Blurt MARCH 3, 2009 - by A. D. Amorosi


As icy as its graying minimalist cover by Japanese photog Hiroshi Sugimoto might suggest, No Line On The Horizon is U2's messiest album yet. High pitched, cushiony, operatic, playful, clunky, mostly-midtempo, often at a lack for a decent turn of a lyrical phrase or vexing chorus, this thing is the Irish quartet's White Album. Or rather its fragile eggshell off-white album; more eccentrically bold (yet surprisingly tinnier) than How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, not quite as passionate and joyful as All That You Can't Leave Behind (despite Horizon's unusual wealth of love songs - to Bono's missus, I suppose), and certainly less challenging and electro-buzzing than Achtung Baby, the latter my favorite of the band's recordings.

As the melting droney organ and clicky rhythm of its title song (how oddly linear for U2, a title song first) unfurls, a whinnying high vocal slows to announce "no-o-oh li-y-ine on theee hor-i-z-ee-on." It's an uneasy convenience the way Bono's words and vibrating vocal tics (too few at this stage of the game) find themselves having to (con)form to the tune's bridge and sighs. Weirder still is how perfectly the song ends. Actually how every song ends. No Line might be U2's most neatly crafted album - mordantly hermetic even when it's fuzzy, nattily fussy even while it's muddling.

The softly-splayed disco of Magnificent and its bible of adoration ("Only love can leave such a mark") and the slinky synth-gurgle of Moment Of Surrender and its dumbest-ever texts (what the googliemoo is he straining to sing about, semi-precious stones and the altar of the darks stars) seem to beg for, and get, commitment. It's cozy. And that's occasionally woeful and weird. This is nice house-husband work that these tracks consider, with their laid-back Leslie-guitar (?) solos and humbly thumping shuffles trailing behind Bono. In fact, in that context, lines like "the right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear" and "every generation gets a chance to change the world" - on the swift magical mystery pop of I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight - sound like a house-bound man stuck with the kids for too many months. Is this a Bono solo record with his three buddies lending (way too moral) support?

All this ennui and mid-tempo cool up to this point in the album's tracklisting - yes, I'm going track by track here; that's how conveniently laid out Horizon is - and the "joy is real"-filled slick glam blur of Get On Your Boots feels wrong. That is, until you get to the next track, the snaking, hard(ly) rocking Stand Up Comedy and its skanky groove. There's a bit of Beatles again in U2's melodic prowess. And The Edge gets his hungriest shot at hunkering down and riffing out bluesily on this one. Enjoy the growl. You won't hear it again, even though Fez - Being Born has the album's only true freakout in its splintered chorale, its synthy blipping, its dense wall of bass, chamber-y pianos and N'Orleansese shuffle.

Should we mention here that Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite produced this thing and added little gurgles to every artsy antsy element? Yes. OK. They did that. It's still tinny, although there's stuff everywhere. Yet all that stuff feels neatly arranged.

Suddenly "the land is flat" and Bono's singing in a (gratefully) deeper voice, about the dry ground, with a flat dry vocal and a flat dry production against a keys/loop/board on White As Snow - suddenly he's doing a Jim Morrison. Which is OK by me even at this late stage of the game. "We are people borne of sound / The songs are in our eyes / Gonna wear them like a crown," Bono yelps. while The Edge finds a fever pitch Ronson-like staccato on Breathe. I might've kvetched but-for-a-second at Bono's love letters during Horizon's first half. But they work better than his universal soldier thing, especially when you consider Cedars Of Lebanon and its noodling dedication - musically and lyrically - to going around the world at war and winding up in the same place.

Yet all this is something you can't leave behind as Horizon finds - not portrays; it ain't that dramatic - an imperfect U2 at its seductive conductive coolest.

Notice I didn't say its hottest?