The new U2 album, 'No Line On The Horizon' will be released on March 2nd. It is a great record, and greatness is what rock and roll and the world needs right now. From the grittily urgent yet ethereal title track all the way to the philosophically ruminative, spacey coda of 'Cedars Of Lebanon' it conjures an extraordinary journey through sound and ideas, a search for soul in a brutal, confusing world, all bound together in narcotic melody and space age pop songs.
Get On Your Boots: an escape from politics
"Let me in the sound" is a repeated lyrical motif (showing up in three songs, including current single 'Get On Your Boots'). The theme of the album is surrender, escaping everyday problems to lose (or perhaps find) yourself in the joy of the moment. For Bono, it clearly represents an escape from the politics of his role as a lobbyist and campaigner into the musical exultation of rock and roll, yet the very notion of escape remains political, if only with a small p. "Every day I have to find the courage to walk out into the street / With arms out, got a love you can't defeat" is the inspirational bridge in an epic, explosive rock anthem 'Breathe', that could be set in Gaza or at your own front door. Scattershot half-spoken verses fire images like news reports from the battleground of life ("16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up / And I'm coming down with some new Asian virus ... Doc says you're fine, or dying") til he is "running down the road like loose electricity", tension building in thundering drums and grungey two note guitar riff until it all lets loose in a soaring, anthemic chorus, as Bono tells us "I found grace inside a sound / I found grace, it's all that I found / And I can breathe".
The theme is even more explicit on 'Moment Of Surrender', a pulsing, dreamily gorgeous 7 minute weave of synths, silvery guitars, sub-bass, handclaps, Arabic strings and soulful ululating vocals, in which the narrator experiences a spiritual epiphany at the very prosaic setting of an ATM machine. It is a beautiful piece that provides the album's beating heart and shows how far U2 can drift from their stereotype as a stadium rock band into unknown territory while still making something that touches the universal.
Musically, these songs might be the two poles of an album that switches between overloaded rockers and hypnotic electro grooves: the U2 / Eno divide. 'No Line On The Horizon' was produced by the professorially brilliant Roxy Music synth magus Brian Eno with his rootsy, muso collaborator Daniel Lanois, the same team that has presided over U2's finest albums, Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991) and their latterday reclaiming of pop's high ground 'All That You Can't Leave Behind' (2000). The chief difference is that here they have been explicitly invited into the songwriting process, with 7 of the 12 tracks credited to both band and producers, and recorded with a six-piece line up featuring Eno on electronics and Lanois on acoustic and pedal steel guitar. It is these songs, in particular, which push U2 towards the invisible horizon of the title, at once more linear (they tend to be driven, with singular grooves, often pulsing along on particular sound effect or rhythmic repetitions) and lateral (they defy obvious song-structure, choruses drop rather than soar, Bono's rich, high voice subsumed into stacked harmonic chants). These tracks draw out of Bono a contemplative depth, so even the fantastically odd 'Unknown Caller' hits a vein of emotional truth, when the spaced out singer is cast adrift on the soundbites of computer and communications networks ('Password, you enter here, right now / You know your name so punch it in') yet seems to find himself talking to the inner voice of God ("Escape yourself, and gravity / Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak"). Words and music dovetail in surprising ways that send the senses spinning.
Left to their own compositional devices, U2 produce rock songs of high-wire adrenalin and in-your-face immediacy. It is almost a relief when they arrive like a troop surge in the middle of the album, reclaiming familiar territory with a burst of shock and awe. This is U2 on safe ground, ramming home the kind of smack bang crunch pop rock that they know radio programmers will fall at their feet for, yet there is almost too much melody and a surfeit of lyrical ideas. Current single 'Get On Your Boots' is the prime example, walloping along with two note punk rock energy, a low-slung heavy metal guitar riff, an expansively melodic psychedelic chorus and playful sloganeering lyrics in which Bono gets off the soap box to pay homage to the more prosaic pleasures of a beautiful woman in comically "sexy boots". Along with the Oasis on steroids singalong pop of 'I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight' and pop Zepplin-esque grooviness and shuffling beats of 'Stand Up Comedy', these songs are the albums most immediate and yet least resonant tracks. They are light relief from the more demanding adventures into new sonic terrain.
Bono's worst reflex as a lyric writer is sloganeering, partly because he is so good at it. On the three songs just mentioned, he piles catch-phrase upon soundbite to build up a thematic idea, often one that plays with his image. So in 'Stand Up Comedy' the diminutive rock star in stacked boots warns us to "stand up to rock stars / Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine be careful of small men with big ideas" and in 'I'll Go Crazy' he confesses (or complains) "there's a part of me in the chaos that's quiet / And there's a part of you that wants me to riot." It is all good fun but too often sounds like a series of t-shirt slogans rather than a song with a heart of its own. His phrasemaking is put to much better effect when it pared back so that the emotion of the song takes precedence, as on the strange, addictive title track, where he loses himself in the blur of a mysterious love, a person whose unknowability represents a kind of Godliness and who tells him "infinity is a great place to start."
On 'Breathe', U2 locate the emotional and philosophical heart in an out and out ball busting U2 anthem (which Eno, apparently, asserts to be "the most U2 song" they have ever recorded). It is matched, in this respect, by the quite wonderful 'Magnificent', in which the U2/Eno/Lanois combo conjure up an instantly recognisable U2 classic in a love song with the flag waving pop drive of 'New Year's Day'. These are songs that will fill their fans with joy, but it is in the album's more intimate, off beat adventures that U2 lock into something that forces listeners to sit up and take note of them anew. There is a busy-ness in terms of sonic tapestry, the meshing together of Edge's sci-fi guitars and Eno's synths providing an intricate, detailed soundscape that constantly tugs at the ears and mind, but the U2/Eno/Lanois songs hold the centre, slowly revealing themselves, demanding repeat listens. It certainly sounds like U2 (as do a lot of groups these days) but in its boldest moments is as fresh and ambitious as the work of first timers, not veterans 33 years on the road.
If it has a flaw, it may be in U2's inherent tendency to want to be all things to all people, so that in album of surrender, they can't quite let themselves go all the way. They still want to bat the ball out of the stadium everytime, and so instinctively counterbalance their desire to reach something otherwordly with the safe bets of crunchy rock hits. In that respect, it doesn't have the innocence or singularity of 'Unforgettable Fire' or 'Joshua Tree', nor does it quite affect the bold re-wiring of their sound that was 'Achtung Baby'. To me, it is probably the album 'Zooropa' was supposed to be, building on the sonic architecture of classic U2 and taking it into the pop stratosphere. But what a place for a band to be, in orbit around their own myth, making music that bounces off the inside of a listeners skull, charged with ideas and emotions, groovy enough to want to dance to, melodic enough to make you sing along, soulful enough to cherish, philosophical enough to inspire, and with so many killer tracks it might as well be a latterday greatest hits. It is, at the very least, an album to speak of in the same breath as their best and what other band of their longevity can boast of that?
Anyway that's my opinion. I can tell you what Bono thinks, because he has been texting me. He comes (as he explicitly says on 'Breathe') "from a long line of travelling salesmen" and he would probably sell his album door to door if he could. "Lifeforce, joy, innovation, emotional honesty, analogue not digital, home-made not pro-tooled, unique sonic landscape," are his buzzwords (although punctuation and spelling are mine). "I pinch myself every morning, evenings no longer a trial. Soul music for the frenzied, rock music for the still. The album we always wanted to make. Now we f*** off ..."
Not for a while yet, I suspect.