Review of the Week: U2

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

U2 No Line on the Horizon Interscope

Everybody brings their own set of baggage to U2. Some come as blabbering superfans, seemingly unable to assess the band's work with anything but gushing approval. Others approach the group with an active disdain, usually fueled by Bono's ego and the many ways it has manifested itself across 11 albums, countless world tours and the singer's always-active humanitarian work. Others simply don't care — they like U2's classics, but years of mediocrity and futile grasps at relevance have left them indifferent toward the band.

You deserve to know what kind of spin you're getting on this review, so from the start I should admit I fall into the third category. I like U2. I want them to electrify me the way "New Year's Day" and "Pride" and "With or Without You" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" once electrified me. But I long ago gave up hope that they'd ever again ignite more than a few pleasant sparks. I was in high school when their "return to form" release, All That You Can't Leave Behind, foisted "Beautiful Day" and "Elevation" on the world. At the time, it was a solid listen — I rocked it frequently junior year in my '88 Camry — but even more so, it was a good window into U2's world, a way to discover their salad days.

Eventually, as my musical horizons broadened, All That You Can't Leave Behind began to seem rather mediocre in comparison to the band's classics. (Let's draw the line at Achtung Baby, though you can make a good case for Zooropa.) By the time How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb dropped in 2004, I didn't care that it sucked. And I approached No Line on the Horizon with the same attitude, fully expecting it to leave me unimpressed.

This is a scary admission to make in 2009, but I'm kind of impressed. Chalk it up to expectations so low they scrape the deepest valleys, but No Line on the Horizon is a surprisingly satisfying listen.

Now, let's not get crazy here. The record doesn't measure up to U2's best. I don't think that's possible; in a climate with fewer and fewer "event" records, and U2 having long since lost sway with people my age, they can't capture the zeitgeist the way they used to. But folks who long to reconnect with Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, The Edge and that sunglasses guy will probably find something here to inspire reconciliation.

Lead single "Get On Your Boots" likely left many fans thinking there was nothing for them here, but its ill-advised stab at rocking out is not indicative of the rest. I find myself enjoying this fuzz bass-infused curiosity more than your average blogger, but that's beside the point: There's nothing else like it on Horizon. The anthemic title track would have made a better calling card — it's the best U2 track this decade and probably their finest work since the badass orchestral nastiness of "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" in 1995.

"Boots," situated squarely in the center of the record at track 6, functions as a fulcrum for Horizon. As with All That You Can't Leave Behind, the first half is significantly stronger, exuding an updated Achtung Baby vibe that sits extremely well with me. I already sang the praises of the title track, but "Magnificent," while not quite living up to its title, is nearly as strong as its predecessor.

Speaking of titles, "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is much better than that nonsensical name suggests. "Unknown Caller" installs a slight Talking Heads Remain In Light tangent into U2's usual optimistic schpiel. Airy slow jam "Moment of Surrender" doesn't feel overlong, even as its unswerving groove rolls on past the seven-minute mark. All in all, it's a splendid start to a post-Achtung U2 album.

Beginning with "Boots," the second half finds the band in a slightly more experimental mood. The Remain in Light thing returns on "Fez - Being Born." "White as Snow" could have been jacked from a particularly sharp Nativity musical. The strings on "Breathe" recall Sgt. Pepper's deeper, darker crevices.

As a whole, the album never coheres into something consistent, but there are some common threads. All throughout, Bono lets loose with lots of cathartic, "With or Without You"-style "Oooohhhhh!" moments. The wordless wails come off as a bit of a crutch. At the beginning, it's damn near exhilarating to hear his latest reach for the stars. By the end, I'm wondering when he's going to attach some "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"-worthy lyrics to those arching melodies.

Horizon ultimately adds up to an inviting but flummoxing collection of tracks. There is no unified statement, no cohesive narrative and no shared sonic foundation. Detractors will call it grasping at straws, and perhaps the former biggest band in the world should be turning in a record with a more fully realized vision, but at least they keep us on our toes here. Only time will tell whether that unpredictability fades into a strong set of tracks or a splattered mess, but for now I'm enjoying this way more than I thought I would ever enjoy a new U2 album again.