Thursday, March 19, 2009

U2: No Line On The Horizon critique

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’


scott91777 said...

I'll agree with you that the album is not breaking any 'new ground' neither in terms of pop music in general or, really, for U2. It's not so much a 're-invention' as it is a 'change in direction' two common phrases heard when analyzing popular music that, I feel, should not be musically exclusive.

Basically, while they're not necessarily doing something 'new' they are doing something different than what they have been doing lately. For me, this is enough as it keeps me interested and keeps them from going stale. To market it as a 'reinvention' is innaccurate but, at least, I find the results satisfying.

Hungry now, need food... I'll be back in a bit to comment on your comments about consistency.

scott91777 said...

I will also agree that there are some gaffs in consistency as well.

The albums best tracks, "No Line On The Horizon", "Magnificent", "Breathe", "Moment of Surrender" and, even, "Unknown Caller" are probably most representative of the sound they were going for (or the, at least the one they should have been going for). They seem to bridge the gap between the straightforward approach of the last two albums and the more meditative tracks from this album like "Fez-Being Born", "White as Snow" and "Cedars of Lebanon"

At the same time, there is the disparity with tracks like "Get On Your Boots" and "Stand Up Comedy" that are, if you think about it, way to 'rockin' for this album. As a result, they stick out like a sore thumb. However, it is worth pointing out, the best transition of the ablum is the placement of "I'll Go Crazy If I don't Go Crazy Tonight" as the segue between "Unknown Caller" and "Get On Your Boots" It's Pop-rock sensibilities help ease you from the slightly hypnotic "Uknown Caller" and the over the top rocker.

This brings us to sequencing... Do you think the album would be more successful if they were sequenced differently? As you mentioned, Achtung Baby and Zooropa are the band's most successful albums in terms of coherence and are also their best sequenced albums (Achtung Baby is my favorite and Zooropa far from it, but I still appreciate its sonic consistence).

What would be a better running order for this album you think? I know "Breathe" seems out of place at the end of the album and the transition from "Stand Up Comedy" to "FEZ-Being Born" is a bit too drastic.

How about:

No Line On The Horizon
Get On Your Boots
Stand-Up Comedy
I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
Moment of Surrender
Unknown Caller
Fez-Being Born
White as Snow
Cedars of Lebanon

Of course, this gives us the problem of the album tapering off at the end with all the meditative stuff...

On another note, U2 are planning to release another album in the next year that will be composed of the more meditative material recorded during these sessions (essentially, it appears to be the stuff Brian Eno liked). I think, in a way, this album may be intended as a transitional work (much like another U2 album often brought up in reviews of this album, The Unforgettable Fire)and, perhaps, it can be better appreciated once we have heard the other songs; kind of like how Achtung Baby and Zooropa are best viewed in relation to one another.

Ultimately, I enjoy the album; I think it might be my favorite album overall since Achtung Baby; even if it lacks the consistency of a Zooropa... I still like the songs a lot better.

Gordon Harries said...

But Scott, don’t you think it’s a direction that they’ve already done? And better? I mean, what Impressed me about the Acthung Baby/Zooropa axis was how brave they were, as albums.

I mean, in a real sense, it was a band who had a very good career and were willfully trashing what came before. This, by way of contrast, sounds like a retreat. (in much the same way that everything they’ve done Post-Pop has sounded like a retreat.)

I really hadn’t thought about an alternative sequencing at all, to be honest .. But my suspicion is that ‘Get On Your Boots’ (awful, awful track!) ‘Stand Up Comedy’ and ‘Breathe’ are there to provide the singles/hits. I think the only track that I actually OBJECT to is ‘White as Snow’ as it sounds both very Springsteeny and like a B-side (at least in my book.)

Also, I like the tail end of ‘Cedars of Lebanon’, but U2 have also been telling people this is the album in which they don’t do politics/pretension and I’m not sure how remaining yourself into the role of a war correspondent accomplishes that!

scott917777 said...

Well, to a certain extent, I think it is unfair to expect a band, even one that has been as innovative in the past as U2, to always have to do something brand new. How many ways can you be different and still be you? I mean, sure they COULD have made an album with Edge Playing nothing but banjo with Larry banging on pots and pans and it certainly would have been DIFFERENT... but would it have been U2? And, more importantly, would I have really wanted to hear that?

Take the bands biggest departure ever, the Passengers collaboration with Brian Eno, it's the most radical thing they've ever done but it's also the most pretentious and unlistenable thing they've ever done.

You're right, at the end of the day it retreads certain ground that they covered with Achtung Baby and Zooropa but, at the same time, it still sounds very different from those albums.

It's kind of like there aren't any completely new sounds but they do touch on things here and there that they've done before in a COMBINATION of sounds that's slightly different than what they've done before.

And, certainly, Zooropa was a much bolder step for the band to take and is more successful as an album in many respects and it is the album where they most successfully manage to 'not sound like U2' but, at the same time, I'm just not crazy about that particular direction or the songs contained on that album.

At the end of the day, I like the new album not because it DOESN'T sound like a U2 album but because it DOES sound like a U2 album... which is what I want it to sound like.

Some artist re-invent themselves everytime they put out an album. I love Beck for doing this; with U2, I think the reason that I love them is that they always manage to sound like U2 but they manage to do it in a way that keeps me interested rather than boring me, while, at the same time not turning me off or alienating me.
Other bands, like REM, have been far less successful at this (Reveal is probably one of the worst albums ever released by a band that I loved).

I'm quite curious to see what this next batch of tunes, provisionally titled Songs of Ascent will sound like. Apparently, these songs represent a much greater departure from what the band is familiar with and, had they been released first, I'm sure it would have been a much bolder step but, in a way, I'm glad they put out this collection first because this gives me a solid collection of the kind of U2 tunes I want to hear and, now, I get to hear another album from them in a year that might not be exaclty the kind of stuff I want to hear them make but it's kind of like "Hey, Bonus!"
Which is a much smarter way of doing it than releasing the more-experimental of the two albums first.

Could you imagine what it would have been like if they had released Zooropa BEFORE they released Achtung Baby? Sure, it would have been an even bolder departure... but would it have worked? Think about how many fans they lost just in the transition to Achtung Baby.... And there are still fans who maintain that nothing they made after the Joshua Tree was any good.

scott91777 said...

Speaking of Achtung Baby, as a result of all the comparisons I've been listening to it a bit lately as well... I'd forgotten how much I loved the songs "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", "Ultraviolet (Light My Way", "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around the World" and "Acrobat"

Still my favorite album (not just U2 album... favorite album period)

ba said...

I'm going to go ahead and agree with Geoff's initial impression - this is too many U2 articles.

scott91777 said...


Yeah, sorry about that... totally my fault.

What's worse is I was planning on writing up a comparison I do of "Original of the Species" to Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" that I use in my comp classes... I'll just have to put that on the backburners for a while.

Enjoying the discussion though, Gordon!

Gordon Harries said...

Ba: I almost didn’t write it for that very reason (and flagged the issue with Geoff) but ultimately, both Geoff and I felt my piece spoke to different aspects of the record than Scott’s more affectionate reviews did.

That said, I think the lack of comments (from people other than Scott or myself) bears you out.

Scott: I suspect part of my problem with this record (which I don’t think is bad, despite the impression my critique may give) is that they’ve been trumping it as a great work in their media offensive, which has been harder than usual. Now, U2 are old pros. You don’t get to where they are without knowing how to play the game and if you choose to play the game in the way they have, well you deserve to be judged against what you say and I find this album to be lacking.

Also it may speak to my inate immaturity, but I’m quite taken with the notion of an album of THE EDGE! Rocking the bango. (I’ve never been able to take the Edge seriously, since Bono screamed his name thus on one of the ‘Rattle and Hum’ tracks. You become deeply aware that these are fairly normal kids from Ireland and not ephemeral rock stars.) and I quite like Passengers.

I suppose, really, what I meant on the retread of their earlier works was that those works sounded fresh (which may be the issue, more so than ‘brave’) and this dosen’t, this sounds… tired.

Right, back to my feature for January Magazine.


scott91777 said...

You're right, of course, that being marketed as some sort of 'brave new step' is a total mislead for this album.

However, while I certainly wouldn't consider this album any sort of bold departure the way that Achtung Baby was, I certainly wouldn't consider it tired. It definitely has a certain energy to it.

Also, if you're into the idea of THE EDGE! rocking the banjo, the special DVD edition of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb contained Bono and Edge performing a banjo version of "Vertigo" ... I'm sure you can find it online somewheres... it was pretty nifty.

And while we do have a forum to discuss U2 goings on (even if it is just me and you) have you seen the set up for the new tour? It looks pretty incredible. Check it out here:

Bonus: They're playing my homestate of Virginia this time around; something they haven't done... ever, as far as I know and while the 2 1/2 hour drive to Charlottesville is no different than the 2 1/2 drive to Charlotte, NC (where I usually go to see them), it's still pretty neat.

I look forward to hearing these songs live. I think "Breathe" is going to be great live.

Also, you commented that 'everythign since Pop has seemed like a step back'

What is your Opinion of Pop? I think it's a very underrated record. I loved it when it first came out and while, with hindsight, I can see the massive flaws in its production, I still think the songs themselves are pretty good ("Gone" in particular justifies the albums existence).

Various band members have often stated wanting to go back and re-mix or re-record that album. I'd quite like to hear that. They've already done this with a handful of songs "Gone" and "Discoteque" were re-done for the Best of 1990-2000 collection and "Please" for the single release of the song; "Please" and "Gone" in particular crushed their album counterparts, in part because they were rearranged to more closely resemble the songs they way the band ultimately ended up playing them live.