As Bono the poet would say in one of his more memorable lyrics on U2's new studio album, No Line on the Horizon, „Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot, how can you stand next to the truth and not see it?“, I wonder how a U2 album with a couple of interesting, very good songs has to go out with a couple of idiotic, brain-dead pop songs. It's a common U2 problem, after the alleged Pop fiasco (fiasco my ass BTW), where they are trying too hard to do radio-friendly hits in the midst of creating something different and innovative, which was their main goal to reach in this 2-year crusade, trying to put this record out. It leaves me – again, after the over-produced Atomic Bomb – with the bittersweet thought of „what could have been“, instead of flat out enjoying the new material.
Oh, it's a decent enough album which will fit somewhere in the middle of U2's catalogue (well, maybe a bit lower), better than what most bands can come up with nowadays, especially ones that are already 30 years in the business. Bono's vocals are probably his finest since 1995's Passengers and, apart from a few notable exceptions, the lyrics are showing a return to form that was absent since 1997's Pop. The rhythm section is showing more dynamic than on the last 2 albums, especially on Larry Mullen's part, while Adam Clayton is the obvious star this time, with his impressive basslines on Magnificent and Moment of Surrender. The Edge is the one that needs to get his mojo back. Sure, there are some great things coming from him (Breathe, the final 2 minutes of Unknown Caller), but on the other hand, it seems that he's going through the motions throughout the record, even recycling some of the old riffs (is that The Fly riff I hear in the title track, No Line on the Horizon?). The sick sounds he was getting from his guitar on the 90's records are missing, giving space to his trade-mark one note chimes, which do start to drag as the record reaches its end. Good old Bono is either being the highlight in some of the tracks, or digging their grave, like the woeful Stand Up Comedy, which could have been a nice enough track, if not for the annoying lyrics and some really bad vocal harmonies. The Magnificent music (see what I did there?) deserved less cliched lyrics. On the other hand, the haunting closer Cedars of Lebanon brings back the dark, depressing side of U2 in the vein of Love is Blindness and Wake Up Dead Man. It's nowhere near the quality of the aforementioned two classics, but it has some of the album's best lyrics, great subtle drum part and nuanced production by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
The Eno/Lanois influence is even more prominent here than on their previous contributions to U2's records, since this is the first time they are credited as co-writers on 7 songs. It's mostly positive, with Brian Eno's atmospheric synth sounds complementing Edge's guitar quite nicely, especially on the first four tracks. On the other hand, the gospel-like chorus in the otherwise beautiful 7-minute epic Moment of Surrender is something reminiscent of Lanois' solo work and it feels misplaced. The other epic, Unknown Caller, has the best ending out of all the songs and quite interesting lyrics about a man contemplating suicide, until God starts to send him cryptic messages on his phone (definitely over-the-top, but it works within the context of the song). Fez-Being Born is easily their weirdest and most experimental song since the days of Mofo, and the album's highlight. It's too bad the band didn't stick to their original experimental vision of the record, which is what Brian Eno especially stood for, since the direction of songs like Fez and Moment of Surrender is pretty promising, but for every track like that you have a „sexy boots“ track, easily their most embarrassing song along with Elevation and Crazy Tonight – U2 at their poppiest, which will definitely sound great as a sing-along in a stadium setting, but it kinda leaves me scratching my head and asking – is this really the same band that has Achtung Baby in their catalogue?
The album lacks a true classic. My favourite track, Breathe, follows a formula that some of U2's best songs are based on (rocking verses, mellow chorus – think The Fly or Acrobat), Bono experimenting with his singing and a memorable, uplifting chorus, but it will hardly be on my list of top U2 tracks. Most of these songs will work and improve greatly live, which is always a good sign. Some of them I would want to see scrapped on setlists – like the disappointing White as Snow, that borrows its melody from a traditional Christian song (first time that a U2 album track has been based on something else – if you don't count the 1988 hit Desire, which is practically a rip-off of The Stooges' 1969). The song's dark lyrics about a soldier dying are somehow not compatible with an Advent theme to my ears. An unfinished track from the sessions called Winter, which deals with similar themes, would fit much better.
U2 announced that their follow-up to No Line on the Horizon should be released sooner than one would think – although the Bono-stated 2010 release date is doubtful, it would be great if the band wouldn't mess with the new material too much (after all, their 1984 classic The Unforgettable Fire was recorded in a couple of weeks) and if they've escaped their poppy sound, which brought this record down a few notches. Before that, bring on the tour and the Zagreb concert. I still find it amazing that the Maksimir landfill will see the U2 spectacle, while countries like Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Belgium or Austria won't get squat. I'll believe it when I see it.