Like Pop, No Line On The Horizon is a difficult album to pin down. Unlike Pop, I’m not sure that’s in its favor. It feels like there are a number of different albums within it, all competing rather than complementing each other. The question is, how much of a liability is such a scattered approach? There are a lot of rock masterpieces that are such precisely because they are all over the place. But the difference between No Line On The Horizon and, say, something like The Beatles’ White Album is one of overall effect. The White Album ends up being more than the sum of its parts. No Line On The Horizon feels like the product of a band that was afraid to commit to its varied nature, instead sounding like a compromise.
U2 had of course found themselves in that place before, most notably after the flabby Rattle And Hum. The difference was that in 1989 the band found themselves in something of a corner, which was not the case after How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. That album was a big hit, winning a Grammy for album of the year and headlining the extremely successful Vertigo tour. It seems like the intention originally was to follow up that success with something a little more experimental, and to that end the band called once again on Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, after an aborted attempt to work with Rick Rubin.
From just the history, it feels like Horizon is shaping up to be a parallel album to The Unforgettable Fire, which also pushed the band into unfamiliar sonic territory with Eno and Lanois at the helm. But 21st Century U2 is far more set in their ways, not nearly as malleable and impressionable as the 1984 version. Whereas the experimentation on The Unforgettable Fire feels wholly unexpected and different, by 2009 the band was far more able to write a lovely melody without breaking a sweat. Even the most experimental tracks on Horizon feel more informed by what goes into a good four-minute pop song. As a result the most successful tracks on the album are the ones where the band is able to wed that pop sensibility with a new aesthetic. Songs like “No Line On The Horizon,” “Moment of Surrender,” and “Breathe” sound like a new kind of U2 song, distinctly U2 but with sonic flourishes and unconventional melodies that push the band in a fascinating direction.The band sounds most at home when they are their most U2ish. The album’s best song is “Magnificent,” a blast of spiritual energy that somehow manages to find new heights every minute or so. These songs suggest that the attempt to do something fresh was a good instinct, at least in the beginning.
Some songs attempt to work with something more long-form to see if the experimental sound can sustain for over five or six minutes. “Moment Of Surrender” does this most successfully, perhaps because it feels most assured of what kind of song it is. Likewise, “Unknown Caller” opens with shimmering guitar chords that sound like a sunrise, then evolves into something with french horns and a terrific guitar solo. But both “Unknown Caller” and the less successful “Fez-Being Born” show a calculated sort of experimentation. They shift gears multiple times into seemingly unrelated sections, and keep lyrics to a minimal impressionistic level, as if such moves are expected rather than organic to the song.
And then there’s the inexplicable passage in the middle of the album where the album turns into something completely different. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” “Get On Your Boots,” and “Stand Up Comedy” simply have nothing to do with the rest of the album. They sound much more like outtakes from Atomic Bomb than anything else on Horizon, and their juxtaposition is more noticeable because they are all clumped together in the middle. Not that they are bad songs exactly. “I’ll Go Crazy” is actually a pretty good song saddled by a terrible lyric and title, and “Stand Up Comedy” works pretty well as a big riff and pounding drum line. Only “Get On Your Boots” feels like a true misfire, a calculated attempt to find a big jock-rock riff song in the vein of “Elevation” or “Vertigo.” It’s clumsy lyrics and dunderheaded guitar line make it stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the album, making it even stranger that U2 would select it for the lead single.
Like Atomic Bomb, Horizon shows the weakness of waiting so long between releases. It sounds like it was composed from at least three different sessions and locations, and the transitions between those different places are very noticeable. It’s not exactly a failure, but it is hard to think of it as anything besides a disappointment after how confident and refreshed the band had sounded on the last two albums. At its worst Horizon feels like a conscientious attempt to push the band in a direction with which they were not emotionally engaged. There are places that suggest there were ways to make the album more successful than it was, but the end result feels kludgy and uneven.
Into the heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album
My life changed drastically between 2004 and 2009, and for a long time I assumed that my muted response to Horizon was due to me simply not being that into U2 anymore. In hindsight I can see that it was probably because it’s just not that good an album. It was a disappointing release for me personally, and I actually held it against the band for a while. All the same, I liked it just enough to not be able to ignore it. Even now I still am frustrated when I try to pin down precisely what does and doesn’t work, because the individual elements rarely feel subpar on their own. But the totality just doesn’t gel very well, and it was here that I assumed my days of really loving U2 were behind me.
From the sky down
In which Nate ranks each U2 album in order of his favorites.
1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
5. The Unforgettable Fire
6. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
7. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
10. No Line On The Horizon
11. Under A Blood Red Sky
12. Rattle And Hum