When I first heard the title of U2’s 12th studio album, No Line On The Horizon, I assumed it was all a reference to the band’s claim to longevity. No end in sight. Except, after hearing the album several times, I’m more convinced it’s a statement about the album’s blurred division between the band’s styles and eras. Some have called it the band’s most experimental album in years, but I think it features one relatively experimental song (the first single “Get On Your Boots”) and few snippets of tinkering here and there. It’s not as far out of left field as previous albums such as the underrated Original Soundtracks 1 (1995), or the pop-challenged Pop (1997). It’s more like The Unforgettable Fire (1984) or Zooropa (1993), in that it features some pretty straightforward rock songs mixed with a tinge of atmospherics and unpredictable arrangements. No Line doesn’t rely on technology or gimmickry to experiment, it relies on international rhythms and inspirations in a way the band has never tried before. In other words, this might simultaneously be U2’s most familiar and most adventurous album, ever.
Recorded all over of the world, and with the assistance of Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois/Steve Lillywhite, No Line is also remarkably more focused than the strong but stitled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004). U2 certainly spent the years focusing, since this album marks the longest stretch of time the band has taken in between new work. “Magnificent” and “Breathe” are the band at their anthemic best, reaching for a rousing chorus, and finding it. In particular, “Magnificent” could become a massive hit single. “Unknown Caller” and the album’s title track are more meditative yet no less melodic. As barroom rock tune, “No Line On The Horizon” sounds inspired by U2 tourmates Kings of Leon, with howls more Southern American than Irish. But it’s still U2, with punctuation from a crisp piano chord and a solemn chant of a refrain. “Unknown Caller,” a standout track among many, is an odd composition that works surprisingly well. With a narrative about a junkie looking for drugs via his cell phone, the chorus is not much more than Bono, The Edge, and Brian Eno barking computer jargon like “Force quit and move to trash… Restart and reboot yourself.” Shockingly, it works, and makes for one of the album’s most infectious moments.
More traditional rock tunes come pouncing out in songs like “Stand Up Comedy” (which may be the first pop song to reference Man On Wire) and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (one of a couple songs featuring keyboard work by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am). If you’re a fan of U2 that never stuck with them after 1991’s Achtung Baby, just download these two from iTunes, and you’ll be satisfied. And, while much of the world has overdosed on Bono as a celebrity, this album should remind everyone why he’s so famous in the first place. The dude can sing the hell out of a rock song, and U2 proves once again that they’re the most cohesive quartet of pop musicians in decades. While it rocks, rolls, and swings, No Line has its quieter moments, such as the gospel ballad “Moment of Surrender” as well as the war memorials “Cedars of Lebanon” and “White As Snow.” However, for much of the album, Bono makes good on the promise in “Get On Your Boots,” when he shouts “I don’t wanna talk about war between nations… not right now.” Politics is almost completely absent from No Line, which is probably the U2 we need… right now.