As U2 enters their 30th year of making music together, and as they release their 13th full length album in that time span, you might expect to find the band resting on their laurels. After all, they have sold millions upon millions of albums. They have made millions upon millions of dollars. They have been loved (and scorned) by critics, and have developed one of the most loyal fan bases ever in rock and roll. So maybe it’s time to go The Rolling Stones rout and become largely an oldies band. After all they would still be revered and loved by their faithful fans, and they could make an easy buck with the huge song catalog they have. I mean, who doesn’t love the Stones, even though we’ve all heard “Satisfaction” 50,000 times? And although I’m sure U2 will include a number of older songs on their set lists of their upcoming world tour, “No Line On The Horizon” is an extremely strong album that is sure to have many of it’s songs find their way on to those set lists.
U2 has never been a band to rest on it’s laurels and “play it safe”. Even their last two albums weren’t so much about “playing it safe”, as they were about Bono and the boys becoming very personal in their lyrics, and returning to a mode of songwriting that stated the things they felt were important to sing about instead of clouding them in symbolism. “No Line On The Horizon” finds them combining elements of both era’s of their songwriting, with a heavy emphasis on a new element—writing from the standpoint of fictional characters.
Musically, the album is chock full of catchy rock songs. “Get On Your Boots”, “Magnificent”, “No Line On The Horizon” and “Stand Up Comedy”, just to name a few. The songs out and out rock and are catchy to the ear, making interesting use of loops and guitar distortion, along with soaring vocals. From a musical standpoint, these songs can stand up with some of the best from any era of U2’s music.
What really makes the album interesting, however, and shows that U2 is continuing to push themselves artistically, is the lyrical approach and the willingness to take chances. Many songs are written from the standpoint of a character, placed in different places in time, dealing with pain and the longing for something better. The songs deal with reconnecting with loved ones the character is apart from, whether due to war, vocation or other circumstances that may cause people to be pulled apart (“No Line On The Horizon”, “White As Snow”, “Cedars of Lebanon”). They also deal with freedom, possibly from addiction, possibly some sort of salvation from the difficulties of this life (“Moment of Surrender” “Magnificent” “Fez—Being Born” and “Breathe”).
A number of songs are written in a narrative form, in which Bono literally rattles off a story to music, somehow causing it to rhyme just enough to remind you that this is sensible pop/rock music at it’s best. However, the focus is not all on rhyme, or finding that next “hit” single. Because U2 have an uncanny ability to write songs that are catchy, you will, no doubt, find a lot of catchy songs here. But the emphasis is more on the lyrical content and the approach of telling a story. A refreshing twist from much of what they did over their last 2 albums (which this writer happens to think are 2 of their best ever—so I am not knocking that body of work).
If, as a rock music fan, you are not a U2 fan, this album may not completely win you over. After all, they still sound like U2 (a real positive I think!). But, if even 10 percent of the big name artists tried to push themselves artistically, always striving to be better, the way in which U2 does on “No Line On The Horizon”, the major label music industry and radio, would be far less boring than it currently is. U2, despite all of their success, still try to push themselves artistically, like many on the current indie music scene do. For that effort alone, they deserve a ton of credit, as well as another listen from even the harshest critic.
This album will not disappoint the faithful, and may even surprise those not normally considering themselves fans. This writers rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.
Independent Music Critic
The Rock and Roll Report