U2 - No Line on the Horizon

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Listening to an established artist, it's very difficult not to compare a new release to prior work.  This is especially the case if previous songs or albums affect you in some meaningful way.  If you just like a good tune on the radio, bless you.  You're immune from this.

For the rest of us, there's an interest in how an artist changes over time, both musically and lyrically.  After all, we don't want to hear the same tunes with new words, or familiar lyrics with a new tune, do we?  Well, sometimes we do when an artist turns from those things that we liked.

Another facet of the challenge is that both artists and fans want something greater.   This is a fair challenge, as most bands would be pleased have just one album, or song, considered "great." 

So what do artists do after meeting success?  They create.  They evolve or devolve.  They discover.  They lose inspiration.  They push boundaries to expand the definition of who they are.  It must be even more difficult then, when the band's high water mark, "The Joshua Tree," was released 22 years ago, and the band continues to demand critical validation with each successive release that they are better today than yesterday. 

Bono, lead singer for U2, declared "If this isn't our best album, we're irrelevant," regarding No Line on the Horizon, their 12th release.  While the implications of this conceit could tempt one to hand him the sad news, I think it's unfair to be drawn into an ultimate judgment of a CD's value solely against the previousWhy is there a horizon? catalog of work, even at the artist's behest.  Horizon would not fare well in those comparisons.  

Which is not to say that Horizon is not good.  It is.  Had it been released by an artist freed from mass expectations, it would likely be very well received.  That said, with so many fans wanting Joshua Tree (or other favorite U2 moment) but only better, this will undoubtedly receive very mixed opinions.

The good:  There remains a willingness to experiment.  These include an enhanced placement of producer Eno's electronics, a willingness to let a lyric define a song's pace ("Moment of Surrender"), quirkiness ("Unknown Caller," "FEZ-Being Born"), an atypical single selection ("Get on Your Boots"), and the MUSE-ish "Stand Up Comedy."  All of these songs fall into the category of an artist working towards a personal vision, rather than meeting others' expectations.  Regarding those expectations, only "Magnificent" stands out as a memorable U2 anthem.

Bono remains a good songwriter, and some of the lyrics here are hidden in the quirkiness of the delivery.  Overall, they tend to be more personal than preachy, which is a good thing.  From "Moment of Surrender":

I was pushing in the numbers 
At the ATM machine 
I could see in the reflection 
A face staring back at me 
At the moment of surrender 
A vision of invisibility 
I did not notice the passers-by 
And they did not notice me

The bad:

Curiously, the production tends to elevate Eno's contributions in the mix while burying Adam Clayton's bass through most of the songs.  He has an exceptional bass line through "Magnificent" that seems likely to only find light when propelling the song in concert.

Much like Coldplay's Viva La Vida, this CD will likely never achieve a place within U2 Fandom as a collection of standout songs.  While most of the songs have some really good moments, they also have elements that detract.  I-Tunes won't be selling many individual song downloads. 

But that's okay.  Horizon plays well as an album, from song to song, especially when listened to freed of the "what it should have been" expectations.  Appreciation for it grows, always the sign of good music.

As an aside, Bono has always held Christian imagery alongside frequent themes of grace, hope, and charity, as he does through much of Horizon.

An interesting lyric from this set is:

God is love
And love is evolution’s very best day

His conjoining of the secular with the religious relates lyrically to a world in need, but as they underpin the majority of his songs, I wonder if it tells of an inner struggle to revisit his failed Catholicism.  Perhaps the cost is too high.

Suggested Songs:  "Magnificent," "Stand Up Comedy"

Rating: 3 Stars

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