono’s terrible “inspirational” lyrics, including “love is evolution’s very best day” and a two towers line which…urgh, can we move on?
It’s at this point the record moves to a song called “FEZ/Being Born”, and Fez being in all in capital letters is almost like the album itself is shouting “Oh yeah! That’s what the album was about!” The two titles is appropriate, as this track does sound like two different songs smashed into each other. This I have no problem with, as it gives the song a unique feel to the rest of the album, and except for the fact that the transition is a bit lacklustre the two parts feel great. The first part is the kind of ambient instrument “Unknown Caller” should have been, and the second part is more a showcase for the bands playing, Bono’s lyrics thankfully moving to the side and serving just the general feel of the piece.
With that the album gets back on some kind of track. “White as Snow” was written for the film Brothers, but really does feel of a piece with the start of the record. It’s quite pace is a welcome change of pace, with open guitar strings and the touch of French horn to really elevate the tone. With the album getting closer to politics here, it benefits for being a political song that seems to come from a different perspective (that of a soldier in Afghanistan) than any true Bono grandstanding, and barring a verse in which he rhymes “not” with “not” it ends up being effective. This also reminded me of the film Brothers. That was a movie alright.
Also effective is the penultimate song “Breathe”. The lyrics are for the most part babble, to the point where the flow is so anarchic that they would probably have benefited from just speaking them. But taken with the 16th June reference to Ulysses, the loose stream-of consciousness style is befitting and kind of endearing. At the very least the chorus is great, and piano and guitar parts do complement each other wonderfully. Great song, if still not as good as our last Ulysses inspired song, “The Sensual World.”
Unlike the last album which ended on a rare terrible note for U2, “Cedars of Lebanon” ends as a pleasant sounding coda for the record. The sprawling lyrics don’t have the excuse this time of being stream-of-consciousness, especially considering how thought out they are, but they do make up for it by having some genuine substance (and except one or two strange word choices like “shitty”, not shitty!). With some sombre guitars, war like drums by Mullen and use of samples that seem inspired by their work on Original Soundtrack 1 more than anything U2, it brings the whole album to a nice atmospheric end.
No Line on the Horizon is looked down on by most of the band, but considering the band criticises any record that they don’t see as flawless I am not surprised. But their disappointments boiled down to the idea that the experimentation hadn’t the desired effect, the best response coming from The Edge who (to paraphrase) said that “starting out experimental and then trying to bring it into something that was more accessible” was the bands big blunder. Despite some great songs with the album and an initial idea that could have been the band returning to big conceptual ideas, they just couldn’t let go of the commercial buck, and the resultant moves into mainstream were some of the worst singles the band has released. In my opinion, this is a good album. But it had the potential to be a great one.
Fortunately, the next time the band had a concept for an album, they would at least stick to it…
What did you think, though?
U2 Album Rankings
- Achtung Baby
- Joshua Tree
- The Unforgettable Fire
- All that You Can’t Leave Behind
- Original Soundtracks 1
- No Line on the Horizon
- Rattle and Hum
- How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb