by Gordon Harries
[Gordon and I were both concerned that this would make too many posts here about U2, a band I never listen to. But ultimately I decided to put this up because it challenges Scott -- and a gentlemanly challenge is good for generating discussion which is good for a blog (I am looking at you, Jason Powell and Doug M.)]
Truth be told, the media offensive built around the latest U2 album’s made me a little apprehensive about listening to it. Bono, for example, has been compelled to repeatedly suggest that U2 have to be relevant because, chances are, you already own a U2 album and therefore he can‘t assume you‘d want another (and dismissing the inherent logic of that for just a moment, they’re can’t be many sights as sobering as the fifty year old rock star still seeking validation.) as if to reinforce this, he’s been claiming that writers, poets and filmmakers aren’t expected to retire gracefully, so why should he?
It’s worth noting that various degrees of reinvention have been in the air for awhile now; witness Radiohead releasing the so-so ‘In Rainbows’ digitally and therefore (at least in my country) making sure that every conversation about the digital distribution of music references them. The ’radical’ reinvention of Oasis which consists of them sonically moving from the late sixties to the early seventies and Coldplay’s Eno flecked ’Viva La Vida’. Also notable is the fact that the latter two obviously tried to wrench themselves away from their respective comfort zones but were simply hobbled by their equally obvious gifts for melody.
Which brings us to ’No Line On The Horizon’ and the latest reinvention of U2.
‘No Line On The Horizon’ opens with it’s title track, a portentous bass line with occasional yelping from Bono. It’s simultaneously one of the best thing’s on the album and illustrates it’s core problem: firstly, that the biggest band in the world have something to prove and secondly, are doing so by invoking the feel of Lou Reed Circa ’Berlin’. Now, to me the title ’No Line On The Horizon’ invokes forward momentum and limitless possibilities. What I hear on this album is a band retreating to the past. The product and it’s packaging are at odds.
Indeed, in other reviews of this record the albums most referenced have been U2’s own ’Achtung Baby’ and ‘Zooropa’. However, those former records possessed a sense of consistency that is simply not present here. It also should be noted that both albums were deeply in thrall to both the early-nineties spirit of ’Madchester’ and the mildly esoteric sound of ’Trip-Hop’. Sadly, it’s no longer the early nineties and aspects of both these sub-genres (and I say this as quite the fan of both Madchester and trip-hop) have dated badly, something both Tricky and Portishead took note of before their recent reinventions.
As has been commonly said, this is an earnest attempt to produce an honest to god album in the age of the track based listening experience and for that U2 should be applauded. However, let’s not suggest that are pioneers on this front; Interpol, Mogwai, Doves, Elbow, Tricky, Portishead, Bloc Party and The National have all produced albums within the last year that are not easily digestible upon first listen and, honestly, this album has far too incoherent a sonic agenda to be successful as a coherent listening experience. (a failing that is common to the U2 album, in my experience.)
I don’t mean to suggest that U2 cannot change tack or reinvent themselves successfully, just that this album is the wrong one to begin a discourse about the relevancy of the stupefying successful U2 with. Because, despite their oft-stated need to prove themselves, the impression this listener came away with was of multi-millionaires playing in their doubtlessly well appointed studio.
David Fincher, circa ‘The Game‘, explained his decision to remain in the province of the b-movie by suggesting that the point at which an artist loses their way can be traced to the point in time he/she began to think about the artistic legacy. If one accepts Fincher’s argument (and I do) then U2 have been struggling against the perception that they’ve already completed they’re masterwork since 1987’s Joshua Tree. Or to put it another way ’I don’t believe in the sixties/the golden age of pop/ you glorify the past/when the future dries up’