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Album Review: U2 - No Line On The Horizon

When I sat down to review this album I took a deep breath. I paused for a few moments, took a sip of Napoleon and made a vow. I promised not to let my judgement get clouded by Bono's noble pursuit of sainthood, I promised to forget the past, to ignore my preconceived opinion that U2 have done nothing worthwhile since Achtung Baby (apart from that song on the Batman Forever soundtrack).

That's the problem with U2, they're a rock n' roll institution, my criticism of this record is inconsequential because the ignorant masses will still chuck the CD into their supermarket trolleys alongside healthy bacteria yoghurt, WKD six packs and bulk bags of Chicken Nuggets; those acolytes brave enough to embrace modern technology might even download the album from iTunes, or listen to the record on Spotify because they have been seduced by the wave of promotion backed by the Universal Music Group.

Nonetheless I shall plough on, wet my quill and attempt to review No Line On The Horizon.

Opener 'No Line On The Horizon' is pretty snazzy, with fine almost military drumming, and that eastern sprinkle somewhat reminiscent of the sound Sting used for 'Desert Rose' over the top of The Edge's bubbling guitar. Bono hits euphoria early, his vocals crisp and consuming. 'Magnificent' recalls what one might term vintage U2, made into high definition by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois' majestic production, a wonderful unabashed riff carelessly caresses through the song.

So far, so good. Might be time for me to put the knives away and take that slice of humble pie out of the fridge.

'Moment of Surrender' (advance warning, we are about to enter into the power ballad zone) is seven minutes of agony from the perspective of an addict. It is the point where the album drops off and becomes stylistically comatose. The momentum of the opening two tracks is lost as the band get lazy. Even in the baffling lyrics where Bono goes all Springsteen on us and adopts a down and out character, he still manages sing about himself: "I was punching in the numbers at the ATM machine/I could see in the reflection/A face staring back at me" [Ed: was it your conscience?]

What's hurt U2 is that the stadium indie rock sound that they invented has moved beyond them. They seem to be aware of this as 'I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight' is a futile attempt to make up lost ground on the likes of White Lies, Kings of Leon and The Killers that harness similar crisp production with radio friendly hooks. 'Unknown Caller', 'Stand Up Comedy', 'White as Snow' and 'Breathe' all attempt to seek anthemic status as the aforementioned pretenders output yet they fall short, lacking the two key proponents that form the essence of a U2 song, belief and energy.

Lead single 'Get On Your Boots' has divided critical opinion, by now you've heard it and I reckon the song has got you thinking about giving this album a listen. In truth it's a red herring, a lure, a complete anomaly in comparison to the rest of the album. Shame really, had the band persevered with the rolling dice risk taking of 'Get On Your Boots' then we could have had a very intriguing album. U2 vaguely experiments on this album without committing to "the sound" which is mentioned sporadically. A sound which is influenced by the long recording session in Fez, Morocco; North Africa, though the energy captured in those Fez sessions is diluted by further sessions which saw the band tinker in New York, London and back home in Dublin. 'Fez-Being Born' is titillating but insubstantial. 'Cedars of Lebanon' the album closer, indirectly comments on the Middle East, though it is unusually reticent, reluctant to poke the fork into that political hot potato.

A charismatic front man, a decent guitarist and a fine rhythm section, there is still evidence of this on No Line On The Horizon. However it doesn't quite come together. When U2 worked with Green Day a few years back on a cover of 'The Saints are Coming' to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina you would have thought they would have looked closely at Green Day as an example of how to make the big band comeback, which the Pop Punk elder statesmen did with aplomb when they released American Idiot. It appears that U2 have lost sight of what got them a seat at the table, they've come up with a disjointed album that lacks clarity and direction. Maybe Bono is to blame; is U2 now officially the side project he uses to let out a little steam in between his valiant efforts to right the world's wrongs? Are the other three (The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen) guilty for allowing this to happen? After all, coming five years after How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb which is the longest gap in between studio alums, it appears there was plenty of disruption surrounding the recording process, and perhaps a lack of focus.

Last year Metallica's Death Magnetic answered critics who suggested they were merely a touring circus, living off their better days. When U2 hit the road they will get confronted with similar accusations that their better days are behind them. No doubt they will fill the hearts of their fans with adrenaline shots of nostalgia; however they won't be able to delight them with exciting unfamiliar material. U2 may well be the biggest actively recording band in the world but it is worth noting that 12 albums into their career The Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed, at the same stage U2 are equally as bloated, yet the vitality has gone. No Line On The Horizon is the sound of a band unsure of itself.

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