Let’s put aside, if we can, the years of accolades this band has earned. Let’s forget about Rolling Stone Magazine’s five-star rating for this album (giving it “classic” status). Ignore the aging rock stars that have been written off more than once. And pay no attention to the sparse grey album cover that has left some fans scratching their heads.
All you need to focus on is the music. Three of the finest producers in music – all previous U2 collaborators – were involved in U2’s twelfth studio album. Danny Lanois, Brian Eno, and Steve Lillywhite all put their mark on No Line On The Horizon. The result is exactly what one would expect from such a convergence of talent and experience. It is both genuine U2 as well as the antithesis of anything the Dubliners have ever recorded. With a weeklong stint on Letterman under their belts and a mini-concert at Fordham University, U2 is going for major exposure.
My first exposure to the band was in 1983. College days. A friend had just picked up their third release War and I was informed that I must hear it. That’s where it began for me. Over the next 26 years, I would enjoy the art and creativity of this Irish band and respect their attempts to always be fresh, not fearing a new direction, regardless of record sales.
I’ve had an old tune stuck in my head the past few days. When I first saw the new album cover (a black and white photograph of the Boden Sea, Uttwil, by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto) I could hear strains of “The Ocean,” a song on U2’s first release, 1980’s Boy (“A picture in grey / Dorian Gray / Just me by the sea”). The song, like the photo, is dreamy and simple.
The album kicks off with the title track, a churning piece of work perfectly placed in the leadoff position (“I know a girl who’s like the sea / I watch her changing every day for me / Oh yeah”).
“Magnificent” begins with nice synth, followed by some Yaz-like keyboards, soon building into a driving rock song. U2 has cornered the market on the rising-out-of-the-shadows-to-rock-explosion song (listen to “Where The Streets Have No Name,” among several others). Edge’s slide guitar brings back memories of the late great George Harrison on this one.
The bluesy “Moment Of Surrender” appears with techno loop and church organ that could have appeared on The Joshua Tree (if recorded in the 21st century). “We set ourselves on fire / O God do not deny her / It’s not if I believe in love / But if love believes in me,” sings Bono. And you almost believe him.
“Unknown Caller” begins with chirping birds followed suddenly by the simple magic of the Edge’s guitar pouring over you. Bono’s falsetto calling out “Sunshine, sunshine.” The French horn makes this one special.
“There’s a part of me in the chaos that’s quiet / And there’s a part of you that wants me to riot / Everybody needs to cry or needs to spit / Every sweet tooth needs just a little hit / Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot / How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?” sings Bono on “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” This is one of the upbeat selections that is constantly bouncing around in my head.
Next up is the song everyone’s been singing for the past few weeks, “Get On Your Boots,” a hyperactive, straight ahead rock and roll song. It’s got everything U2 fans have come to expect: the fine rhythm section of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., the always joyful and complex guitar stylings of Dave “The Edge” Evans, and the emotion-packed, sky-high range of the band’s most important instrument, Paul “Bono” Hewson’s vocals. It’s the most ambitious song on the album and rightly chosen as the first single.
“Stand Up Comedy” possesses the dark and brooding sounds of “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Almost. The true departure is a funk vibe throughout.
For “FEZ-Being Born,” lyrics from “Get On Your Boots” are layered under the synthesized beginnings (“Let me in the sound / Let me in the sound sound…”). Fez is a small town in Morocco where some of this album was recorded. You may recognize flavors of the region in this music.
“White As Snow,” a traditional piece, is a calming exhibit of U2’s emotional range. One would not expect a song such as this to be on the same record as “Boots,” for example. But they peacefully coexist and beautiful, it is (“Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not / Only the lamb as white as snow”).
Shifting it all back into high gear is the guitar rocker “Breathe,” another example in the long list of Bono’s super-human vocal range ability. You keep waiting for that voice to crack, but it never happens. Each member’s contribution is, in itself, the most vital…the most important piece of the puzzle. How can that be? Each donates the perfect ingredient for the song. Bono emotes, “Every day I have to find the courage / To walk out into the street / With arms out / Got a love you can’t defeat.” He introduces his heart to his sleeve nearly every time he opens his mouth. And that’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing.
The closing track “Cedars Of Lebanon” seeps into your consciousness like a cold, creamy Guinness Draught. Mullen’s drumming is reminiscent of the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” marching beat, but in a much more reserved fashion. This song is ethereal.
If reinvention is an artistic goal, U2 has achieved that goal once again. By trying new things, they remain consistent with their professional blueprint. To paraphrase Geddy Lee, they know changes aren’t permanent, but change is.