It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when U2 became exhausting for all but the most hardcore of fans.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when U2 became exhausting for all but the most hardcore of fans. Was it 2004, when they announced the release of a new album with the infamous mathematically incorrect Spanish count-off of “Vertigo”? Was it when they teamed up with Green Day to turn a Skids song into an uplifting post-Katrina anthem for New Orleans/marketing opportunity for the NFL? Was it that time Bono covered “I Am The Walrus” in the dreadful Across The Universe and everyone noticed that he looked like Robin Williams? What’s lost in discussing the band’s seemingly constant string of PR blunders was that the music was largely fine, even if it failed to measure up to what the band was capable of at their peak. Both All that You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb tried way too hard and relied on well-worn sonic ideas, but they were decent and had a few songs that were genuinely great. U2’s true nadir didn’t arrive until 2009, when they unleashed No Line on the Horizon onto the world. While their most embarrassing moments could be excused for decent music in the past, Horizon was the moment when the music lived down to the band’s public image in the worst ways.
Theoretically, it didn’t have to be this way. Horizon sounded like a promising album on paper. After a few years of working with old hand Steve Lilywhite and a brief flirtation with Rick Rubin, U2 welcomed back Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who had produced two of the band’s finest hours in The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and helped usher them back into inspirational stadium rock territory with Behind. U2 themselves were also talking a good game about Eno and Lanois’ influence on the songwriting sessions with press clips and interviews about how they were incorporating electronic elements back into their music after the relatively straightforward rock of Bomb. The stage was set for a late-period masterpiece, or at the very least a more interesting, sonically varied effort from U2. That album would have been great, but this was not that album.
More than any other U2 album, No Line on the Horizon feels incomplete and meandering. These aren’t songs so much as snippets of ideas that fail to coalesce. The vaunted flirtation with ambient electronics–further signaled by cover art that might have worked for a mid-tier Eno album—turns into brief electronic blips that feel tacked on to the beginning of completely unrelated songs. For example, “Magnificent” opens with a brief synth loop over a booming low distorted bass note and thumping floor toms before developing into…a big, soaring guitar ballad that uses no synthesizer or loops at all. Similarly, the title track relies on a great, Arabic-inspired beat from Larry Mullen, but it doesn’t build to anything. At least four songs on the album were written and recorded in one take, and it shows–not by their ragged looseness but by how the songs, particularly the gospel-tinged slog “Moment of Surrender,” spin in place for an indeterminate amount of time while Bono expresses vague platitudes about recovering his lost faith. They may call it improvisation, but it comes across as either laziness or a dearth of ideas and direction. The only time the band sounds particularly cohesive and focused is when they’re attempting to rock out on “Get on Your Boots” and “Stand-Up Comedy,” the worst songs on the album and the worst of U2’s career to date.
But even if U2 had put more effort into writing No Line on the Horizon, they’d still have to contend with their Bono problem. Mr. Hewson used to be adept at toeing the line between the sublime and the ridiculous, but his recent work gives the impression of a mawkish jester portraying Jesus Christ in a Hallmark Channel movie. “Unknown Caller” has one of the better arrangements on the album, but then Bono torpedoes the song with a stilted chorus comparing spiritual rebirth to restoring the hard drive on your computer. “Boots” is probably his worst moment, in which he tries to convince an incredulous audience that he “[doesn’t] want to talk about wars between nations/ Not right now” before repeating “Let me in the sound” as if it’s a meaningful mantra. When he’s not being a buffoon, Bono’s words come across as empty and bland. There’s talk of recovered faith and rebirth, but songs like “White as Snow” don’t inspire so much as they wash over you, such is the banality of Bono’s lyrics. The man used to excel at appealing personally to the largest possible audience, but Horizon finds him going broad and somehow missing every time out.
Since All that You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 have seemed starved for a sense of artistic direction, and this was the culmination of that aimlessness. This version of U2 can’t decide whether or not they want to be upbeat rockers or mid-tempo balladeers. They can’t choose between being studied and precise or being spontaneous and off-the-cuff. This is an album that seems to have been made for nobody, not even U2. Its relative financial failure obviously hurt the band, as their next release ended up in the possession of everyone with an iTunes account, but its artistic failure is something from which they have yet to recover. As they age, many artists use new music as an excuse to tour and get people out to hear the hits all over again, and that’s an understandable if cynical impulse. But to see a band like U2, a band so idealistic that it can be cringe-inducing to listen to them, go for a move so cynical is disheartening. What’s worse, No Line on the Horizon doesn’t even have the decency to be an entertaining cash grab.