U2 achieved a sort of Rock N’ Roll Perfection with “Vertigo”; I’m not saying it’s their greatest song but, certainly, it is their best ‘rock song’: It has a tight groove a chorus that is both infectious and soaring at the same time and the riff, my God… that riff! I think in time it will be up there with “Start Me Up”, “My Generation”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Smells like Teen Spirit” and, dare I say it, “Satisfaction” in terms of greatest riffs of all time. To attempt to duplicate that would be futile or, at least, very lazy.
So, after two albums of straight ahead rockers and anthems, U2 have given us ‘No Line On The Horizon’; an album that abandons the straight ahead verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge chorus arrangement (the one, two, three, fourteens of pop music so to speak) in favor of far more ambitiously textured music held down by a solid groove. It’s not that there are no choruses or hooks to speak of; they are just more subtle; they don’t soar or stick with you immediately so much as they are intended to grow on you over time. As I’ve pointed out before, the song that comes the closest to “Vertigo”, “Get On Your Boots”, makes a subtle and slightly off putting adjustment to that formula. Rather than giving us the soaring chorus that we are expecting, it gives us something that much more closely resembles a pre-chorus, not quite bringing us to the climax we are expecting. Using the formula above its structured kind of like so: verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, bridge/breakdown, pre-chorus, ride-out. This coupled with the oddly cadenced refrain on the title track, makes for several songs that have a sort of anti-chorus.
More so than in any album the band has released since ‘Zooropa’, the rhythm section takes center stage. Adam Clayton is not a great bass player because of any technical ability with the instrument; he is a great bass player because he has an innate understanding of what makes a simple but sturdy foundation on which to build a song. It is his throbbing pulse that is the star of this album, some times bringing unity to seemingly chaotic arrangements. This along with the always steady drums of Larry Mullen Jr. give the band’s music a reliable anchor that allows Bono’s vocals and Edge’s chiming guitars to soar off to the stratosphere while, at the same time, providing enough space for producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (credited here the first time as co-songwriters with the band) to broaden the band’s soundscape with an assortment of strings, horns, keyboards and percussion.
With the rhythm section in the spotlight, Edge’s guitar takes more of a backseat than it has occupied on the last two albums. It isn’t that the guitars aren’t there, they are, in fact, almost ever present; it’s just that you tend to be less aware of them until Edge burst in with one of those unmistakable crystalline riffs or closes out a song with one of his trademark elegiac solos.
Lyrics are typically one of the last things that I tend to focus on with an album, at least in terms of their context. Initially, I’m more concerned with lyrics that ‘sound good’ rather than those that actually mean something. In many ways, this is perhaps the best way to appreciate Bono’s lyrics. After all, the man who once gave the Pope a pair of his ‘Fly’ shades isn’t one who is known for his subtlety. Occasionally, this can be cringe inducing to the uninitiated and, in all honesty, at their worst they can come off as the poetry of an overly precocious high school student. At their best, however, they possess a sort of divine naiveté and shamelessness (I use the latter term in the best possible sense). One of my favorite examples can be found on their last album, ‘How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’, in the song “Miracle Drug” Bono sings, “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” At first, it may seem a little precious but, when you really think about it, there is a sort of innocent beauty to statements like that.
My friends and I call lines like these ‘Bono Lines’ and he is able to get away with them because, as ridiculous or laughable as some might find them, HE believes in them. He admits as much in the song “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” when he says, “The right to be ridiculous is something that I hold dear.” My favorite track, “Breathe”, is definitely guilty of having a few ‘Bono Lines’: “We are people borne of sound/the sounds are in our eyes/gonna wear them like a crown” and “I’ve found grace inside a sound.” On the one hand, they’re a bit much but on the other hand aren’t they also kind of awesome? (another great line that doesn’t quite fall into this category is from the closer “Cedars of Lebanon” and says “I got a head like a lit cigarette”… I have no idea what it means as I have yet to put it into context but I think it might be my favorite line on the album)
One of my other favorite lines so far comes from one of three best tracks on the album, “Moment of Surrender” when he sings, “I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross.” Who or what is being surrendered to is unclear; it could be lover or it could be God. This lover/God dichotomy is not an uncommon motif in Bono’s lyrical canon. Songs where Bono could be singing about the relationship between two people could just as easily be seen as being about a relationship with God. “With Or Without You” was an early example but, among others, “Until the End of The World”, “One” and “Mysterious Ways” all play with the idea in some way (the last of those, “Mysterious Ways”, not only blurring the line between spirituality and sensuality but also plays with the concept of a distinctly feminine deity).
This isn’t an album that is going to win them any new fans; if you don’t like U2, you probably won’t like it. I can’t say that this is their “best album since such and such”, partially because I really loved their last two albums. What I can say is, that with those last two albums, individual tracks stuck with me a lot more whereas, with this album, the album as a whole sticks with me a lot more. And, in the end, isn’t that what a great album should do? The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. Still, you have to admire their audacity. In an age where the album is supposed to be dead, U2 have, quite unapologetically, made one.
“Magnificent”, “Moment of Surrender” (possibly the most beautiful song they’ve recorded since “One”), “Breathe” (this slouching rocker where Bono’s vocals cadence similar to post-Beatles Lennon, is probably my favorite on the album)