For such a mega-successful band, U2 has had a shockingly uneven quality in their albums. In fact, I would go so far as to say that of all the mainstream rock acts of the last 25 years, their release record is the most checkered. When U2 is good, they’re fantastic. But when U2 goes off the deep-end, they crash and burn spectacularly. Bono has said in interviews that had 2000’s ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND not been a commercial success, the plan was for U2 to break-up. Feeling a little starved for success after spending the 1990’s experimenting, U2 stripped down their sound and went back to basics. The move paid off big time, but it came at a price. The band’s ATYCLB follow up, HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB, was a pretty much a rehash of what they’d done before. So much so that I’d say that the album should have been called ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND Part II.
The album opens with “No Line on the Horizon,” which flirts between being spacey and down-to-earth. Bono’s voice seems to be getting better with age; it’s as vibrant and strong as it was back in the 80’s. One of my favorite tracks, “Magnificent,” blends early 90’s electronica-U2 with the more restrained rock elements that made U2 famous. The song’s main guitar riff is memorable but not overwhelming. I think that behind George Harrison, The Edge is probably one of the most understated guitarists off all time. The Edge’s riffs can be bombastic but on NO LINE ON THE HORIZON he seems content to hang back and noodle on the peripherals of the songs, taking center stage only a few times. When he does it’s incredible (see the end of “Breathe”).
Like all modern mainstream rock records, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON opens strong and reaches it’s peak at the mid-point with the twin singles “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Get On Your Boots.” The later being the freakiest thing on record, as well as the catchiest. “I’ll Go Crazy” is a decent song but of the two singles, “Get On Your Boots” is the more interesting. To be honest, “I’ll Go Crazy” seems like a leftover from ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not very memorable.
The last half of the album is a more subdue affair, but it’s also where the best tracks are hidden. In fact, I would say that the last two tracks “Breathe” and “Cedars of Lebanon” are probably my favorites on the entire album. “Breathe” especially evokes the fire and spirit of the classics found on THE JOSHUA TREE. Near the end there’s a fantastic cello-solo that leads right into the best Edge guitar solo I’ve ever heard, it’s so warm and lovely that you can almost hear the cracking as the ice finally melts off his guitar. The song almost seems like an answer to the critics who say The Edge is all technique and no heart.
NO LINE ON THE HORIZON does have a few duds, the worst being “Unknown Caller.” The song uses modern technology as a metaphor and listening to Bono croon about “ATM Machines,” “rebooting,” and “having no signal” (as in cellphone signal) is pretty cringe-worthy. It’s almost like hearing your grandparent talk about “The Facebook,” it comes off as forced and makes U2 seems shockingly un-hip (even the song title is ridiculous in today’s world of caller-ID). I found “White As Snow” to be dull and overly sentimental, while “Fez-Being Born” was just downright boring to sit thorough, coming in just a little over five minutes in length.
Overall though, NO LINE ON THE HORZION is a good album and I’m glad I made the effort to dust it off and give it another chance. I don’t think it’s strong enough to convert anyone who’s not already a fan, but I think it’s got enough strong tracks to merit a listen. I’m going to chalk up my initial reaction to this record to my health issues I was dealing with back in 2009. There’s been a couple times I’ve gone back and listened to something that had underwhelmed me initially and been pleasantly surprised. I think we bring more of our baggage to art than we realize. Obviously hearing problems are going to affect one’s opinion of a new CD, but there was more than that going on. NO LINE ON THE HORIZON didn’t change, I did. My life has completely changed since 2009: my relationships, my job, where I live. I don’t think NO LINE ON THE HORIZON is a landmark record in terms of the “musical world” but I do think it’s important in my life. I think revisiting albums at different points in life are key to understanding both them and ourselves.
NO LINE ON THE HORIZON gets a (belated) “B+”