The Irish Times FEBRUARY 27, 2009 - by Jim Carroll


The arrival of a new U2 album has a strange effect on sane people. Many of my fellow critics have greeted the new arrival with open arms, ticker-tape parades, unrestrained praise and new shades of purple prose.

This is to be expected from the band's own golden circle of house-trained scribes, but it's something else entirely when usually reliable bellwethers join the circus. Maybe they're holding out for a twenty-five-minute session with The Edge or it's like the banking cowboys exhorting people to put on the green jersey.

Like every outing since Achtung Baby, this album is about trying to go back to that glorious snapshot in time. Achtung Baby was where U2 were last at their most thrilling and they know it. Back then, they showed that you could only truly proceed in pop by abandoning everything which had served you well to date.

Like its immediate predecessors, No Line On The Horizon doesn't really amount to a hill of beans. It huffs and puffs and throws all the right shapes to make it look like the band are going to the well in search of reinvention and creative salvation. However, it's all show and no substance. There is a flurry of ideas, and the usual retinue of astute helpers are on hand to turn these ideas into potential gold and platinum, yet there's little to indicate that the band have the mettle to challenge themselves by doing what is not expected of a band in their position.

The notion that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois will always save the day is written large throughout. The fact is, though, that Eno and Lanois are only as good as who and what they're working with, and this is where the problems begin.

To be fair, there are a few positives here, like the track Magnificent, when U2 fire on all cylinders as though it's the most natural thing in the world for four geezers to stand around in a room and make this sort of gut-busting music together.

You can hear the cogs turning, the guitars and drums perfectly in synch, the sound of stadiums jumping up and down with glee. You can hear where the album could have gone and how it would have cocked a snook to the notion that such acts as Coldplay, Kings Of Leon and The Killers are fit to stand on the same stage as U2. It's the sound of a band not merely applying for their old job back, but actually writing a whole new "smart boys wanted" advert.

Sadly, such euphoria doesn't last. You listen to Unknown Caller, Breathe, Stand Up Comedy and Cedars Of Lebanon and wonder what the hell is going on. It's the comedown after the sugar rush.

Like most of the album, each of these four tracks is a bit of a muddle. The band sound strangely ill-at-ease with each other's contributions and with the songs themselves.

It would be much too easy to single out Bono's lyrics for a bit of a lash here, but the truth is that he's just one culprit in this blustery, burpy, over-cooked melodrama. The album's glaring incoherence can be attributed to many factors, including a lengthy gestation period and a surplus of chefs, but such excuses only show up again how a great album needs more than good intentions and ideas. It really needs a bundle of great songs, and No Line On The Horizon is sorely lacking in this department.

With every song which doesn't sound quite up to scratch, every groove which sounds too layered and over-analysed, every track which keeps meandering and every bum lyric which makes you wince with pity for the writer, you're reminded that U2 members have other priorities these days and that this is an album created with those priorities in mind.

This album will fill stadiums, newspapers, radio stations, websites, quarterly target spreadsheets, bank balances, pension funds and investment opportunities in the tech sector. But - unlike so many other albums which will be released with far less fuss this year - it won't fill your soul.