U2’s latest studio album, No Line On The Horizon, came out two years ago this week, and it was just over two years ago that I posted my initial reaction to the album. With that in mind, I thought I’d write another entry regarding that record, how I think it’s stood up over two years and its place in the U2 catalogue.
First thing’s first: NLOTH is a slow burner. That is, it takes a little while to “get it.” It’s a much more lyrically and musically conceptual album than the other two albums from this style period, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000), which is good and not-so-good.
Nope: The so-so stuff first. NLOTH doesn’t sound like any previous U2 album in terms of overall feel. It’s got the signature U2 elements, to be sure, such as The Edge’s echo, Larry’s signature drums, and Adam’s pulsating bass. Perhaps the disjointed feel has to do with the order of tracks. I’m OK with “No Line On The Horizon” starting the record and “Cedars of Lebanon” finishing it, but I think several tracks in between are out of place. “FEZ-Being Born” doesn’t feel quite right as track #8. It’s a two part song, with the first half a slow, quiet cacophony of street sounds, some organ lines, and an echo of the “Let me in the sound” line that is first heard in “Get On Your Boots,” and the second part is a more energetic run towards its end. I think “FEZ” would have made a great opening track, especially considering its two-part construction and the conceptual nature of the album as a whole. It would have made the perfect introductory track. As track #8, however, “FEZ” feels more like a non-sequitur that comes out of nowhere, especially following two rockers like “Boots” and the Led Zeppelin-esque “Stand Up Comedy.” Here’s a revised track listing that I think would have helped the album’s flow:
- FEZ-Being Born
- Get On Your Boots
- Moment of Surrender
- White As Snow
- Unknown Caller
- Stand Up Comedy
- I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight
- No Line On The Horizon
- Cedars of Lebanon
With this track order, there are two distinct halves to the record, with the “O Come Emmanuel”-based “White As Snow” functioning as the dividing line. This track order would give the record two distinct peaks (“Breathe” and “No Line”), and both halves would end with slow songs (“Moment of Surrender” and “Cedars”). Radical, I know, but I think the order works to give the listener more of a literary exposition-conflict-climax-denoument impression than the scattered original order.
Yup: With all that being said, I think the record is a solid one overall. The good tracks are really, really good. Originally, I thought “Magnificent” would the next great U2 song, following in the footsteps of “Pride,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and “Beautiful Day,” to name but a few. But as I lived with the album, it wasn’t “Magnificent” that took the mantle, rather it was “Breathe.” A song of hope (“Every day I / have to find the courage to / walk out into the street / with arms out / got a love you can’t defeat”) and defiance (“Neither down nor out / there’s nothing you have that I need / I can breathe”) and courage (“The roar that lies / on the other side of silence / the forest fire: / that is fear, so deny it”), “Breathe” is a rocker that I can easily play on repeat and not get tired of it.
“Magnificent,” while not holding up quite as well as I thought it would, is still a great song. You want the trademark U2 sound? “Magnificent” has it all: long, dramatic introduction; Adam’s rich, powerful, active bass line; The Edge’s signature echo; Larry’s driving drumbeat; Bono’s soaring lyrics about love; dynamic use of the stereo field; a wide open, spacious sound. This is, perhaps, the most easily accessible song on the record. That is, it would appeal U2 newbies (U2bies?) as well as longtime U2 die-hards.
The lead single, “Get On Your Boots,” got a lot of criticism, for reasons I can’t understand. Listen to the song carefully: It’s “Vertigo Part II,” and I think that’s a good thing. The texture, form, lyrical content (“Let me in the sound” is a perfect introduction to the artistic direction of this record) are all very similar to “Vertigo,” and that song rocked the house.
Hidden Gem: “Unknown Caller.” This song is amazing, but it’s not for the uninitiated. Like the record as a whole, this one took a little bit to grow on me, but after a while, and especially after seeing it live on the 360 Tour, I’m adding this one to the “Must Listen” list. It’s a complex song, but the ambiguity reflected by the title is clearly represented in the music and lyrics. What “accident” is Bono referring to? Where is the protagonist? We don’t know for sure, and I think that’s the whole message of the song. It’s a conversation between the narrator and someone or something else (the devil? his conscience? an angel?) at some undisclosed, nondescript location. He’s at a crossroads in his life and he’s searching for meaning. This song could even be interpreted as a metaphor for the band themselves. After such a long and distinguished career, U2 are at another crossroads. Where do they go from here? The uncertainty is never resolved: the song’s ending is harmonically open-ended, suggesting that there’s more out there for the protagonist (U2?).
Album Hero: Without a doubt, the hero of this album is Adam Clayton. His bass lines on this record are simply amazing. There is hardly a track on which Adam’s lines aren’t front and center. His tone is big, thick, and rich, without being overpowering, providing the perfect foundation upon which The Edge and Bono can flourish. Check out the chorus sections in “Breathe,” “Magnificent,” and “Unknown Caller.” He give heft and gravity to the verses in “Get On Your Boots,” “Stand Up Comedy,” and “Cedars of Lebanon.” 30 years on, and Adam has never sounded better.
Must Listen: “Magnificent,” “Unknown Caller,” “Breathe,” “Stand Up Comedy.”
Overall impressions: This is a good album. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great one, especially in light of some of U2’s other efforts. But it’s a solid upper-midlevel record. The way I see it, it’s definitely not for U2 newbies. But for seasoned vets who know what to listen for, this one has got some good stuff.