Born to sing - U2 is back with its best album in 18 years

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 28.04.09

Not since Achtung Baby has U2 sounded this good, this tight, this enduring. Its twelfth studio album looks forward even as it looks back. It cannot be defined or limited by time — it is now, it is classic.

No Line… may not have a single winning ballad like Achtung’s One, or The Joshua Tree’s opening trio destined for greatness, but as a whole, it works just as well. And this, for U2, has been an elusive crown.

The stark, Surrealism-influenced cover of No Line On The Horizon

“There are no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it f***ing annoys me,” Bono had said about All That You Can’t Leave Behind. With No Line…, he can leave that irritation behind. This one soars, sails and soothes. But most of all, it sings. With a truth we haven’t seen from the Dubliners for some time. Truth, and perhaps even a little humility.

In No Line…, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton have been reunited with the crack production team of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, who are credited with encouraging the band to revisit its roots. And it shows. The sound is a blend of their classic rock, recalling a mood that predates The Joshua Tree, but also skips forward in spirit to Achtung Baby. Mostly, however, this is wholly original.

Despite the failure of U2’s earlier experiments of blending rock with electronica and straight pop sounds, No Line… takes a new direction once again, leaning heavily on Brit rock — at once a safe zone and uncharted territory. All those whom U2 has influenced over the years — Coldplay, Oasis, INXS among them — have returned to influence them.

This result is anthems that grow with every listen, hooks that stay in your head, accompanied by percussion and guitars that meld seamlessly into the whole. Sonically, No Line… is the mature album fans have been waiting for a long time.

It opens with the title track No Line On The Horizon, with its intense rhythm and frenetic energy, which instantly sets the tone. “Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear,” Bono sings. In the space of the next 10 songs, he will remind you of this over and over again.

The album hits its highest point early on with track two, Magnificent. Bono and The Edge have created a modern-day hymn that almost fools you into thinking it is a love song. Right from its driving intro, Magnificent never hits earth, soaring from peak to peak in an oddly modest request to be allowed to do what Bono does best — sing for the world and his God. His voice reaches out with the raison d’être of the album and of his life: “I was born to sing for you. I didn’t have a choice.”

The third song — Moment Of Surrender — cements the mood with its lyric about a lost man and a lost generation looking for its soul. In its opening lines, we hear a Bono as bare as he was when he sang about losing his father in Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.

In Unknown Caller, desperation shouts out loud. The delicate, teasing touch of the sweet intro leads straight into an old-fashioned, stomp-your-feet rock classic — or as close to it as U2 ever chooses to get anymore — about good, old-fashioned angst.

A change of pace brings in I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, the most Brit-rock inflected of the lot, from Bono’s nasal vocals to the melody. It’s a gem waiting to be unleashed on a concert.

That is followed by another rouser, the familiar Get On Your Boots, the first single released from this album, with its relentless rhythm that catches you and refuses to let you go. It revisits U2’s favourite theme of “wars between nations” and horrors of the modern world.

With Stand Up Comedy, Bono cries out to the listener to “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady”. U2 has moved past all things temporal, and love for God can seldom be confused for love for a woman, as it could be in their early days. “Come on you people, stand up for your love,” he commands.

Fez Being Born slows down the tempo to bring up the tail end of the album. Fez — where part of the album was recorded — sparks memories of birth. Undoubtedly, the band’s rebirth.

White As Snow is another political song, about a land searching for forgiveness, with references to crescent moons and poppies as cues to the war-torn Middle East.

Then, snuck in almost secretively, the key comes with Breathe, serving as the prologue to the entire album. Starting with the words “16th of June” — the day James Joyces’s Ulysses was set — Bono embarks on a kind of stream-of-consciousness rush of words and rhythm, incorporating themes that run through the tracks of birth, rebirth, redemption, the glory found through sound. The line “I found grace inside a sound” may well explain Bono’s quixotic insistence to “Let me in the sound” in Get On Your Boots. (To let him in the sound is thus letting him into grace, where sound can equally mean music or a body of water, in a clear reference to baptism.)

The final track Cedars Of Lebanon is about the people behind the headlines. Told through the eyes of a journalist, it has the tone of an afterthought — to be played after a hard day’s work, a reminder that, despite talk of love and glory, all is not well in the world. It brings the album to an abrupt end, with a question hanging in the air — what happens next?

If this album lacks anything, it is the ambiguity that Achtung Baby had in its lyrics. U2’s meaning used to be obscure — you had to go looking for it, and when you found it, it was always worth the effort. Though there is a return to the imagery of the early days, God looms large over No Line… But chances are, you will mind it less than in the past, if only because religion is approached with more true spirituality than before by Bono and Co.

“In their music you hear the spirituality as home and as quest,” said Bruce Springsteen as he inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. With No Line..., it sounds as though U2 have finally found their way home, and in their peace they have rediscovered poetry.

The road till now…
(Studio albums)

20 October 1980

A raw, unpolished album. Yet even from these earnest beginnings, the U2 sound can be deciphered. Best known for I Will Follow

October 1981

With Gloria leading the way, U2 begins its quick climb to the top

February 1983

The first album to hit No.1 with classics I Will Follow and Sunday Bloody Sunday

The Unforgettable Fire,
October 1984

The first project that brings Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois together with U2. With Pride (In The Name Of Love) and Bad, it gets them noticed in the US, aside from making No.1 in the UK and Australia

The Joshua Tree,
March 1987

History is made; a Grammy is won; the hottest selling contemporary rock band is born. Though it is difficult to fault any track, Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With or Without You confirm U2’s place among rock’s greats

Rattle and Hum,
October, 1988

A carry-forward of The Joshua Tree sound and themes, it combines live recordings and new music, including Desire, All I Want Is You and Angel Of Harlem

Achtung Baby,
November 1991

In a concerted effort to break away from the sound of The Joshua Tree, U2 came up with its most surprising album with an edge and far more insidious lyrics. It is hard to pinpoint a single song as the leader, though One is the best known

July 1993

The experiment with electronica begins. And at this point, it works. A blend of futuristic sound and haunting melody, Babyface, Lemon and Dirty Day are standouts of craft and cunning

March 1997

Their least-liked album took electronica way too far for the U2 fan’s comfort. That said, If God Will Send His Angels, If You Wear That Velvet Dress and Staring At The Sun gave the album its moments

All That You Can’t Leave Behind,
October 2001

A return to grace, though it lives up to its predecessor’s name in being the most pop-leaning of all U2’s albums. While Peace On Earth went over-the-top with its literalness, Beautiful Day, Walk On and In A Little While have the old magic

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,
November 2004

Proof that the old magic is still new magic. It mixes up mood and tempo, packing in rock songs like City Of Blinding Lights, Vertigo and Love Or Peace Or Else with a deeply personal song like Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own