The good news is that the first single/product warning label from U2's forthcoming album No Line on the Horizon might be its worst. The bad news is "might." Some bright moments come towards the end, but they are not enough to salvage the album.
Just like their last two ventures into uninspired mediocrity, No Line on the Horizon takes few chances and generally fails on two bases: either sickening commercialism or painful self-indulgence. Into the former category goes the aforementioned first single, "Get On Your Boots." It starts promisingly enough, but listen for a minute and you recognize a painful copy of a copy of a copy of "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" (HMTMKMKM), a song, which it must be remembered, was not deemed good enough to be a b-side from Achtung Baby.*
The producers of the third, tediously awful Batman movie saved that track for the credits. God help me, I went to see that movie just to listen to the song. That's the kind of long suffering U2 fan your humble author is.
"Get On Your Boots," which I keep wanting to write as "Get Your Boots On," a very bad sign, is a bad version of "Vertigo" which was a bad version of "Elevation" which was a bad version of HMTMKMKM.
"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is just as bad. There are really no words. It's serviceable at some level, but I'm not sure what that level might be.
Into the latter self-indulgent category goes "Moment of Surrender," which is interminably reminiscent of the tracks on All That You Can't Leave Behind (ATYCLB) that caused me physical pain and dry heaves the several times I forced myself to listen to them. Not only does it meander pointlessly through seven plus minutes, it features some of the falsest lyrics Bono has ever written.
"I did not notice the passersby and they did not notice me." Does not ring true.
An observational statement from the first person about how unnoticed passersby did not notice the individual. Hmmm. The first part is rescuable: You could reflect on being lost in a moment and say I did not notice that there were people passing me but yet there must have been passersby for it was a busy street. But if so, you could still not have any idea if they had taken notice of you.
How did the most daring mainstream band in the world become so meek and uninspired?
I blame Paul McGuinness, who probably never spent a weekend in bed with Bono, but still serves as U2's Yoko by virtue of encouraging the band to whore out their talent and release drecky dentist's music in a cynical play for the jaded and short attention spanned American consumer. Sometime around 2000, so the story goes, the boys sat down with Paul and explained their thoughts that he wasn't earning his fifth of the cut. (Equal share to the manager? Being a basically decent group of fellows is really the band's downfall.)
Talented blarney artist that McGuinness is, he apparently shot back that instead of taking a smaller cut of the pie, he would prefer to grow the pie taller, as that great American George W. Bush would put it. Sure enough, what followed was an explosion of material from the once reticent Irish lads. DVDs, Best Ofs, etc.
Much like Chinese peasants who turned a blind eye to pollution because they were thrilled at their rising standards of living, U2 fans rejoiced as the new gruel flowed freely. Would that the lads would have said, actually Paul, we're all rich enough.
The title track "No Line on the Horizon" is not bad. Neither is "Magnificent," though strongest in the first minute only to trail off badly. It's the kind of song that you can fast-forward 30 seconds and it will still sound exactly the same. Neither track will be remembered or played in six months but neither will they be case studies in the decline and fall of a great band. They mainly reveal Bono's voice to be a shadow of its former self. Ditto "Unknown Caller," which has both interesting and painfully obvious moments.
"Stand Up Comedy," which follows "Get On Your Boots," prompts a rest for the overworked fast forward button. It's spirited, bouncy and while it takes no chances and is lyrically uninspired, is quite listenable in a top 40 kind of way.
"Fez - Being Born" is very good indeed, which, half an hour and eight tracks in, comes as a surprise.
The music is lively and Bono's singing is unforced and understated after the earlier overwrought bombast. Unlike the rest of the songs, which tend to start strong and fade off, there's a sudden jolt of energy about a minute in. With a downright Zooropa electronicy transition, the lads suddenly leap into action. There's echoes of past U2 songs here, but the echoes are natural, not an effort to emulate the past.
"White as Snow" is a melancholy precursor to the superior closer "Cedars of Lebanon." It's nearly interesting. "Breathe" starts damn strongly with Bono trying out a growl that he drops too quickly. It'll be good stadium fare.
"A shitty world sometimes produces a rose," sings Bono in the one track that showcases, a la Johnny Cash, how lovely his voice can be if downshifted into a register that he is still capable of and with the world weary glory that he has earned. So it is with this album.
The album closer, "Cedars of Lebanon," finally reveals a band that is mature and capable of lovely, subtle music as well as interesting, evocative lyrics. The rhythm section is understated but powerful and Edge plays a quietly powerful guitar line. The lyrics are honest and adept. Reminiscent of the powerful closing tracks on POP.
"Spent the night trying to make a deadline /
Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline."
Too little too late, but as close to a classic as this album will produce.
So there you have it. A fifth awful (McGuinness gets his cut), a fifth self-indulgent, two fifths decent, and one fifth extraordinary. If you've never really given POP a good listen, you should buy that instead of this latest, inferior offering. And dust off that old copy of Achtung Baby. It, not How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, deserved a best album Grammy.
"Cedars of Lebanon" gives some hope for the future. If Bono is to be believed, another album, filled with more "Cedars" style music is forthcoming in six months. According to an article by the Guardian's Sean O'Hagan, Bono says that the subsequent album will be "a more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage". Some promise lurks beyond the horizon.
Note of trivia: when, after writing this article, I went to get the Amazon link for HTDAAB, I found out that my previously top ranked and first displayed review has disappeared. It received over 250 "helpful" votes but it was not, um, positive. I've written to Amazon to ask for an explanation. Here's the cached version.
Update: I spoke with the Amazon.com customer service flack and she repeated the party line that reviews are shifted around all the time. It seems rather curious that a review that lasted for 3 years would suddenly get shifted some weeks before the band's new album release. According to a number of sources, Amazon has a practice of removing unfavorable reviews due to pressure from the producers or artists. Unfortunate.
*Actually, I was wrong. It's from the Zooropa sessions. Thanks to kristbg of the @U2 Forum for the correction.