So I'm just gonna' be straight up honest here from the get-go, and say that I've got mixed feelings about this album. But then, I've had mixed feelings about U2 for a long time now.
Personally, I've just had a really difficult time reconciling all of the earnestness of Bono's efforts as a truly world-class altruist and politician — not to mention his lyrics — with his apparent megalomania and his messiah complex.
Glad-handing with presidents and popes aside, I've just always found it a bit tough to really believe in the idea of a streetwise rock-and-roll savior in wraparound sunglasses, and just lately dark eye-shadow, okay?
I guess it's that whole Jesus thing.
That said, No Line On The Horizon is a damn good album — though not necessarily the truly great entry in the U2 canon that some have been making it out to be. I'll give U2 credit for one thing, and that is the fact that they continue to make really great rock music in the old-fashioned sense that it used to be made — especially at this late point in their career. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, they continue to be relevant, and you simply can't dismiss that.
The reason this is a really good — just not quite great — U2 album, is because despite several stops (Pop) and starts (All You Can't Leave Behind) over the band's career this past decade or so, they remain smart enough to know what works. Which is also where the problem here lies. Listening to tracks like "Magnificent" and "Breathe," you get the feeling that U2 have become so good at this, that they could do it in their sleep.
Not that this a bad thing.
Those tracks work precisely because U2 still know how to craft great three – or four-minute anthemic rock songs at a time when few others do — especially when they've been around as long as these guys have. The elements are all there. Edge still has one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in rock, and it is wisely mixed way up front here. Bassist Adam Clayton is as rock steady as ever, and Larry Mullen remains one of rock's most underrated drummers.
But there is still a paint-by-numbers feeling here.
As good as this record this — and make no mistake, No Line On The Horizon is a damned good record — there is an inescapable feeling of calculation here. Which for me anyway, has always been sort of the unspoken problem with U2. For me, they have always been a band far too willing to shift with the wind.
When a departure like Pop seems to be called for, they deliver it. And when a "return to form" like All That You Can't Leave Behind is needed, they can likewise be counted on.
This is my main problem with No Line On The Horizon.
As good as it sounds blasting from the car stereo or the Bose speakers at home — and make no mistake, this album is meant to be cranked up real loud — it still sounds more like the collection of great U2 songs we know these guys can deliver on a dime, than the sort of bold new artistic breakthrough we were led to believe was coming as recently as last fall. And that's why I refuse to buy into all of the hype about this being the best U2 record since Achtung Baby, Joshua Tree, or (fill in the blank here).
Then again, maybe I just think too much.
After all, those supposedly bold new experimental new songs like "Winter" that were left off of this album are supposed to be coming this fall on a companion piece said to be called Songs Of Ascent.
Oooh…lofty-sounding title there, huh?
The bottom line is that U2 do what they do very well on No Line On The Horizon. No complaints there. I'm sure the stadium tour will do huge business, despite the $250 price for the top seats (that is, unless you can snag the budget-priced $55 field ticket next to the stage).
I give U2 all due credit just for the fact that they can continue to make records this good. But for all of Bono's messianic pretensions, this is definitively not anything that is going to change the game of how rock 'n' roll masterpieces are made. That said, it still kicks more ass than it really has any right to. And I suspect it will grow on me considerably the more I listen to it.
Maybe I just set too high a standard when it comes to these guys. And yes, I probably do think too much.