With No Line on the Horizon, U2 delivered an album of future hymns
The common wisdom regarding U2 is that as their critical fortunes in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone turned around in the early 2000s, their overall or real quality began to decline, and sharply at that; this decline would continue past How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and all its Apple-chic black turtleneck technofascist endorsing splendor on through No Line on the Horizon, their remarkable staggered double-album flop, and seemingly on forever and ever until the end of time. The problem with this hypothesis is that it’s wrong.
This position shouldn’t be terribly shocking to anyone who’s been reading this chapter-by-chapter. We promised you early on that this entire endeavor, a thorough critical reexamination of U2’s entire career long-form, going album by album, was in fact spurred by a conversation about how they are misunderstood by people like us, the common listeners of underground and avant-garde extreme metal, arthouse hip-hop, obscure club and contemporary classical music, noise tapes and drone compilations. For the great chunk of the early life of this project, we absolutely did not deliver; the band’s run from their debut up to Rattle and Hum is rightly lauded (or, in the case of that latter record, shrugged at). For Achtung Baby, we began to break a bit; it is still hard, in the full context of their entire body of work, not to see that particular reinvention as the exact moment the pendulum-swing of their adventurousness and then cloying populist fleshless conservative pop would begin to move, even if that record itself is still good. We continued this iconoclastic trend through the ’90s, maybe the band’s most underrated decade.
And then we suddenly snapped back into alignment. Our thoughts on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, while not as desultory as some would frame it, still leaned more on a sense of frustration, of feeling like the commercial album released was the bloating corpse of a greater record we arrived just too late to save. How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is, frankly, just as bad as any of your hip friends may have told you, albeit maybe not for the same reason; it’s an album of good songs and good ideas but almost none of which are elevated or treated properly and nearly none of which belong on the same disc together.
But here, on No Line on the Horizon, suddenly it all snaps back into place. Granted, to those who were there at the time, it may be hard to imagine the album with the opening singles of “Get On Your Boots” followed by “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” could be as strong as it is. Those songs, after all, resemble the same cloying conservative musical sentiments of their past two records in reverse chronological order, albeit with an extra layer of studio magic dappling the proceedings. But this is a record where the age-old adage of time, patience and listening to songs in the album context winds up not just salvaging the record but painting it as their best since Zooropa.
The opening title track is an almost krautrock shuffle, a groove that admittedly a band that allowed themselves more experimental indulgences would have ridden out for several more improvisational and wild minutes before the vocals come in. The song develops with curious layers, seeing U2 attempting their best “Kashmir” by way of David Bowie. They even manage to shoehorn in an Arcade Fire-style oh-oh-oh type wordless vocal part against a chord progression that will feel awfully familiar to fans of that much younger band. These touchstones, especially in the late 2000s when this album was composed, were shockingly hip for a band that had only a few years prior been the quintessential dead-eyed dinosaur chasing after relevance. It helped, obviously, that the returning duo of Eno and Lanois had serious clout and a major role in shaping the sound of the younger bands that suddenly became an inspiration to the now-elder statesmen of U2. This was no mere facsimile; these were the founders of a style reapplying themselves. There’s even a lingering sense of, hm, what is it?, a little something, almost a…
And then “Magnificent” kicks in, a song that could be clipped out for car commercials disingenuously but here reflects, with its tablas, club beat, and shimmering ’80s guitars, suddenly that thing U2 had been chasing ever since Pop was released. It is here that the fusion-state of the various identities of U2, the hybrid beast of the cynical and increasingly club-focused beast of the ’90s collides again into the flesh of the spiritualist ’80s, the lyrics seeming a muddle between two lovers and a penitent singing to their god. Suddenly, that unnameable thing from “No Line on the Horizon” comes into view again: these songs are, oh my god, sincere, passionate, full of the holy fervor of their peak period in the ’80s. But where those songs, admittedly greater, are the ragged and enraged cries to and against the glory of god, these are prayers delivered half in serenity and half in ecstasy. The country twang of the Edge’s guitar marries against synths and sheets of guitar that shimmer with desert fire, pressed against the thumping house music shuffle of the rhythm section, each half of this sacred-and-profane dance sutured together by the tablas. There’s even a drifting sense of psychedelia across these songs that reminds of All That You Can’t Leave Behind at its very best.
In case this mood was thought to be perhaps a happy accident, “Moment of Surrender” picks up the thread right where “Magnificent” leaves off, making the opening of the record play more like an extended song suite than a separated and loose confederation of unaffiliated songs like Atomic Bomb wound up being. The curious glitched trip-hop beat eventually is met by church organs and an open-throated and righteous Bono who sounds like if Rattle and Hum had gone the way they had anticipated. The keen-eared can hear traces of Spiritualized here, the near-heartbeat of the electronics reminding somewhat of sonic ideas from Songs from the A&E which likewise married a rustic and spiritual country-folk against avant-garde electronic notes. What’s more, the lyrics match this continued spiritual thread, focusing here on islam, the notion of spiritual surrender that the faith derives its name from, the moment we give ourselves up to the grace and ebbing river of the spirit of the lord made manifest in the ways of the world. This is the counterpoint to the yearning and activist fire of early U2, not a denial of that passion but advice gesturing backward in time attempting to soothe the wounded lions of their youth. “I was speeding through the subway / through the stations of the cross“; When was the last time U2 had a line that keen and cutting? Such a gentle but firm nod to the Qabbalistic bent of the lyrics to Bowie’s masterpiece “Station to Station” but tilted from the Crowleyan paths to occult power of their forebear toward the Abrahamic sense of devotion and, well, surrender. And what’s more, this time, they let the song breath, going a full seven and a half minutes of these slow textured developments, choruses emerging organically rather than cracking the verse in two like a bomb.
Already by this point, it’s apparent something is very different with the band. Had they suddenly woken up from the capitalist nightmare and the cultural lies of their generations, either in chasing endless youth like the Boomers or endless cool like the Gen-Xers? The answer, shockingly, is much closer to yes than you might have thought based on the rhetorical. After Atomic Bomb, the band seemed to be aware something was off and sought out legendary producer Rick Rubin, not yet known for giving befuddling advice before skedaddling from the studio for weeks on end to bands and still in the post-Johnny Cash glow of offering aging groups a path to return to their roots. These sessions produced two songs, the group’s collaborative cover of “The Saints Are Coming” by the Skids featuring Green Day as a single 7-piece band as well as a snippet of “House of the New Rising Sun” and the single “Windows in the Sky.” The former is shockingly good; it helps, of course, that the base material is a killer song appended by a folk standard that’s notoriously played nice with punk and rock bands, but the real success of it is the presence of U2 finally gives Green Day’s desires for arena rock emotionalism and complexity a mature and experienced enough balance of musicians capable of executing it. (Sorry, American Idiot fans.) The latter is well-constructed throwback pomp rock song, feeling halfway between the rough Celtic pop rock flair of Dexys Midnight Runners mixed with grace notes of the polished half-prog of Supertramp. In another world, these were signifiers of the third album of the trilogy started by Leave and continued with Atomic, finally an album that leans into that throwback sound but executed successfully. But U2 wanted to shake things further, even to the point of abandoning their long-running sublimated structure of threes.
So these efforts were abandoned and the group began to search even further out. Bono accepted an invitation to the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco, bringing along his bandmates and old collaborators Eno and Lanois to boot in a more global and folk-instrumentation driven approach to the same spiritualism they brought to bear in the era starting with The Unforgettable Fire. (Interestingly, this recasts their early two 2000s albums as a faulty recapitulation of their early trilogy of records, a sentiment eerily presaged by me and Jeff’s writing on those albums.) The intent was to create “future hymns,” music that would last forever. While this was, to be generous, perhaps out of the grasp of U2 at this point in their career, it was at least a sentiment of the kind of bombast and sincerity of their youth, a conceptual and heartfelt arc that the band had maintained at every step until the reception to Pop shook their faith. It was, in short, the magical moment that the soul of the band returned, not just the sound. That the experiments in these conditions would provide the seeds to be shaped later into a finished record that feels more like the proper followup to Pop than either of the two records before it and the first to truly recapture the sound and scope of the band seems to naturally follow from this fact.
The resulting record is, of course, neither the experimentalist wilds the time in the riad might have suggested nor the back-to-basics approach Rubin promoted. Those two contrasting elements of U2 (that is to say: U2 at their best), the salt of the earth and the obliqueness of the sky, wind up mirrored in the final version of the record by of course Eno and Lanois as the avant but Rubin swapped out for a returning Steve Lillywhite for that rooted sensibility. Here, competing less with the million competing pop visions of what U2 is and can be all constrained by the radio as displayed in Atomic Bomb, Steve, Brian and Daniel seem to play nice, producing at last the fruited fusion of their approaches to this band’s sonic and compositional ideas within their technical limitations that Atomic wished it had been.
“Unknown Caller” picks up the thread of the opening triptych, acting as the final movement in that grand opening suite. Here, the mood is closer to “One” or “Mysterious Ways” from Achtung Baby, achieved by a complex layering of sampled birdsong, oud, gently layered guitars of varying sorts and synthesizer squiggles, building into a surprisingly nuanced ambient sound field. This is matched by the rhythm section, refreshingly spare and direct, an anchor, which opens the door to the more standard-form Achtung-era soulful U2 half-ballad. But this too upends itself inevitably, now anchored by an organ offering both that sainted churchly vibe before taking over for the final third of the song to close out the songs of worship of the first third of the album in the harmonic crystal of that most perfect instrument.
It is only after all of this, 23 minutes across four songs stitching together into their most artful, grandiose and open-heartedly spiritual music since the late ’80s, that those once-dread singles appear. The change in the context and how it regrounds them is shocking: “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” once an eye-rolling endeavor that felt like a holdover from the most sappy and useless parts of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, like a rehashed “Walk On,” suddenly becomes a human cry in the midst of spiritual turmoil. It’s a trifle, but of course it is; like the title suggests, like the lyrics nod toward, it’s a song about the moment you exit a church fresh from the mortal cry and look for a pub to remind yourself you are still flesh alive in the real world and not just a spirit riven with aspects of holy terror.
In this new context, “Get On Your Boots,” the very next song, feels narratively like the precise moment of going crazy presaged by the previous song. The development of the interior narrative of the record, the way that pacing and context grounds the material, excuses the at times befuddling post-Queens of the Stone Ageisms of the track. But it is also that precise element that is often most overlooked. Imagine Josh Homme at the mic with nearly the same music. One, that reality doesn’t feel remarkably distant from this one; two, the reception to that song, only marginally different, devoid of the social weight of living up to the now-corny image of U2 suddenly becomes an enjoyed song. This is, in many ways, the crux of the argument of U2 after those admittedly dreadful early 2000s albums: is it the music you hate or the idea of admitting you like U2? The finale of the upbeat rock single suite of the record, “Stand Up Comedy,” admittedly feels like more of the same from its predecessor and, all things considered, would be the first song on the chopping block if you wanted to tighten up the album. That said, it’s far from a bad song, landing more like an under-listened Achtung Baby album cut.
The final suite of the album is a return to spiritualism, here erring more to the open experimental colors of earlier works like The Unforgettable Fire or Original Soundtracks 1 than more explicitly song-oriented material. “Fez – Being Born” is a two-part song, the first being a recapitulation of the “let me in the sound” refrained buried early in the album before returning in a fit of jamais vu as the bridge to “Boots” before its final appearance here threading the quiet conceptual needle of the record. It then leads smoothly into a very Dredg-oriented piece of droning lightly progressive rock. In fact, the precise style of prog played by U2 here would become, incidentally, the exact same sonic components as the post-Porcupine Tree wave of typically Nordic prog bands such as Airbag, Pineapple Thief, Bruce Soord and Gazpacho, none of which are typically mentioned in relation to U2. This isn’t to say that this piece directly inspired those groups, all of which were active by this time anyway, but more to connect some sonic dots that U2 fans don’t even typically acknowledge, let alone their detractors.
The final three tracks don’t strictly require the same track-by-track analysis as the previous songs have received, not because they are lacking in quality but more because by this point, the sonic arc of the record is established and they nobly serve their role without complaint. “White As Snow,” “Breathe” and “Cedars of Lebanon” all live in an ambient-rock world, a particular kind of progressive rock oriented not toward odd-time signatures and knotty instrumental passages but instead a fusion of experimental rock textures and sonic ideas against a particular mode of art rock. The Edge brings his best post-Western music tremolo while Morricone strings swell; chromium guitar chords crash and swell like waves, the texture of the slate-grey ocean rejecting storms as much as land; the rhythm section plays artfully both in terms of textures and lines, avoid rock cliches of constant root notes and thumping backbeats for more creative and considered parts. Against all of this is Bono finally cutting the bullshit, pulling back both the ridiculous cynicism that at times made some of the ’90s stuff half-parody as well as his forced but ultimately still manufactured sincerity on their previous two records. This is the Bono I remember connecting with, the one who sang to me about pride and the passion of Christ and the barbed wire and the yearning desire to see his mother again, be it in dream or in the light-caked clouds of heaven.
Marry this against the cover of the record, a remarkably restrained image of a lake pressed against the horizon of sky shot by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, that feels more in keeping with their earlier work than the cluttered and aimless 2000s material. The accompanying short film Linear, shot by the impeccable Anton Corbijn who previously worked with the group on The Joshua Tree and who has done all of the graphic design for Depeche Mode from Violator forward, uses a different order of the songs but still emphasizes the conceptual unity of the material, presenting it against a black-and-white shot spare and minimalist narrative dealing still primarily with the tensions between the spiritual angst of life in the midst of the political and social turmoil of the perpetual present. The record was briefly considered to be released as two EPs titled Darkness and Daylight, a contrast and greyscale color palette as well as conceptual flourish that still maintains itself in permutated form in the final work. All of this amounts to a clear marked improvement in the amount of consideration toward the album-as-art by the band, a level of care not seen in years if not decades.
Sadly these ambitions were not mirrored in the sales or reception of the record. Once more, like Pop before it, U2 set about on a world-conquering tour, their highest grossing one yet, only to gradually whittle away the new songs on the setlist to almost zero. This sucking of wind from the sales had a secondary effect; there had been, as endemic in this period, a second album planned, the group switching from trios to diptychs with the turn of the new millennium. The new record was to be titled Songs of Ascent, elaborating on the more abstract and soundscape oriented material generated during the sessions for No Line on the Horizon, a full commitment in devotion to the future hymns promised at the beginning of the sessions. But this album, as it turns out, would be shelved for something else: a new duology of records, songs of other things, gesturing back to that once-lost William Blake-titled B-side to The Joshua Tree that had just been prepped for release for the first time on an as-yet-upcoming deluxe edition of that album. Thus turned these 2000s records into their own kind of trilogy, a band attempting and failing in various ways to return to their roots that only managed to land just at the last moment. No Line on the Horizon isn’t a return to their roots in a crass sense. It is something more mature. It is all of the things that made U2 great across all of their eras placed next to one another and, at long last, strong together in a beautiful thread of glistening pearls. Of course it would be a loose concept album to do this. They’ve always been a conceptual band, haven’t they?
But then would begin, if it’s to be believed, a new diptych that by the words of Bono may yet be turned into a trilogy of its own. Songs of Ascent may not yet have come but Bono has continued to hint that maybe, just maybe, these songs of other things may wind up not a staggered double album but a trilogy yet. And this isn’t the last of our revisionism. We’ve saved the best for last.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.
Since “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”, U2’s albums could have been released as an EP, getting rid of a lot of filler tracks that don’t add anything. Or to put it another way, with some songs from “All that…” and “How to dismantle…” they could have made a good album.
“No line…” is much better than the previous two as you say, but the three songs in the middle of the album are unnecessary. The first block and the last block make a great 8 song album.”