Music Review: U2's No Line on the Horizon

by Rick Rockwell

"Get on your boots!" Indeed.

That’s the clarion call from U2 resounding from the band’s new release, No Line on the Horizon.

But as usual with superstar bands, one single does not an album make, nor is it indicative of the quality of the whole. Certainly, “Get on Your Boots” kicks off the dust accumulating over the past five years since U2’s last full-length release.

“Get on Your Boots” is the best single the band has had since the lead single “Vertigo” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Not only is the song so obviously an adrenaline burner that the Grammy organizers asked U2 to kick off the festivities with the number this year, but it is one of the best radio songs to come along in years. This song begs to be played at full volume rolling down the highway. This song goes to full throttle from the crack of Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drums and bassist Adam Clayton’s fuzz tones that propel the song’s open until the great self-reflective lyric mid-song: “I don’t wanna talk about wars between nations./Not right now./Sexy boots./Get on your boots!”

But besides a great single, how does one of the world’s best and most significant bands maintain a place at the top of the mountain?

If No Line on the Horizon (the band’s 12th full scale release) is the answer, then it is a credible placeholder but not much more. There’s nothing challenging on the album, but the end result is professional and accomplished. Horizon would have made a tremendous EP, but by the end of its 11 tracks, it feels a bit stretched and thin. The result is a good album of about the same strength as Atomic Bomb. For U2 fans hoping for something on the order of Joshua Tree or The Unforgettable Fire, the truth is those days are likely gone forever. But the good news is this release is far from the lost and poor Pop of the late 1990s.

U2’s long-time triple-headed all-star production team is back: Brian Eno, Danny Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite. Eno, who guided Joshua Tree, is now almost like what Sir George Martin was to the Beatles. Eno is no fifth Beatle, but he is certainly the fifth member of U2, his signature electronic burblings popping up throughout the mix. His multi-layered techniques are part of what drive “Put on Your Boots” as a single and keep it as listenable on play 1,000 as on the first go. Eno and the rest of the production team frontload Horizon to good effect.

Horizon shows U2 still produces epic music. The title track explodes with noise-pop influenced magnificence. Appropriately, this is followed by “Magnificent” the aptly titled track that features The Edge’s wonderful slide work* and Bono** singing his heart out over love. “Moment of Surrender” is a delicious sequel of sorts to “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” from Achtung Baby. “Unknown Caller” starts with classic ringing guitar lines from The Edge that have Beatles-like qualities (think of a 21st Century rendering of George Harrison’s opening to “Here Comes the Sun”). But the song claims its own ground later as The Edge’s guitar solo spews sparks over a church organ/orchestral arrangement. Another highlight, “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” has a huge hook and a wonderful sing-along chorus.

But U2 can’t sustain this string of surefire hits past the mid-way part of the album. Then comes the weaker material that someone needed to cull. But with so many superstars in the room, who knows when it is time to toss something?

For instance, “Stand Up” becomes a misguided rap of sorts with over-drawn lyrics of agitprop: the song suffers from much the same problem Neil Young had with his anti-Bush/anti-war screed Living With War. The weak “Cedars of Lebanon” also features Bono mostly talking his way through an anti-war dirge with lumbering lyrical observations. “White as Snow” also suffers from lyrical overload, this time the Catholic imagery becomes a bit ponderous.

With Bono as a key lobbyist now on issues from aid to Africa to world hunger, U2 certainly feels compelled to speak out, as the band always has, about the state of a world at war, intractable political stalemates (the Middle East steps in for Northern Ireland now) and alternative political views. However, on Horizon, the band is at its best when it leaves all the heavy lyrical baggage behind and slips into its sexy boots.

Now, pardon me but it’s time to strap on those boots and dance to the best parts….

*The Edge is the stage name for U2’s guitarist David Howell Evans.

**Bono is the stage name for U2’s vocalist Paul David Hewson.

(The promotional photo of U2 is from Mercury Records of the Universal Music Group. U2 will play an unprecedented five nights on CBS television's The Late Show with David Letterman, beginning tonight, March 2. The band will not announce its 2009 touring schedule until March 9. To see the official video for "Get on Your Boots," please check below.)

U2 - Get On Your Boots

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