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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Like pretty much everything they’ve released since Rattle and Hum, the new U2 record has been preceded by a tidal wave of hyperbole, both from within the band (Bono’s claim that "if this isn’t our best album, we’re irrelevant") and without (Rolling Stone’s five-star spooge job). This isn’t unusual for a band of U2’s stature, and neither is the fact that all of it is ludicrous. No Line on the Horizon is a good album – heck, it might even be a very good album – but it won’t attain Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby stature in your collection, and it’s probably safe to argue that even the people who want you to believe it are aware of this. Look on the bright side, though – when the Stones were 33, they were out promoting Voodoo Lounge, and in comparison, No Line is an all-time rock classic.
Things could easily have turned out differently – the album had a troubled birth, starting with Rick Rubin’s brief tenure in the producer’s chair, and continuing through a marathon of writing, recording, and editing that pushed No Line’s release past the 2008 holiday rush. The sessions that ultimately went into the record were shepherded by the ghosts of classic U2 albums past: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite, with Eno and Lanois added to the songwriting mix. Add in Will.i.am cameo and the band’s decision to record No Line in the courtyard of a Moroccan hotel, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a classic large-scale rock ‘n’ roll mess – but rather than a bloated, budget-wasting horror, this ends up being one of the punchier, more consistent sets in the band’s catalog.
As you may have inferred from the catcalls that greeted No Line’s leadoff single, "Get on Your Boots," the album doesn’t contain any format-busting pop smashes along the lines of "Beautiful Day" – and actually, in terms of the number of listens it takes to really get inside the record, this is the least friendly music the band has made since Zooropa. Don’t let the lack of instantly gratifying pop hooks fool you, though; once you let No Line sink its claws into you, it reveals its significant staying power. It may not spin off any hit singles, but it’ll age better than anything U2 has released since…well, since Achtung Baby, actually. Shit, maybe all that hype was justified after all.
Early on, Bono claimed No Line on the Horizon incorporated trance influences, which turns out to be hogwash; happily, U2 seems to have slaked its thirst for reinvention and discovered the possibilities inherent in just being, you know, U2. Like All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, this album presents the band in "classic" mode, focusing more on straightforward songcraft than the sonic diddling they experimented with in the ‘90s – but unlike either of those albums, No Line’s peaks outnumber its valleys, and the band sounds invigorated, like it’s moving forward again after being stuck in neutral for a decade.
Of course, the album still has its problems, the main one being that Bono is still every bit as ridiculous as he’s always been. He helped usher in the era of the Olympus-straddling rock star in the ‘80s, and he’s always seemed most comfortable when shouting to the heavens, but as the years have worn on, the profundity of his message has suffered; here, he wobbles between slogan-ready exhortations ("reboot yourself," "stand up for your love") and silly metaphors ("I’ve got a head like a lit cigarette," "stop helping God across the street like a little old lady"). Still, it wouldn’t be a U2 album without Bono’s outsized grandstanding, and he does get credit for inserting a reference to rock star "Napoleons in high heels" into "Stand Up Comedy" – and although anyone else would sound like a complete asshole singing a line like "I was born to sing for you / I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up," he infuses it with an undeniably stirring element of grandeur.
It also must be said that anyone who sees Eno, Lanois, and Lillywhite in the credits and goes into No Line expecting the thick webs of sepia-toned atmosphere that were draped over the band’s ‘80s classics will come away disappointed; it’s heavy with typically soaring choruses, but sonically speaking, it’s a relatively dry affair, built from subtler musical ingredients than you might expect. The album has its adventurous bits, most notably the Eno-stamped intro to "White as Snow" and "Fez – Being Born," but for the most part it takes a fairly straight path, as with the old-school U2 arrangement of "Magnificent" or the sprawling, "One"-style ballad "Moment of Surrender" – all of which works in the album’s favor, highlighting the band’s focus and avoiding soon-to-be-dated gimmicks. It’s the sound of a band that knows where it’s been, and has, more than ever, relaxed into the uncertainty of where it’s headed. No Line on the Horizon, indeed.