10 March 2009

Found Horizons

In the interest of being less of a deadbeat blogger, I’ve been wanting to transition to shorter, more frequent posts (the first being the necessary condition of the second) here on Pop Tones. Today’s post will not mark the beginning of that trend. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve never written at length on U2, a band whose music I’ve had a long, complicated relationship with over the past two decades, and I’m hesitant to do so now, as anything I write here is bound to be less than definitive.

But onward. In many ways, the arc of U2’s career has been defined by the long process of the band’s musical ability catching up to its artistic ambitions. U2 came to prominence during the 1980s and everything they’ve done since has inevitably been judged according to the dubious aesthetics of that decade, for many of the same reasons that a lot of people persist in thinking of Bob Dylan as some kind of protest singer on the basis of a handful of songs he wrote when he was 21 or something. Rock and roll, and pop culture in general, has always fixated on the young and the new (everyone knows this). Still, there’s something to be said for the value of mature-period works as such; the same auteurist impulse that can trace the development of formal ideas and sensibility, as well as a honing of craftsmanship, through the career of a film director can obviously be applied to musicians as well. In any event, as the new U2 album No Line on the Horizon attests, notwithstanding the claims of either ’80s nostalgics or classic-rock fascists who never owned the group to begin with, they weren’t half the band then that they are now.

U2’s 12th album happily finds producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois back on board, along with Steve Lillywhite. No disrespect to Lillywhite, a fine producer who’s made a number of great records with the band over the years, but the presence of Lanois and especially Eno should be mandatory on every U2 album; they’re as essential to the band’s sound as George Martin was to the Beatles’. It’s no coincidence that the five U2 albums produced by the duo—The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991), Zooropa (1993), and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)—are the band’s five best.

Make it six. While the Lillywhite-produced How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) had several first-rate songs, the album wound up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts. More specifically, it was lacking in the spiritual overtones that have helped define all of U2’s best work—whether through their presence or pointed absence. But with the exception of the poignant “Miracle Drug”—and despite the inclusion of a song called “Yahweh”—the album never quite registered on that level.

The best thing about Atomic Bomb was the band’s newfound comfort with its own grandiosity, a sense of ease that also pervades the new album. Following the electro-grooving title track, which unlike epic U2 openers like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Beautiful Day” is content to merely put the ball in play, we arrive at the dance-club hymn “Magnificent,” the first of three consecutive knockout songs that define the spiritual and emotional contours of the album. “I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up,” Bono sings, injecting biblical language (“It was a joyful noise”) into an already elevated love song before taking us to church in the chorus (“You and I will magnify/The Magnificent”), which soars to the heavens in classic U2 style, climaxing the first time around with an ecstatic “MAG-NIF-i-cent!” from Bono. It’s a beautifully constructed song, the chorus withheld until after the second bridge, and the Eno-Lanois production encompasses sounds from seemingly every phase of U2’s career—digitally delayed guitars, techno blips and bleeps, programming merging imperceptibly with Larry Mullen’s drums—all fused into a seamless whole. And then it occurs to me that Bono’s been trying to write this song for almost 30 years, at least since 1981’s October, and it’s only now he’s gotten to a place where he could pull it off. As a more secular frequent Eno collaborator once put it, it takes a lot of time to push away the nonsense.

Next comes “Moment of Surrender,” a seven-minute techno-gospel epic about finding the road to Damascus at the ATM that once again finds Bono shutting out the world in a flash of divine revelation (“I did not notice the passers-by/And they did not notice me”). Beginning with a gospel bark and hitting the chorus in a falsetto, the singer shows his range here. Like most of the best songs on No Line on the Horizon, “Moment of Surrender“ develops patiently, in no hurry to get where it’s going, the rhythm tracks gurgling forward as if the band were suspended underwater.

On Atomic Bomb, Bono did some backsliding on his pledge to keep his political activism separate from U2’s music and the album’s lyrics were afflicted with a touch of tepid positivism as a result. On Horizon, the personal largely trumps the political. “I don’t want to talk about wars between nations/Not right now,” Bono growls on the punchy “Get on Your Boots,” although he’s changed his mind by the album-closing “Cedars of Lebanon,” a meditative first-person exploration of the psyche of a jaded foreign correspondent in the Middle East. But even this doesn’t quite qualify as a political song—the journalist’s reflections on his craft make him sound a lot like a songwriter (“The worst of us are a long drawn-out confession/The best of us are geniuses of compression”), and the overall vibe is reminiscent of the ghostly “Ain’t Talkin,” which closed out Dylan’s most recent studio album, Modern Times.

Musically restless, No Line on the Horizon covers a lot of ground. Less immediate than the band’s past two albums, Horizon is closer in overall effect to transitional works like The Unforgettable Fire than to big-statement albums like The Joshua Tree. The Lillywhite-produced “Breathe” finds Bono free-associating à la Patti Smith, scrambling to be heard (“Let me in the sound! Let me in the sound!” he insists at a couple other points on Horizon) over an atypically monstrous riff from Edge, while the atmospheric “FEZ—Being Born” is the only song to explicitly reference the band’s brief stint in Morocco. (Although rumor has it that No Line on the Horizon has a twin, a more meditative, experimental, possibly Sufi-influenced album to surface late this year or early in 2010. Stay tuned.)

But the alert reader has no doubt already noticed that I never got around to the last of those three knockout songs. A mere week after No Line on the Horizon’s official release date, I’m ready to declare “Unknown Caller” one of the half-dozen or so best U2 tracks of all time. Eno makes his presence felt here, as on “Moment of Surrender,” with musical ideas that go all the way back to his 1975 classic Another Green World. His synthesizer arrangement and the song’s rhythmic, robotic vocals blend harmoniously with a classic Edge guitar line to create a song that’s both classically U2 and unlike anything else in the band’s catalog, the thrill of which is exponentially enhanced by the knowledge that this particular combination of sounds, ideas, and musical forms was literally decades in the making. Bono’s lyrics again sketch a portrait of a man in existential crisis (“I had driven to the scene of the accident/And I sat there waiting for me”), before giving way to the majestic chorus: “Restart and reboot yourself/You’re free to go,” chant what sound like the digitally distorted voices of Edge, Eno, and Lanois, their short, clipped phrasings crashing into the song like text messages from God (“Hear me/ Cease to speak that I may speak”) in an inspired fusion of sound and sense. The masterful production climaxes with an unlikely French horn and an unlikelier Edge guitar solo. “Unknown Caller” plays like a gloriously expansive response to Radiohead’s paean to techno-alienation “Fitter Happier,” a joyous dispatch from someone who’s been there and done that and somehow come out the other side.