One More Listen: U2, No Line on the Horizon

By Daniel Garrett

U2, No Line on the Horizon
Produced by Brian Eno, Danny Lanois,
and Steve Lillywhite
Interscope, 2009

“The songs in your head are now on my mind. You put me on pause. I’m trying to rewind and replay,” sings Paul “Bono” Hewson with a self-consciousness that makes music analogous to both love and political participation, in the song “No Line on the Horizon,” the first song on U2’s album of the same name. It is not unusual for young artists to feel compelled to choose between charm or power, but it can be surprising to find that established artists continue to live with that tension, that uncertainty, that choice, and that seems the case with U2’s album No Line on the Horizon. The most charming songs of the band U2—Bono, with Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, and Dave “The Edge” Evans—strike me as being its strongest, and its weakest songs seem those that attempt to harness a chaotic power, on No Line on the Horizon. The first song on the album, “No Line on the Horizon” immediately tosses the listener into a musical maelstrom, although the production does suggest that something fine can be found within: yet, for me, what, apparently, is meant to be taken as impressive seems merely willed, an incomplete achievement, and most of the song’s music does not have the clarity of aesthetic certainty. There are similar struggles throughout the album, although there is a basic level of quality the band never sinks below, which is a mark of professionalism rather than inspiration.

“I was born to be with you” and “only love can leave such a mark” and “I was born to sing for you” Bono sings amid a recognizably thunderous U2 sound in “Magnificent,” and the person he is singing to might be a parent, a lover, or the public at large. The music seems more controlled, and more natural, in “Moment of Surrender,” although Bono’s singing is overwrought, with lines about playing with fire and the fire playing with him. It is hard not to wonder, at this rather late date, if the members of U2 are men of talent and impulse who require producers to turn them into artists, to impose a sense of craft, goal, vision? It can seem a disrespectful question but it is an honest one.

One hears all the instruments of the band in “Unknown Caller,” which has a quiet beginning and a strong (impressive but impersonal) chorus. “There’s a part of me in the chaos that’s quiet,” sings Bono in ““I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” Bono’s attempts at paradox and profundity, which I’m inclined to like, are present in the enthusiastic “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” with lines such as “the sweetest melody is the one we haven’t heard.” The song “Get On Your Boots” is psychedelic, with some of the singing seeming tossed off, lighter, very appealing. In “Stand-up Comedy,” Bono’s tone is less rough than on some of the other songs. The composition “Fez—Being Born” has found and edited sound, and a mix of rhythms. A sprinkle of notes begins “White As Snow,” and Bono’s singing has mastery as it narrates what seems a family reminiscence. The lyrics of “Breathe” blend reflections and observations, personal details and social events, and there is something surprisingly, pleasingly, Asian in some of the music. “Spent the night trying to make a deadline, squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline,” Bono sings in the song “Cedars of Lebanon,” an admission which seems less an ideal than a compromise to me, and part of the song’s Dylanesque rambling. The strength of ambition can be confused for the depth of passion by an artist, but not always by his listener; and what is worse is to confuse compromised ambition with pragmatism.


Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist Changing Men, founded the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. He has been working on a fiction project, A Stranger on Earth. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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