I'll be upfront about my absolute dedication to U2. I have no qualms telling you that they are the best band ever to walk upon the face of Earth and will never die because they are so awesome. However, I also fully realize that not everyone feels the same way, and that I'm probably just a little bit biased when it comes to making an objective critique of this band. But this doesn't mean that I can't make an attempt. So I'll take off my U2 hat for a moment and be reasonable.
Without a doubt, this is U2’s best album since Achtung Baby. This is probably the most difficult part of this article for me because Zooropa, the follow-up to Achtung Baby, is one of my favorite U2 albums. However, since I don’t want to be completely in the tank while ostensibly writing a review of U2’s new album, I’ll get to the physical support to my argument. While Zooropa was definitely a defining moment in U2’s career, I’m not always sure it was such a great one. If you’ve seen the music videos from the album, it’s obvious that the band was experimenting with German Existentialism and postmodern art. But in that clumsy Bono way, it is difficult not to qualify the band’s attempt as gimmicky. While the album’s future/techno themes feature some of the band’s most innovative moments, at the end of it all you still end up with an album that’s really 90% production. Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite, and Danny Lanios were all present at one time or another for the recording of this album (and so they also aided in the production of the newest album), but what came out of the studio was a Brian Eno album, featuring U2 playing the music and singing the vocals. As Wikipedia kindly points out in the article concerning this album, there isn’t a single guitar solo on the entire album. No Line on the Horizon brings everything that Zooropa, tried to accomplish into a Zen-like balance. Brian Eno’s presence establishes itself during the very first track, but there’s never a point where I expect him to begin singing. There aren’t any totally existential personas (although there are several songs taken from the point of view of someone other than Bono) to wrestle with, and the themes of the album are not overshadowed by musical experimentation. The band has definitely moved in a different direction, but in hindsight one cannot help but see this direction as a natural progression of their evolution as a band.
The Edge’s guitar playing can objectively be called some of the best guitar playing in the history of the instrument. I have a friend who put it more succinctly than I ever could: “The Edge invented space guitar.” On the newest album, his guitar has taken up the role of third backing vocal. This is something that’s been happening over the last ten or so years. One of my favorite U2 related activities is to go through all of the different versions of a particular song that I’ve collected, from bootlegs to live albums to studio albums and listen to them chronologically while making sure to pay strict attention to the development of the various techniques that each band member uses to play that song. The easiest song to do this activity with is “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Beginning with the album version, each time The Edge plays the song he adds a riff here, a little tweak there, and eventually develops the part into an orchestral movement. In the opening track of the new album there are hints of several of The Edge’s two main influences, the guitarist from Television and the guitarist from Siouxie and the Banshees. Flourishes of distorted melody echo out from the tips of The Edge’s fingers and create a perfect storm of sound unlike any of band’s previous work.
Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton have both outdone almost all of their previous work on this album and in all actuality one could argue that the two lesser-known members of U2 are the heroes of the album. While fans can (or should) always expect Bono and The Edge to take the band in a new and different direction, sometimes it is easy to forget just how much Larry and Adam actually contribute to that unique U2 sound. In fact, the most marked difference between this an all of the other band’s albums is probably Larry’s drum lines. It’s a tom-heavy album, driven by urgent bass and drum lines that push Bono and The Edge during even the most quiet and introspective songs. The album’s first single, “Get on Your Boots” features a staccato drum line, while songs such as “No Line on the Horizon” and “Fez – Being Born” both feature what Bono would refer to as a Moroccan and “trance-like” sound.
There are a couple of moments that are troublesome to me. You don't have to have an English education to know that the phrase "ATM machine" (featured in "Moment of Surrender") is horribly redundant and that hearing such a phrase in the middle of such a beautifully orchestrated album is like being kicked in your nethers while having the best sex of your life. The song "Unknown Caller" can be frustrating and can sound gimmicky if one isn't really familiar with the story behind the song, and it actually still sounds kind of silly even after one is in the know. But aside from these moments, there isn't really too much to complain about. The lyrical mastery that Bono brandishes on songs such as "Breathe" and "Get on Your Boots" quickly overshadows any temporary lapse on any other part of the album.
At one point (and I can't find the link that I just had to this quote, so please forgive me) Bono said that this album was their best, or something to that effect. From the point of view of a long-time fan, that statement is horribly inaccurate. Albums such as Boy and Achtung Baby have been and will always bee fan favorites. But from the point of view of the band, I can see how they would feel this way. As I said before, when one considers the progression of their last two albums and the experimental places to which the band has previously attempted to travel, this album would seem to be the culmination of what the band has for so long been trying to accomplish. Within another 12 or 13 months the band expects to release a sister album to this one, titled Songs of Ascent. At that point we'll see if the band has truly mastered their sound, or if they are headed down the road to yet another Pop debacle. I'm hoping it's the former, and not the latter.