He might oddly resemble a more intrepid Robin Williams lately, but Bono still remains an international symbol for…well…it’s hard to describe. Let’s just say he’s of the optimistic sort, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. He’s a musician at heart who happens to be a humanitarian, too. Some recommend he stay behind the mic, where he started, and others contend that he’s using his name (and stardom) for a good cause. Whatever end of the argument you find yourself on, it’s doubtful that you’ve ever listened to War, The Joshua Tree, or The Unforgettable Fire and said, “This guy’s full of shit.” Whether it’s a full album, a song, and/or some of the overall themes, there’s something to appreciate, empathize with, and enjoy. That’s what makes U2 so universal.
Admittedly, there are times Bono seems to be a tad self righteous. But, let’s step aside for a second and pretend that he’s not on the speed dial for half a dozen of the world’s leaders. Let’s pretend he’s just the old Dubliner, the guy who once tried out for Joy Division, the ol’ Irish fellow who penned “Where The Streets Have No Name”, in-arguably one of the greatest pieces of modern music today. Realities aside and imaginations afire, U2 doesn’t look so overblown anymore, huh?
It’s been four years since they released the hit or miss 2004 record, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and nine years since the exceptional return to form, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Five years later, the Irish quartet are back with their twelfth effort, No Line on the Horizon, a key point in the band’s critically and commercially successful career. Considering it’s unlikely they’ll produce another effort by the end of this decade, there’s something final or definitive about this record.
Horizon, however, is an eccentric album — but for a variety of reasons. It’s not that the band sounds unoriginal or dated, it’s just that this particular sound has over-saturated the modern music scene. There’s not a song on Horizon that hasn’t been heard in the latest Coldplay record, or even through the likes of Snow Patrol, The Fray, and, heaven forbid, Keane. The rhythm and mood of “Moment Of Surrender”, a great song by the way, has already been accomplished in “Run” by Snow Patrol. The same could be said for “Breathe”, one of the album’s strongest tracks, which also mirrors any recent Coldplay hit. This isn’t a slam at the band, but an observation that’s somewhat disappointing for contemporary music.
In some respects, it does affect the album, however. Not that U2 were ever going to transition like their Zooropa or Pop days, but some surprises here and there would be appreciated. However, when they try to reach and experiment, it happens to be the weakest aspects of the album (and their career). Horizon‘s first single, “Get On Your Boots”, is a perfect example. While punchy and upbeat like 2004’s “Vertigo”, “Boots” is a musical catastrophe and quite possibly the most unfortunate track for the band since 1987’s b-side, “The Sweetest Thing.” From Larry Mullen, Jr.’s ridiculous drum roll to The Edge’s confused and uninspired guitar riffs, the whole thing sticks out like a sore thumb. Can anyone really handle listening to Bono reel off trash like, “Hey, sexy boots”? No.
The same might be said for “Stand Up Comedy”, a track which swings like recent Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes yet carries a chorus that could fit in a Steel Dragon number. Yes, the faux bio pic with Mark Wahlberg (e.g. Rock Star). Halfway through the song, you might have to pinch yourself and say, “Remember, this is U2.” Or, maybe not. At the very least, the song’s lyrics are an improvement over “Boots”, but really, that’s not saying much.
Horizon sounds best when U2’s, unfortunately, playing it safe. Then again, that mentality has worked with Bruce Springsteen lately and his records have been superb. Fortunately, this is where the album shines. Songs like “Magnificent” and even the opening, titular track are throwbacks to material we’ve heard Bono rip though before, but they’re excellent songs. The Edge has a blast in both tracks, specifically “Magnificient”, and Adam Clayton’s bass lines explain why bands like The Killers or M83 are so hot today. These two don’t just shine on their instruments either. Their harmonies here, especially on tracks like “Unknown Caller”, are some of the discography’s best, and the same might be said for Bono.
Producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite have literally insured Bono’s tenor-like vocals here. In the aforementioned “Unknown Caller”, the bouncy frontman soars over The Edge’s dial tone riffs, speaking front and center without seeming so obtrusive. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” works the same way and when Bono sings, “Every sweet tooth needs just a little hit,” every word resonates and seems important. It’s this crisp production that brings life to the album’s latter half: the cave-like echoes in “FEZ-Being Born”, the very cinematic “White as Snow”, and the soulful familiarities of “Breathe”.
The very quiet yet thematically loud “Cedars Of Lebanon” marches out of Horizon. “I have a head like a lit cigarette,” Bono cleverly sings, and it’s this reflective, nearly spoken word guilt that is atypical of a band (or a man like Bono) that’s consistently keeping an eye out on the world. Say what you will about ’em, but they still know how to chisel away at the spine. Judging by the album’s last lines, “Choose your enemies carefully, because they will define you / Make them interesting because in some ways they will mind you / They’re not there in the beginning, but when your story ends / Gonna last longer with ya, than your friends,” they’re being cautiously optimistic these days. But really, have they ever been anything else? That’s something they’ll always carry, that’s their trademark. That’s why everyone still listens to them — and that’s why they always will.