The Guardian JULY 7, 2009 - by Alan McGee


U2 have recorded plenty of great songs, but they've yet to make a spectacular album.

U2. Even typing those two letters brings forth in me an almost Pavlovian purchasing response. Why? For more than twenty-nine years I've been compulsively buying U2 albums looking for the song. It's fair to say U2 don't make classic albums. But they do make classic songs. And I'm always on the hunt for the next one.

It is, however, a tiresome pursuit and, for six months, their new album, No Line On The Horizon, has sat unplayed in my house. In fact, it wasn't until last week, on a flight to New York, that I bothered to listen to it.

Even in 1980, U2 polarised music fans. I remember the lines were firmly drawn between fans of Echo And The Bunnymen and U2. I still love Echo And The Bunnymen and their fractal music shot through with punk and psychedelia; their albums were full of surrealism, humour and colour. In comparison, U2 could seem dry, dull and pompous. I was determined to dislike them, but I discovered in 1980, much to my shame and dismay, that they did have a great song in them: I Will Follow (from their debut, Boy).

From then on, I was stuck with the band. I've bought every subsequent U2 release in anticipation of finding the next great song. Throughout their many transformations, nothing has changed in my relationship with the band. They still haven't delivered an album I could call "classic", but they've made plenty of great tunes.

Three years and one utterly terrible album (October) into my quest, I was rewarded again, with New Year's Day, from their third album, War. The Unforgettable Fire was a disappointment and gave me nothing - could I face buying another album? It was with a heavy heart that I purchased The Joshua Tree, and I was lavished with two great tunes, With Or Without You and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. Good times! Things were picking up... or were they? 1988's Rattle And Hum documentary was impossible to sit through, and my mind has blacked out the entire surround-sound experience of both the film and the accompanying album. Nonetheless, my two abiding memories of the film are Bono saying "Here's a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles and now we're taking it back" before launching into their atrocious cover of Helter Skelter, and a television interview where Henry Rollins of Black Flag was astounded and mystified by Bono's cowboy hat as he strolled down Sunset Boulevard. After Rattle And Hum, it seems even U2 knew they had gone too far, spending the next couple of years on a musical hiatus. Luckily, this interval allowed enough time for me to repress my memories of these rock'n'roll misdemeanours, and I bought Achtung Baby in 1991 with restored confidence.

Achtung Baby turned out to be a gold mine for songs, and I still believe it was created under the influence of both Primal Scream and Happy Mondays. Mysterious Ways, The Fly and One stood out as milestones in my U2 odyssey, but, sadly, would taunt and tease me, as it would be another thirteen years and three albums before U2 released anything else great: the utterly camp and cool Discothèque, and the cathartic Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own.

I had feverish hopes for No Line On The Horizon when U2 announced Rick Rubin as producer. I was looking forward to Rubin's almost magical tricks of reinvention and - maybe - an actual, bona fide classic album. The long gestation period was also a good sign. Then Rubin was dropped in favour of the standby of Brian Eno: uh oh, bad sign. For this reason, I delayed playing the album until my trip to New York, as the thought of hearing another October or The Unforgettable Fire was too exhausting to contemplate. And after ten listens to it, I'm afraid the album is completely underwhelming, with the exception of the propulsive soul stomper Magnificent (another one for the list). And so my quest for the classic U2 album continues. After twenty-nine years on the hunt, I still haven't found what I'm looking for.