INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Bud Scoppa
U2: NO LINE ON THE HORIZON
Magnificent! Thirty years on, a suitably immense statement from rock's great survivors.
"It's very hard to be relevant, so there's lot at stake for us on this album," Bono told the New York Times on the day before No Line On The Horizon was released. "I know the quality of the work is there, but will it be taken? I really don't know. I'm genuinely curious. I think it might have a bumpy start."
Meanwhile, co-producer Daniel Lanois, interviewed in Canada's National Post, reckoned, "We wanted to build something that had never been heard before. And I think we succeeded at a few turns in the record... In these fast times of reference, it's nice to break new sonic ground."
As we finish our dissection of U2's massive CV, it makes sense to dolly back and look at No Line On The Horizon in the context not only of U2's body of work but of rock history in general. For some years now, U2 have made history every day merely by remaining intact.
Think about it: rock bands simply don't last three decades in one piece... except for this one. Young and Crazy Horse: on again, off again. Springsteen and E Street: ditto. Stones: a veritable revolving door of personnel. The fact is, no band comes close to U2 in terms of sheer survivability. And when you consider that U2 have not only survived but remained at the pinnacle of commercial success, while also continuing to challenge themselves, album after album, the appearance of any new recording project from this band bears close scrutiny. Simply because, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, they're going where no man has gone before.
As an added wonder, they've somehow persevered as a sincere crew ploughing through the meteor storms of a grindingly ironic age. Because of their very indefatigability - "the right to appear ridiculous", as Bono puts it on I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight - U2 have taken more abuse than any band other than The Stones, and this despite the fact they've done little or no resting on their laurels. Those in the blogosphere looking for reasons to justify their desire to savage No Line On The Horizon - or U2 generally - revealed more about their own prejudices than they did about the music or the band. Given the crushing weight of scrutiny here in the Age Of Snark, Andrew Mueller had every reason to begin his Uncut review with the basic truth from which all opinions follow: "Never has any rock'n'roll band been so polarising an entity, so adored and abhorred, so blessed/cursed with the ability to inspire and capacity to infuriate, as U2." This statement could also serve as a one-sentence synopsis of this entire set of album-by-album essays.
Initially, No Line On The Horizon resists quick judgement or easy analysis. The most enduring records tend to be the deepest, and for that reason they can only be fully experienced over time. The first few times I tried to get through Exile On Main Street, it sounded like a a cacophonous mess, but because it was The Stones I kept playing it, and one day it not only snapped into place, it captured me. When it was time to make up our Top 10s of 1972, I had it at Number 1.
Now that the dust has settled and we've had a chance to live with No Line On The Horizon, how is it holding up? My own experience with the record has been one of deepening involvement. Get On Your Boots, which seemed at first to be a mishmash of a Pump It Up-derived adrenaline rush and a stab at Bowie-esque grandiosity, failed as a lead single because it wasn't cohesive enough to be sticky and lacked an uber-hook. In that sense, it came across as a lesser Vertigo or Elevation - a riff rocker that keeps pulling the chair out from under the riff.
On the other hand, as an introduction to - and microcosm of - the album as a whole, it's right on the money. You need to hear the track in context to fully appreciate it, but once you do, Get On Your Boots becomes infectious in any context. I have it in the second slot of my first 2009 compilation CD, right behind Beck's fuzzed-out dive-bombing of Dylan's Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and, placed side by side, the two rockers totally complement each other.
If Get On Your Boots wasn't slippery enough as a way in to the album, there was the similarly elusive title track, placed first in the sequence in a break with the band's latter-day custom of opening things with a bang: Vertigo, Beautiful Day, Discothèque. Here, in an opening chess move that intimates the extent of Eno's imprint on the album, the band appears in the most claustrophobic setting, rattling away surrounded by white noise, as if they're playing in a wind tunnel lined with corrugated aluminium, the echoes ricocheting like AK47 shells, with Bono sounding suitably agitated.
And in a sublime turnabout-is-fair-play twist, he almost immediately lets loose an unhinged "Whoawhoawhoawhoa", absolutely nailing the baleful wail of Caleb Followill from the Kings Of Leon. I dismissed the track as being slapped together the first few times I heard it, but then the eureka moment arrived. What had struck me as an annoying incongruity between the band's hammering attack and Bono's reach-for-the-sky histrionics turned out to be shorthand for the album's sonic force field, it's embrace of apparent incongruities and contradictions: the churning, serrated bottom and the majestic, vaulted ceiling.
In the National Post interview, Lanois recounted the genesis of the title song. "Brian Eno's station was right next to Larry's - we have little stations in the studio - so at any point Brian could record what Larry was doing, and manipulate it and sample it and so on. He did that, and it started out as a little Bo Diddley sample beat. Kind of jazzy, but it had a vibe to it. As soon as Eno sampled that, we jumped right on top of it and started playing over it, including Larry. And we came up with what I think is space age rock'n'roll - space age rockabilly. Bono had this idea - where the sea meets the sky and you can't tell the difference between the two."
The metaphor of the title couldn't be more apt: it's right there in the sounds. With Eno more integral to the band's process than ever before (Passengers excepted, of course), manning the controls from Captain Kirk's chair, they're on a voyage toward the end of the rainbow, where the ocean's turbulence meets the sky's majesty. And when they find that sweet spot, there's no better way to describe the sound of it than "Magnificent". Given that this is a metaphysically attuned foursome, the intimations of immortality are there for the taking throughout. But the spiritual is a dimension of this record, not its mandate. And it doesn't hurt that Clayton's earth-moving bassline on Magnificent echoes the one on Billie Jean.
The ocean/sky dynamic is at play in the album's sequence. There is the glorious first act of No Line On The Horizon, the instant classic, the sonic panorama of Moment Of Surrender (Lanois describes it as a tribute to The Band) and the epic Unknown Caller. The meat-and-potatoes second act consists of I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, Get On Your Boots and Stand Up Comedy. Then, a third act you can get lost in, like a novel by Le Carré or McEwan: Fez - Being Born, White As Snow, Breathe and Cedars Of Lebanon. Within the songs are connections: White As Snow and Cedars Of Lebanon form a sort of cinematic trilogy with Moment Of Surrender. The line "Let me in the sound" from Get On Your Boots recurs in the staticky first section of Fez - Being Born.
Eno's shell game - his Oblique Strategies - is so deep in the grain of the album that you can easily envisage the band-members drawing cards from the deck he's offered, the ensuing multiplicities guiding the expanded band toward the gradually unfolding "plan" that some critics have dismissed as no plan at all. That No Line On The Horizon rebuffs quick judgement turns out to be its greatest strength, as layer upon layer of sonic intrigue reveals itself incrementally, and perhaps endlessly. This is unequivocally U2's most Eno-esque record since Achtung Baby, a reconfiguring of the familiar with strategic injections of new mysteries to explore, bringing on the requisite cavalcade of reference points: Roxy's mission statement Re-Make/Re-Model, the quartet beginning with Here Come The Warm Jets and ending with Before And After Science, Low/"Heroes", Achtung Baby and, as an oblique reaffirmation/rejiggering, All That You Can't Leave Behind. "He a great man for giving you an opportunity to look at your work in another manner," said Lanois.
The more I listen to it, the more I want to keep listening, so I completely buy into Bono's mantra, "Let me in the sound". Like Eno, I'm more interested in the sounds of words than the meanings, and Bono delivers lines that pop out of the weave like The Edge's guitar riffs, complete with an array of "effects". For me, the most compelling part of the album is the visceral interaction of the band - the attack and and serrated tones of Edge's guitar, Clayton's incredibly full and aggressive basslines and Mullen's relentless, in-the-pocket drumming - as the instrumental aggressiveness locks together with Bono's similarly Eno-enhanced attempts at big-sky orchestral grandeur. This is one of rock's greatest instrumental units to begin with, and Eno's treatment of the players' shared sense of time and feel, tone and texture on No Line On The Horizon renders its sonics endlessly enthralling.
Given U2's unprecedented run, history is always chasing them, and vice versa, meaning self-consciousness is a given. So here, with Eno waving his magic wand, they've made it part of the plot - but the self-referentialism is fleeting and often playful, from Bono's lyrical zingers to Edge's calibrated employment of sixteenth notes. Of course, every idea, every decision, is reflected off the prism of the band's body of work - twelve studio albums' worth of accumulated ideas and decisions, which is both the albatross around their necks and the force field out of which they've been making music all along.
The point is, no major band have ever been in this position before - this is a partnership extending in an unbroken line from the post-punk era to the end of the first decade of the next century - which makes anything they do necessarily intriguing. Really, how can anyone with a sense of history not be drawn to this dense, intricate real-life narrative, chapter by chapter? This is one classic rock'n'roll story that's still unfolding. Let's savour it while it lasts.
Tracks: No Line On The Horizon / Magnificent / Moment Of Surrender / Unknown Caller / I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight / Get On Your Boots / Stand Up Comedy / Fez - Being Born / White As Snow / Breathe / Cedars Of Lebanon
Released: February 27, 2009
Produced by: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois
Recorded at: Fez, Morocco and other locations
Additional musicians: Terry Lawless and will.i.am