If you think about it, it must kind of suck to be a massively successful band with a decades-long career.
See, when a band achieves a high level of acclaim built on a beloved signature sound, they are pretty much bound to it forever. If the band makes a record that in some way defies expectations, they risk alienating their buying public. However if the band doesn't alter its sound enough, they risk being considered stale or boring or repetitive.
Basically, the band becomes its own competition.
U2 has been struggling against itself for years, basically since the commercial and critical success of The Joshua Tree in 1987. By that time they'd already crafted a signature sound (chugging rhythm, open, ringing guitar, passionate vocals, and soul-searching lyrics), but songs like With Or Without You and Where the Streets Have No Name cemented it in our hearts and minds forever.
Since then, any U2 product that hasn't sounded pretty much exactly like those songs has been branded as "experimental." In fact, every album the band released in the '90s - Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Original Soundtracks, Pop - got that label. It begs the question, if a band makes four straight albums that defy expectations, shouldn't the expectation become defiance? As I said, it doesn't work that way. Scuzzy rock,dance, ambient sounds, electronica, opera and futuristic country were all well and good, but folks still clamored for the "real" U2, nevermind the fact that they already had it.
As much as I can intellectually grasp this notion, it's still difficult not to be somewhat shocked at the band's latest album, No Line On the Horizon, and the new tricks it reveals. Maybe it's just the fact that the band have been relatively tame since Pop, giving us two albums (2001's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2005's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) that were largely traditional. Though some critics have viewed No Line On the Horizon's uniquness musically, to me it's the lyrics and vocals that make it stand out.
Through nearly the entire album, Bono is loose, free-wheeling and having fun. Vocally, he breaks out the falsetto, goes slightly off-key, and lets the other guys sing. Lyrically, he tosses off bon mots, gets a little bit autobiographical, and even - gasp - writes from a perspective other than his own! If you always liked U2 but didn't like the ernestness of the lyrics, this is the record for you. More than anything, this is an album that celebrates music itself.
The album opener is also its title track, and it is slightly reminiscent of the dirty rock of Achtung Baby. Driven by a jungle beat, the song is more about sound than meaning. The lyrics are basically a disconnected series of interesting couplets like "Every night I have the same dream/I'm hatching some plot/scheming some scheme." It's a pretty good start.
Second song Magnificent is even better, maybe even the best on the album. The layered intro is builds on pounding drums and multiple synth lines before opening into a great Edge riff. Bono comes in and sings a love song that almost seems to be about the music itself. "I was born to sing for you," he tells us, "I didn't have a choice / but to lift you up / and sing whatever song you wanted me to." Later in the song, Edge unleashes a wicked slide solo.
Next comes Moment of Surrender, which completes a strong opening salvo. The song has, to paraphrase Quincy Jones, an intro you can shave on (it lasts a full minute and a half). Musically, the hook is Adam Clayton's insinuating bassline, but lyrically it's a complete mystery. There's talk of wedding days and ATM machines and even a bad Catholic pun ("I was speeding through the subway / Through the stations of the cross."). The group singing on the wordless pre-chorus is slightly Arcade Fire-esque.
Unknown Caller is where my own limited definition of the band begins to betray me. Musically, the song is classic U2, with an open, ringing guitar hook reminiscent of All I Want Is You and a locked in bass and drum combination. The lyrics speak to technology overload: "Force quit and move to trash," the band urges at one point. It's all fine and good, but the open, searching, thoughtful music doesn't seem to match the sentiment. Ultimately, the music seems too good to waste on the throw-away lyrics.
The band recover on I'll Go Crazy, If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight. Once again, the Edge pulls out a classic U2 riff, but this is a place where the novel approach works. Bono's lyrics are perfect: inspriational, truthful, and funny all at once: "Every sweet tooth needs just a little hit / Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot" Once again he uses a song to laud the act of making music: "The sweetest melody is the one we haven't heard." A great tune overall.
First single Get On Your Boots is just okay for me, dawg. It's kind of like this album's Elevation or Vertigo, a catchy, empty song that seems a bit beneath them. I do like the "Let me in the sound" bit and how it adds to the theme of the album.
The next song, Stand Up Comedy is the other candidate for best tune on the album, and another case where trying something new works. Who would have ever thought of a self-depricating Bono? And yet here it is: "Stand up to rock stars/ Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine be careful of small men with big ideas." He also tweaks his religious upbringing: "Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady," he implores. Meanwhile, the Edge puts on a guitar clinic: the swampy basic riff, the open chords of the chorus, the distorted slide solo, the Byrdsian jangle in the middle bit.
From here, the record can't help but fall off. FEZ - Being Born has an intro that sounds vaguly middle-eastern and repeats Get On Your Boots' "let me in the sound" mantra before kicking into a military beat from Larry, and more ringing guitar, plus a nice little piano riff. There's not much structure to the song. The lyrics, which barely cover four lines of printed text, are just a series of images. The slow and somber White As Snow features some rare autobiographical detail from Bono. Though the stories of Bono's childhood are intriguing, and the track features some pretty harmonies and a mean french horn solo, it can't help but being the song you sit politely through when they play it in concert.
Breathe picks things back up slightly, with a strong piano bit and some wild cello accompaniment. It also has one of the album's best lines: "But I'm running down the road like loose electricity/While the band in my head plays a strip tease." Bono also gives one last shout out to the record's informal theme: "Sing your heart out / Sing my heart out," he instructs, "I've found grace inside a sound."
The album closer Cedars of Lebanon defintiely has a story behind it. It's unprecidented for U2 in that Bono actually writes from a different perspective. Using suprisingly effective detail, he portrays a disillusioned and weary journalist writing to his wife (perhaps during the war of 2006?)> The falsetto bit in the "chorus" definitely recalls Radiohead but overall its a downer ending for the album, especially the warning in its final lines: "Choose your enemies wisely because they will define you...They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends/ Gonna last with you longer than your friend."
There's always that critical desire to place a new album in context with the rest of a band's work, but I'll resist that. It's hard to say how No Line On the Horizon will endure. In the short term, it doesn't matter. The album sounds immaculate, and contains some great new addtions to the U2 catalog. It even reveals a new facet of a group we thought we knew well, a group that will soon enter its fourth decade. That's nothing to take lightly.
Fave song: Magnificent / Stand Up Comedy