Monday, March 9, 2009

Review: U2 - No Line on the Horizon (* * *)

I think it’s safe to say that my generation is getting a little tired of U2. Those of us that discovered the group when they were past their prime still danced to “With or Without You” and “One” at the prom and sang along with “Beautiful Day” when it ruled the airwaves, but I imagine by now U2’s fan base is probably aging right along with them rather than growing from the 20-something crowd. Modern rock music certainly owes a great deal to Bono and company, but while their greatness is easy to appreciate and their classic albums easy to love the band’s music has seemed increasingly less relevant in recent years.

It was apparent that U2 was hoping to shake off some of the dust with No Line on the Horizon after they released the first album’s first single, “Get on Your Boots.” Love it or hate it, the song’s electronically-tinged rock sound was just different enough to get everyone’s attention and to cause people to wonder about the tricks the band might unveil with their upcoming record. I’ll admit I didn’t care for the song, but it piqued my interest enough to give the album a good listen. It turns out U2’s first record in over four years is indeed their most adventurous and exploratory work in a long time (though it’s unlikely to shock anyone), but only a few songs hold up well against their earlier material.

The issue with the wealth of ideas found on ‘Horizon’ is that they frequently comes across as more scattered than purposeful or exciting, as if the band is searching for the best direction but can’t decide what that would be. They manage to hit some sweet spots, as on the more signature-sounding “Moment of Surrender,” which soars gracefully along on some subtle guitar work and muted percussion, and the grand closer, “Cedars of Lebanon,” with a refreshingly relaxed delivery from Bono and some gripping vocal harmony. Elsewhere, there are flashes of brilliance on the epic chorus of “Magnificent” and the acoustic starkness of “White as Snow,” but these highlights are too few and far between to make any real impact.

The album’s self-titled opener offers no true hook and a bit too much of Bono’s seemingly obligatory wailing, while “Unknown Caller” simply sounds like a tired attempt to update the band’s classic sound, and “Fez: Being Born” intrigues at the start, but never ends up going anywhere very interesting. Bono’s lyrics also fail to impress much of the time. Too often he drops grand nonsense phrases (“it’s not if I believe in love, if love believes in me”), awkward cultural references (“force quit and move to trash”), or vague philosophies (“God is love, and love is evolution’s very best day”) that distract rather than inspire. He doesn’t sound lazy, just out of enough ideas to properly fill an album’s worth of lyrical content.

U2 create some interesting moments and explore enough territory on No Line on the Horizon to avoid treading water, but the songs aren’t consistently strong and the album feels much less like a step forward than it might have. I imagine many fans will be pleased with a reinvigorated and determined effort from their beloved Irish rockers, but most everyone else is unlikely to be affected.

Last Word: U2 return after a long absence with an album that is more adventurous than anything they’ve released in a decade, but it suffers from a lack of consistency and direction and ultimately feels uninspired.