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Saturday, March 14, 2009

No Line on the Horizon

I probably shouldn't put this off any longer. So here it is, The Rob Report's review of the new U2.

I've had the album for nearly a month now and I've listened to it pretty constantly since I got it. Surprisingly, my initial impressions haven't changed much at all. In a sentence, half of it works for me and half of it stinks.

U2 have, for the better part of a decade, produced albums aimed squarely at pleasing the masses. Unabashedly. And there's nothing wrong with that. In a sense, that's what pop music is supposed to do.

However, with U2, you almost get the feeling as you listen to the music on "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" that there's some ulterior motive there. The music, the riffs, the refrains, all of it feels a little too calculated, a little too obvious.

The last two albums felt like U2 sitting in the studio trying really hard to sound like U2. And it's not hard to see why. The backlash after 1997's "Pop" had to have stung pretty good. And so what we saw emerge from that was a band resolved to play it safe, to play it big and to play it obvious.

Which was hard to watch. One of the things I've always believed that has made U2 the brilliant band they are (were?) was their ability to experiment with their craft while not getting lost in the woods. They always end up producing their best stuff when, as Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot says, they're out on the limb, saw in hand. You end up with stuff like "Mysterious Ways" and "Zoo Station" and "Exit" and "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Promenade" and "MLK" and "The Wanderer" and "Do You Feel Loved" and all the stuff in between. All these songs that are crazy brilliant.

That went out the window after "Pop" and what you were left with was two solid but ultimately boring albums from a band that in the past had been anything but. For the first time you could hear the band trying. You could hear the effort in something that used to sound effortless.

I think, to some extent, the band recognized that. They were pretty vocal while recording "No Line," about how it was another change in direction, another effort to go back into the studio and "dream it all up again."

And you know what? They get about half way there. The first three songs on the album really show the band at their best. The sound is textured and rich and they move in directions that you don't immediately expect. "No Line," the title track, is muted and atmospheric with no obvious chiming guitar, no easy-out chorus. It's heavy, but refreshing. It's a great lead-in to "Magnificent" which, in some ways, is just the opposite. It's got that big, U2-anthem feel but it kind of comes at you sideways. Both these tracks have Eno's fingerprints all over them. But we'll talk about that later.

You feel the album shift gears with "Moment of Surrender" a seven-minute, almost blue-eyed soul ballad from the band. It works mostly because you've never heard U2 sound like this before and because it's got this killer bass groove and a welcome slide-guitar solo from the Edge.

But after that, the album quickly starts to feel like "Atomic Bomb" redux. "Unknown Caller" and "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" land flat. "Caller" is this sci-fi-like existential look at being lost amid the technology of modern-day life. Unfortunately it's really poorly executed. "Crazy," while it has some really fun moments, ultimately feels warmed over and dull. You hear the effort of the band trying to make a big, stadium-ready rocker.

And then there's "Get on Your Boots." The song is still a mess, flailing about for a melody, although it sounds a little better in the context of the album. It was a poor choice for the lead single. I see it going to the graveyard to take its place among songs like "New York" and "Origin of Species."

"Stand Up Comedy" is another track that almost works. It's also one of the few songs on the album that has steadily grown on me. I love the heavy, Led Zeppelin-inspired guitar riff and the chanting "Stand Up" chorus. I'm sure it'll work really well live. However, much of the progress gained on the song is undone by some of the worst lyric-writing I've seen yet from the band. "Stand up to rock stars/Napolean is in high heels/Josephine be careful/Of small men with big ideas." Really? That's what we've come to? I'm sure it looked great on paper, but it sounds terrible in the song.

However, it clears the air for "FEZ-Being Born," probably the most exciting track on the album. "FEZ" is U2 at the most experimental they've been since "Pop" and almost sounds like something left off of "Unforgettable Fire." Or something that could easily fit there. It's got a really satisfying crunch and a great hook, and Bono's stream-of-conscious lyrics fit in the cracks brilliantly.

A lot's been said about "White as Snow," this quiet ballad told from the point of view of a soldier dying alone in Afghanistan. It shows better than anything else the shift Bono has made in his lyric writing. For the last decade it seems, the subtle has been replaced by the obvious and I think it's ruined some otherwise good songs.

"Breathe" is the last rocker on the album and it's a frustrating song. It's got a brilliant chorus and includes one of the best similes I've heard from Bono in probably 15 years. He sings about running down the road like loose electricity. It's a great image. But like much of what they've written during this decade, it feels like a chorus in search of song. The verse has no real melody and it kind of flounders until the chorus kicks in. But what a chorus. The song absolutely electrified the crowd when they performed it on Letterman.

The album ends with "Cedars of Lebanon," another slow burner from the band. It's another that's grown on me a lot. It works that it's as understated as it is. Serves as kind of an appropriate close for the album.

Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have a big presence on this album. And that's not a bad thing. They're talented and they know how work effectively with the band. But ultimately if U2 really wants to make that album that reinvents who they are, they've got to ditch Eno, Lanois and Steve Lillywhite and go find a producer that draws them out of their comfort zone. And they've tried. Between this album and the last, they've brought in like six or seven outside producers to try and produce something new and different. Guys like Chris Thompson, Rick Rubin and Will.I.Am. And each time, they've gotten cold feet and gone back to their holy trinity of Eno-Lanois-Lillywhite.

But I don't think that boldness will ever return. I think this is U2 on the downhill slide to irrelevance. And I think it's because, unlike young bands, they've got nothing to prove anymore. They've go no real compelling reason to get back out on that limb with saw in hand. Which is too bad. I miss being surprised.


Uncle E said...

"For the first time you could hear the band trying. You could hear the effort in something that used to sound effortless."

You're right on, Rob. You and I have talked about this before, but POP was a great album and at least they were trying to be unique unlike "Atomic Bomb" and "All That..." which were just plain meh recordings. I also agree that they need to ditch Eno et all and go with a producer that isn't so comfortable with the U2 sound. Blow it up, man! Get Dave Friedman (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, MGMT, etc) on board to shake things up. Or is it too late? This album is their Tattoo You, half decent half rubbish and if they don't do saomething barnburning soon they're going to make their Undercover Of The Night next, or end up singing Dancing In The Street with David Bowie. And that would be it for me. Great analysis.

cdillon said...

Thanks for sharing your U2 wisdom, RR.
Here is part of an interview Eno did in the latest Mojo magazine.
Q:When you work with bands it seems that your role is more as a creative catalyst than a producer. Which of the artists you've worked with have taught you the most?
Eno:Probably U2, I was thinking about this, funnily enough, this morning when I was having a swim.One of the things that I find very , very interesting and sometimes infuriating about them is that they won't leave anything alone. So sometimes they will come up with a song, a really good song, just like that. And they'll totally ruin it by trying to make it better. So the graph with them . . . (draws the axes of a graph on a piece of paper)Here's zero down here, the songs up there. You think, "Wow fantastic, what an amazing piece." Then they will start smashing it to bits and it gets worse and worse and worse, and then it starts to get better and it goes back up there. And you think, "OK that's great. Now leave it alone!" Then the whole process goes down again.
Now the reason this can be infuriating is if the record release date fall there (points to peak), then that's wonderful. But (points to trough)if it happens to fall there (laughs) . . . and it's a little bit like that, it's like a roulette wheel spinning . . . Time is like a roulette wheel deciding when the thing comes out and it doesn't necessarily fall on a peak.
That's the word from Ol'Eno.
I miss you Rob.Blessing to you and yours.

Ronifer269 said...

I see one big similarity between Pop and this latest effort. Both have great ideas and moments that are on the verge of brilliance.

I do like this album for its depth and exploration. But I agree that a couple of the songs are just inches from becoming classic.

The quote from Eno is spot on. U2 seem to be too calculating in the crafting of their songs. This is true with Bono as well. I like his writing better then his lyrics these days. Why? Because it is more off the cuff and spontaneous.

I agree with you Rob about them being on the backside of innovation and exploration. They will always hold some relevance but more as a Rock Star emeritus sort.

I like the album a lot. Unfortunately U2's past work has set such a high standard that always needs to be dealt with.

Trailer Trash Traci said...

Nice review, Rob. Very good analysis, I enjoyed it. I'll admit I'm nowhere near as educated on this subject, other than to say I think Bono is an excellent (if not one of the best) showman/stage performers. Which is not to say he can speak well, at all. I saw his lecture on Africa on Ted and it was HORRIBLE. Awful. Maddeningly arrogant, illogical, and inarticulate. The Southpark lampoon of him as a #2 pretty much ruined him, at least for me.

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