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No Line On the Horizon
Label: Interscope Records
First listens to new albums are all about judgments. The surprising thing about this, the most eagerly anticipated eleventh studio album by U2, is that it caused my first judgement to be not about the the album itself but on U2’s previous two releases. In the light of No Line On the Horizon, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind must feel a little insecure, frail and vulnerable. They were good albums with many songs that will pepper U2 concerts for many years to come BUT alongside the jury made up of the songs on this new album they are found wanting; good but no longer great. The initial judgement of NLOTH is that it is indeed great. Many spoke of ATYCLB being the third great U2 album but actually it actually it might just have arrived now, though time, and hearing these songs in the live context, will tell. NLOTH is, for sure, a much more carefully crafted, mature, fulfilled work of art.
Taking that extra time between albums, the longest gap in U2 history, and feeling their way towards an album rather than chasing deadline day mixes has all been worth it. Bringing in Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, their producers and musical mentors for twenty five years, as co-creators this time has also added sonic breadth, width and depth. What the six creators have finally presented to the world is an album of various shades and atmospheric shifts, big big riffs to move the body and sparse reflectives to caress the soul. Edge, Adam and Larry have rarely played better and Bono’s lyrics and voice show another level of maturity. Lanois and Eno then add loops and left field lateral thinking that brings a treasure trove of slow burn layered melodic wonder.
Every U2 phase gets a name check... the worship of the youthfully exuberant October is back on "Magnificent" which finally kicks in to a Unforgettable Fire soundscape... while "Fez - Being Born" has a Passengers mood... "Stand Up Comedy" is the girder crunch chords of Achtung Baby... the lyric of "Unknown Caller" would sit well on Zooropa... "Cedars Of Lebanon" is like one of those great Joshua Tree soft spoken word poem out-takes that finally got their recognition on that album’s Twentieth Anniversary Edition. "I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight" would have sat nicely on the last two albums but as highlighted in the unsettling sound of the lead-off single Get On Your Boots it is all wrapped up in fresh experimental recycling. Having suggested familiarity there are many tracks and sections of tracks that if played without vocal would not reveal the band’s identity at all. "Moment of Surrender" is such a song; seven minutes of spiritual journey where the Edge actually plays a solo from David Gilmour’s guitar school. The mixing the U2 sound with that which isn’t gives more twists and surprises than we have heard for awhile.
A Twitter friend asked for a one word review to which I wrote, "Theological." We have gotten used, some of us excited, about Bono’s declarations of faith over thirty years but there is enough theology on NLOTH to set up a seminary! As the lyrics are more thought through so is the theological undercurrent to songs where God is rarely in the headline but omnipresent in the story. Since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb I have come to regard Bono as a theologian and here is more evidence of his contribution to helping us navigate us through the uncertainty of the post modern age with assurances that grace is all that we need because grace is all that we have. With U2 there is an absence of dogmatic arrogance but always a humble strength of belief, a constant of confession and the discernment to thus “everyday I die again and every day I’m born again” and that it’s “Not that I believe in love but that love believes in me.”
What U2 do is believe in spite of the evidence and believe that the evidence will change to almost quote, one of Bono’s social justice allies, Jim Wallis. In U2 songs we are not about hanging around waiting for some better day way down the line or denying the bad news that is strewn across the newspapers today. U2’s religion is not an opiate as Marx might have accused Bono had they both found themselves as a team fighting poverty in the same era. Instead it kisses the future while holding its arms out to the world on the street. It believes that reaching the light is certain even though it is a mountain to climb. The songs on NLOTH shimmy and shift between the reality of war and the worship of God; there are couplets of doubt alongside convictions of hope.
It could be that U2 from north Dublin are the natural successors to the Negro slaves who wrote those amazing spirituals on the plantations of America’s southern states. Obviously I am not thinking of Edge’s guitar sound but the spirit of the songs and the theology that underpins. A careful look at the spirituals will reveal that the belief in what will happen in the next life directly impacts the present one. The belief is that redemption is already here and at the same time still yet to come. So if we believe that “we’re going to make it all the way to the light” then don’t just sit around waiting but fueled by such a belief we might find ourselves at times “lost between the darkness and the dawning” but we can “shout at the darkness, squeeze out the sparks of light.” This album is a journey through that hinterland and the horizon is blurred with no demarcation line. Time is not linear and we are not to look for the visibility of the evidence around us but a vision of how it is going to be. If you are on such a spiritual pilgrimage then here are more songs of worship and catharsis.
Maybe one of the challenges to U2 about this album is that the music world has changed again since their last release. There is a credit crunch and the download has broken up the world of the LP. It could be that in years to come this might be considered one of their fullest works but not their biggest seller. So will U2 really be content with making art rather than the top of the charts? I hope so. Those with ears to hear need a whole dose more of this!
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.
This release – like many of its individual tracks – has provoked a variety of reactions from fans and detractors, but I am with Steve Stockman on placing this third after Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree. It takes the essence of the band, from across the years, while sending it off at a fresh, new tangent.
If Bono is still holding to the theory of putting your best material at the start of a disc, then the title track and “Magnificent” have to be lead songs. Both have impassioned performances from Bono, and – if you scrape away the top layers – you can trace the classic U2 energy below. “No Line on the Horizon” takes a pulsing rhythmic undercurrent, adds a creamy texture to the sound and tops it off with the short, compelling hook of the title. You can almost feel that it was one of the tracks birthed in Fez. “Magnificent” has plenty of Joshua Tree about it, with Edge’s guitar clanging around with all its hollow, rough-edged tone intact. The simple touch that makes it a single is the four descending reedy synth notes that give extra punch to the chorus.
The silky texture that drapes these songs makes you wonder which bits were specifically ideas from Lanois and Eno, now that they have become credited writers for the band. “Moment of Surrender” must be among them, as it hangs off a chilled set of ambient beats, but the lyrics contribute hugely to its power, with several parts conjuring vivid images. It’s as if the piece is a soundtrack, but the movie came second to the music. The picture is almost tangible when Bono sings, “Punching in the numbers at the ATM machine / I could see in the reflection a face looking back at me” and it feels like time freezes with his chorus-lyric: “I did not notice the passers-by and they did not notice me”. This track proves the power his writing method, where he improvises words over the music until they fit. What is particularly surprising is that such a powerful track came from a one-take run out in the studio that the band did not even do a back-up take for. On the band’s web site, Brian Eno calls it the "the most amazing studio experience I've ever had".
One change with this disc is that several songs are written from a third person’s perspective – although I suspect that writing words for characters actually helps Bono to articulate his own personal thoughts more freely. There are more faith references seeping through than on almost any other U2 disc so far. In the past, songs like “I Will Follow” (as much about his mother’s death as about faith) have used words for effect, rather than making precise points. “Moment of Surrender” – written from a junkie’s point of view – does some of this. The lyrical motif, “It’s not that I believe in love, but that love believes in me” is used in different contexts (and later he uses the phrase “stations of the cross” just as wordplay).
Based on the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, “White as Snow” is written as the memories of a dying soldier, reflecting on the moral choices that he has made: “Once I knew there was a love divine / then came a time I thought it knew me not / who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not / Only the lamb as white as snow.” Getting inside this character’s heart and mind makes this a deeply personal and arresting track.
But in “Magnificent,” Bono sings, “I was born to sing for you / I didn't have a choice but to lift you up /and sing whatever song you wanted me to / I give you back my voice /Justified till we die, you and I will magnify the Magnificent.” However much it might be a character’s voice, it feels just like a heartfelt song of gratitude from a man still thrilled to be a singer in a world-leading rock band, and he’s rededicating it to his creator.
“Breathe” is another song where Bono takes on a character’s view, but it frees him up to sing “I found grace ...And I can breathe.” It is about someone who can resist outside pressures, being free inside and needing nothing more. Given that Bono does have salesmen in the family and has described his own job as that, it again raises the question, “Whose voice are we actually hearing?”
Those who like to spot dropped clues will have fun with the line in “Unknown Caller” (another original Fez track) that talks of it being “3:33 when the numbers fell off the clock face / Restart and re-boot yourself, you’re free to go,” recalling the Jeremiah 33:3 reference on the airport clock on the cover of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Staccato vocals give this track some of its freshness and energy, along with a natural hook and some slow-burning guitar that Edge uses as economically as possible.
Even after a month of listening to the album, it still feels like there is plenty to be discovered, both in the musical layers and the lyrics, so it was well worth the five-year wait for this release. Ironically, it has given us huge amounts to feast on, but the sessions produced so many songs that the follow-up, Songs of Ascent, should be out within a year.
Larry Mullen claims that, despite beginning life as an experimental project, NLOTH has “a lot of weight.” Though sonically lighter, with a creamier, smoother sound, it covers a lot of life, its stopping stations including love, homecoming, self-parody, reflection, terrorism and grace. While it may not quite have the individual stand-out anthems of recent releases, it is far more rounded and could prove to be the album from the later years that fans keep coming back to.