I still have an excitement about digging into a new album, like a child on Christmas morning. This is especially the case with U2's new work, No Line on the Horizon. As soon as I dropped my daughter off at school, I rushed to my local vendor and plunked down 10 bones for the CD. I'll also be buying the vinyl version soon, but I'm an audiophile nerd like that. In this case, I know it will be worth it.
I'm sorry for those who will only get digital versions, particularly disappointing, gaunt little MP3s. When Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are at the production helm, the purer and clearer the medium, the better. This is definitely the case with No Line. The band is back in grand Achtung Baby fashion--experimental, deep, atmospheric, and head-on--not that they ever left. They deserve their record number of grammys, and this album should garner more.
The title track kicks right off with a "Mysterious Ways" atmospheric groove. The guitars are in-your-face (as they often are throughout the album), and the beat is punctuated with a distant middle-eastern yelp. Lyrics like "She said, 'Time is irrelevant, it's not linear.' / Then she put her tongue in my ear," show the high-/low-minded tension that is successfully held throughout. Almost every song is very present, yet somehow transcendent--the classic genius of U2.
"Magnificent" is a great love song on the order of the aforementioned tension. It works best (for me) as a love song to God, especially with lines like, "Justified till we die, / you and I will magnify / the Magnificent." However, there is a reality of pain present among the hope, as seen in the chorus, "Only love can leave such a mark / But only love can heal such a scar."
This same mood is heaviest in "White as Snow," which borrows musically from the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." The Advent theme of the hymn is carried out masterfully in this song, as seen in lines like "Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not / Only the lamb as white as snow." Yet the listener is left with the repeated, pleading confession, "If only a heart could be as white as snow."
In the same canon as these is "Moment of Surrender." It is a beautifully spiritual and contemplative marriage of music and lyric in the tradition of songs like "Bad" (from The Unforgettable Fire), "One" (Achtung Baby), and "Grace" (All That You Can't Leave Behind). Like those, this is an instant classic in that U2 sub-genre of truly sacred songs. And, like the other songs on No Line, this one pairs sacred and secular imagery to a high art, as in the line "I was speeding on the subway / through the stations of the cross...," and the varied chorus, "At the moment of surrender / Of vision over visibility / I did not notice the passersby/ and they did not notice me." These lyrics are beautifully surrounded by music that is smooth and warm, perfectly accented with a pipe organ in the mix.
Punching through the more contemplative songs are representations of that other classic U2 sub-genre, raucous anthems. The album's first release, "Get On Your Boots," is the best example. As the Obama campaign successfully used How to Destroy an Atomic Bomb's "City of Blinding Lights" as the sound of hope, "Boots" would be the convoluted reality the day after the inauguration. This song and others, like "Stand Up Comedy," are like romance firmly entrenched in reality, like dancing in the dirty rain. "Night is falling everywhere / Rockets at the fun fair / Satan loves a bomb scare / but he won't scare you," is an example of the in-your-face approach the guys are taking.
And the music is the same. The Edge's guitars are often fuzzy and grinding, and the drums are more up in the mix than ever before. The band is tight and never gets buried in the production, which is a feat considering the ethereal contributions of Eno and Lanois. But that team always makes U2 sound like a 4-piece rock band with their spirits slightly exposed.
Any weak spots are only an aesthetic disconnect between listener and band, rather than any technical or creative shortcomings. I thought the plodding chants of computer commands in "Unknown Caller" were cheesy and off-putting at first. But by the end of the song, the chanting was wrapping itself around me and I realized the humanity breaking through the technology ("Restart and re-boot yourself/ You're free to go"). And the primal mood and mixture of roughness and elegance in "Fez--Being Born" turns out to be just right. That piece is more musical art than pop-song (and what's wrong with that?), so the very gradual delivery and evolution of the lyric and music require patience, but it is only serving the song itself--being born.
When the band came out with All That You Can't Leave Behind in 2000, the headlines read "U2 Saves Rock n' Roll." I don't think rock n' roll is as much in need of saving now as it was then, but a fitting headline might be "U2 Does it Again!" If their recent work had been dismal, No Line would be a revelation. But the last two albums have been revelations. Yet, somehow, this one surpasses even those. It is consistently interesting and relevant. Edge's church-bell guitars chime as majestically as ever, and Bono's wail is as plaintive and powerful. There is a lot of fun, as in the bouncing Dylan-esque vocals of "Breathe," and yet there are painful lines like "Child drinking dirty water from a river bank / Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank," from the Lou Reed-styled "Cedars of Lebanon." The tension of the album is the perfect expression of our times. Yet, as an expression of the human condition, it seems fitting for any time. That's good art.