The Guardian FEBRUARY 27, 2009 - by Alexis Petridis


In the 1996 documentary Tantrums And Tiaras, Elton John is shown detailing his mind-boggling earnings. "What would you do if people stopped buying your albums and coming to your shows?" asks a voice off camera. John looks completely baffled, as if the voice has just asked him if he's planning to grow gills and go and live under the sea. "That's not going to happen," he frowns. "It just isn't."

It's a reminder that there exists a rarefied, clubbable world beyond mere rock stardom. Its membership criteria make the Garrick look like a Pitcher and Piano: so stringent that U2, formed in 1976, are probably the most recent addition to its ranks. And life there brings its own artistic challenges. What do you do when your commercial success has been so consistent for so long that you know for a fact there's no end to it? The obvious answer is whatever you want, but as U2 discovered with the release of Pop, it doesn't work quite like that. Their 1997 album was a well-meaning but clumsy stab at continued contemporaneity: like David Bowie going drum'n'bass, the co-production credit for minor-league trip-hopper Howie B seems the perfect symbol of a major artist trying a bit too hard in the '90s. Reeling from the shock of an album that was only certified platinum once in America, U2 clearly discovered that the urge not merely to be successful, but to be more successful than everybody else - the urge that had powered them past infinitely hipper, more acclaimed post-punk contemporaries into the realm of Elton John in the first place - was still as strong as ever. Cue the manhandling of minor-league trip-hoppers from the producer's chair and the reassuring sound and sales figures of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

And yet simply being the biggest clearly isn't enough for U2 either: the saga behind No Line On The Horizon suggests a band keen to push beyond their comfort zone again. Sessions with Rick Rubin were abandoned. Recording took place in Morocco. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have been elevated from co-producers to co-writers. You can certainly hear the duo's influence in the charming opacity of the album's sound: the drones of feedback and Can-like drum clatter of the opening title track; the lustrous collage of sounds that make up Fez - Being Born; the appearance of brass, not in the form of a blaring horn section but a mournful French horn, at the climax of Unknown Caller.

All are great moments, but the reality is more complicated than a return to the self-assured experimentation of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, as evidenced by single Get On Your Boots, which sets its cap at Subterranean Homesick Blues but winds up duking it out with We Didn't Start The Fire for the title of Most Excruciating Rapid Fire List Song Ever Written. Suffice to say that an august US rock mag approvingly used the adjective "zany" to describe it, which pretty much sums up its abject ghastliness. Its presence here isn't the only misjudgment. Moment Of Surrender doesn't have enough of a tune to support the full seven-minute gospel treatment. Stand Up Comedy features self-deprecating verses, the lyrical equivalent of Bono giving you a chummy, "Ooh-aren't-I-awful?" wink: "Stand up to rock stars ... beware of small men with big ideas." You can understand the impulse to pre-empt criticism, but allied to a watery tune, the overall effect is to make U2 sound tentative and unconvinced, two things surely no one wants U2 to be. Far better to embrace the very thing they're most often criticised for, and seem most keen to shy away from - the unironic, lighters-out, "I was born to sing for you" earnestness this album offers only on Magnificent. The title of I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, meanwhile, reveals rather more about the song than you suspect is intended, with its self-conscious tone of You Don't Have to Be Mad to Work Here But It Helps.

A person of a certain disposition might feel the will to live seeping from them at the very thought of a U2 song called Cedars Of Lebanon, but it turns out to be one of the album's biggest successes: a beautiful, downbeat coda to a confused and confusing album, one that can't decide whether it's ironic or sincere, experimental or straight-forward, and instead attempts to be all things to all people, with inevitably mixed results. Listening to it, you get the feeling that U2's belief in themselves as boundary-pushers was shaken, perhaps irrevocably, by Pop's relative failure. Maybe No Line On The Horizon's guaranteed multi-platinum success will give them more confidence next time round. That's one of the privileges of life in the rarefied world beyond rock stardom: you always get another chance.