The Herald FEBRUARY 28, 2009 - by Alan Morrison


For The Beatles, it was Abbey Road; for The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed. Queen delivered A Kind Of Magic; Pink Floyd did The Final Cut. So if U2 still deserve to be considered the biggest rock band in the world, how does their twelfth studio album stand up in comparison with these giants of music history? How, indeed, does it stand up in comparison with their own back catalogue?

So far, the Dublin quartet have played it safe in the twenty-first century. Their previous two albums - All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) - were solid, guitar-driven, commercial hits that added a good few tracks to the canon, but didn't come close to the seminal heights of The Joshua Tree (1987) or Achtung Baby (1991). Respective opening tracks Beautiful Day and Vertigo came charging out of the starting gates, heralding albums with plenty of energy but no obvious desire to push the music scene in any new direction.

Perhaps Bono's mind was elsewhere, as he jetted from the G8 summit to the White House to the Vatican in his campaign to eradicate poverty in Africa. As he agreed to photo opportunities with presidents and metaphorically dipped his hand into the pockets of the world's billionaires, he became an easy target for his detractors. Bono is, however, the model for what a politicised modern-day rock star should be. He's willing to let others feed off his fame if they're willing to pay top dollar, but even in his wraparound shades he never played the jester at the court of Bush and Blair. The proof of his success is plain to see in the increased overseas aid budgets of Western governments and the number of African kids now attending schools.

There we go again; it's so easy to get distracted from the music. But thirty-three years into the band's career - a remarkable feat for an unchanged line-up - the time is right for U2 to at least strive for something more: to prove that their global reputation still has some musical currency. With No Line On The Horizon, even the title refuses to set restrictions or acknowledge that the end might be in sight. Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are back on board (although Steve Lillywhite continues to twiddle knobs, as he did on recent releases), and it's certainly the band's most ambitious record for some time.

The title track opens affairs at mid-pace, saving its urgency for Bono's vocal delivery (he's so happy to be back, he damn near yodels at some points). Magnificent follows up, calming the nerves of long-time fans and coming closest to the band's stadium anthems of the 1980s, as Bono's voice soars and The Edge's guitar chimes: this is U2 doing what only U2 can do.

Moment Of Surrender is reckoned by its writers to be the emotional high point of the album, its One (personally I reckon that comes later, with White As Snow). Over seven minutes long, it showcases the looping drum rhythms and understated bass lines of the often-overlooked Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton. Strange, however, that the early drama of a voice set against sustained keyboard chords should give way to boy band harmonies (U2 as the alternative Take That?) and a prog-rock guitar solo (The Edge as the Dave Gilmour of cool?). Next up, Unknown Caller drags down the album's overall pace: a six-minute slab, straight after Moment Of Surrender, is surely a programming error. An arpeggio riff is to the fore, but this time the solo has something of Guitar Hero about it: here is The Edge, an overgrown schoolboy, regarding his reflection in a giant mirror ball.

Now, for three songs, comes the back-to-back commercial bit. I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight is, musically speaking, the album's tamest cut, although it does contain a key lyric (Every generation gets a chance to change the world / Pity the nation that will listen to your boys and girls / 'Cause the sweetest melody is the one we haven't heard). Current single Get On Your Boots is all dirty fuzz and cheeky fun, an infectious moment of light relief. Stand Up Comedy leaves little impression; it's the kind of funky rock that's best left to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The album's final stretch is its most interesting. Fez - Being Born begins with a full minute of atmospheric studio overlays, the section where Eno's input and the band's studio jaunt to Morocco are clearest. White As Snow ties an intimate story to a traditional melody, creating a beautifully poetic portrait of memory and doubt. Breathe is a proper rocker with a proper rocking rhythm, fitting Bono's pressing rap vocal over a gorgeous progression of chords. Cedars Of Lebanon also puts the singer in character, this time as a jaded war correspondent, giving the topical lyrics and military drumbeat a gentle folky wash.

By all accounts, U2 had to work harder at this album; listeners will have to do so too. The band took several years to build up the musical layers in the studio; listeners will require several plays to take them apart again, to appreciate and make sense of each song's construction. If there is a criticism, then it's that this is truly the product of several studio sessions, not a spontaneous, organic whole made by a band who just love to jam together.

No Line On The Horizon isn't easily consumed, but it isn't alienating either, and that combination is exactly what puts U2 on top of the world. This is the sound of a band eager to challenge themselves creatively again, to demolish the image that they're just the warm-up act for their singer's political day-job.