The Times FEBRUARY 16, 2009 - by Pete Paphides


Talk about raising the stakes. "If this isn't our best album, we're irrelevant," Bono declared when asked about U2's new album, No Line On The Horizon, released on March 2. Anyone who has heard the current single, Get On Your Boots, surely won't need reminding how quickly such statements can repeat on you. Quite how such a dog's dinner of Dylan-esque free association and Bolan-esque electric boogie made it beyond the rehearsal room is anyone's guess.

But even before that point the drip-feed of information around No Line On The Horizon had been worrying. Sessions with Rick Rubin were abandoned early. The group made better progress with Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, the producers of U2's 1987 album The Joshua Tree, which prompted Universal to set a deadline for release for autumn 2008. And yet no amount of frantic finessing could ensure the album's arrival in shops by Christmas.

It's a relief, then, to report that on their twelfth album U2 come out of the traps sounding like, well, their old selves. The title track captures a band powering along with the majestic velocity of a Sherman tank. You want it to last, and it does for a time. "I was born to sing for you," intones Bono on the stunning Magnificent, a lyric that brings religious intensity to what, by anyone else, would be a mere love song.

What follows is less a disaster and more a loss of focus, brought about, you suspect, because this is really a compilation of highlights from several disparately spread sessions. That they spent sixteen months retooling Stand Up Comedy should have told them that this lolloping mid-paced rocker simply wasn't good enough - and certainly not with lines such as "Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady". Trailed as the centrepiece of the album, Moment Of Surrender is regarded by the band as the equal of One (1991). But Bono's impassioned testifying is left exposed by a meagre tune.

About three quarters in, however, it's a relief to report that you have heard all of the new album's low points. Adapted from a folk song, White As Snow is Bono's best vocal, depicting a war-torn landscape through eyes exiled by it.

No less potently, Cedars Of Lebanon takes shape amid a sonic fug that mirrors the exhaustion of its war reporter narrator: "Child drinking dirty water from the riverbank / Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank."

No Line On The Horizon isn't U2's best album. But irrelevant? When four members of a group click and the tape is running, irrelevant doesn't really come into it. And, over fifty-four minutes, there are enough of those moments to remind you that you write off U2 at your peril. Next time, though, Bono might want to use his powers of diplomacy to the benefit of his band. If you can get George Bush to sanction the largest response by a Western government to the AIDS crisis then can't you convince your label to wait until you have really delivered your best album?