This is the most frustrating album of U2’s career. Frustrating not because it’s bad or mediocre, but because most of it is so good that it makes the weak spots downright baffling. The good songs here—the first four and last four songs, the majority of the album—are not only brilliant, but they flow seamlessly into one another to create an actual album experience, a suite of great hypnotic songs. The harmony of this suite is broken in half by three more straightforward pop songs in the middle of the album, unfortunately.
It’s no coincidence that the good songs were recorded with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in a Moorish courtyard in Fez, Morocco and in U2’s home studio in Dublin. Sadly, the middle section of the album—culled from separate recording sessions in New York and London—is so bland and unimaginative it’s embarrassing.
Wacky lead single “Get on Your Boots” isn’t a bad song (compared to “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” it’s genius), but it’s not up to snuff with the rest of the album. “Stand Up Comedy” starts off disastrously, with an obvious/boring Zeppelin-type riff, then shifts in its last minute or so to become strangely, noisily compelling. The aforementioned “I’ll Go Crazy…” is just horrendous.
One of my concerns about U2’s last album was the degeneration of Bono’s lyrics. He’s a great lyricist, and he can write compellingly about love, war, death, politics, and God, but by the time of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb his words had become simplistic or obvious. This album has alleviated my worries on that front. Bono rattles off great lines throughout the album, and even the lyrics on the songs I don’t like have a witty, winning charm to them.
Okay, enough bitching. I don’t want to dwell on the album’s weaker points, because most of No Line on the Horizon is wonderful. The title track is a knockout. “Magnificent” is the U2 anthem here, with ringing Edge guitar tones and yearning Bono vocals. “Moment of Surrender” is gorgeous blue-eyed soul, and it features the soul-cleansing chorus of the year. “Unknown Caller” isn’t quite as good as the first three tracks, all masterpieces, but it’s a fine experiment musically and lyrically.
My favorite tracks, though, are probably the final four. They’re the most interesting musically and the most affecting and memorable lyrically, I think. “FEZ-Being Born” might be my favorite song on the album: it’s at once a haunting mood piece and a soaring rock anthem. “White as Snow” is one of the most subtle things U2 have ever done: this quietly sad ballad, sung from the point of view of a dying soldier in Afghanistan, is somewhere between a Western ballad and a hymn for our rough 21st century. Haunting and beautiful. “Breathe” is a great rock song, in my opinion: I love Bono’s motor-mouth delivery and surrealistic (but intelligible) lyrics, and the chorus is gorgeous. A lot of people don’t know what to make of closing track “Cedars of Lebanon.” U2 traditionally end their albums on a depressing note, and this is no exception. This song is a strange, half-spoken cousin of “Wake Up Dead Man” and “Love is Blindness” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.”
Really, this is a fine album. It’s the most adventurous one they’ve made since POP, and it’s really the album they should have made after All That You Can’t Leave Behind. If you’re the numeric sort, I suppose I’d give No Line an 8 out of 10. It would be a 9 if the weak middle section was deleted or changed.