Achtung Baby has cast a greater shadow on U2 than any other album in their recent canon. It was the album that Bono claimed was the sound of U2 chopping down the Joshua Tree. Yet U2 has seemingly been cursed creatively since then. U2 has gone through a successful string of albums sales-wise, but something has been missing. What I’ve been craving from U2 is a return to their unique, unbridled devotion to transform popular music with their dynamic sound. Since then, U2 have written some terrific songs but Baby was the album that signaled a change for the band away from pop sensibilities into the experimental depths of a lyrical canvas filled with painful darkness void of true love. To me, U2’s dramatic legend has been unfinished since the notes of “Love is Blindness” faded out on my favorite U2 album.
Bono’s lyrics, “I haven’t been with a woman, it feels like years/ thought of you the whole time, your salty tears…” in No Line on the Horizon‘s finale “Cedars of Lebanon,” echo the ache of Achtung. Even in this war-torn epic, Bono has yet to give up his search for the light of amor: “They’re not at the beginning but when your story ends….” It seems like U2 has left me hanging there, waiting for their story arc that started back in 1991 to have a fulfilling dénouement.
My Moment of Surrender occurred during the third song of No Line on the Horizon. My wish finally came true throughout the sound of this post modern gospel gem. With Bono’s heartfelt vocal I heard the light. The first great song on the album was written not only by Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry, but for the first time in their history, producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois get songwriting credits. You can hear it in the rays between rhythms. There’s this new dimension to the U2 sound thanks to Eno and Lanois. It’s subtle but you can feel it in the beats. It’s in the cello in the mix below the organ and hand claps. And I can’t forget Edge’s bluesy guitar riff that lifts “Surrender” to a blissful conclusion.
There’s a musical depth within the songs of Horizon, a maturity that’s been missing from most of the last few pop sensible albums released by these Irish music pioneers. There’s nothing wrong with a pop song like “Beautiful Day” or rocking out to “Vertigo.” We dig a little of these styles but what made me a U2 devotee was their dive into substance-layered beauty within the canvas that we cherish in some of my favorites like “Running to Stand Still,” “Love is Blindness” and “Stay (Far Away, So Close).” The classic dichotomy within U2’s classic sound of taking complex themes with sonic simplicity is what made them one of the most innovative bands of our generation.
This is what I have rediscovered within U2 and the new post-modern songs of their No Line on the Horizon. Listen to the first single “Get On Your Boots.” The song goes through so many changes rhythmically, something that The Beatles did so brilliantly in the sixties and Radiohead with “Paranoid Android.” That’s what makes “Boots” such a revolutionary punk song. They captured the punk spirit without imitating it like they did in “Vertigo.” Not only do The Edge, Adam and Larry play incendiary rhythms but Bono’s lyrics in “Boots” are… wait for it…legendary. “Boots” is a “Fly”-like song about love in this age of socio-political uncertainty. “You don’t know how beautiful you are” is global call to arms for all of us let our hair down and feel sexy. Just remember when Bono sings “I don’t wanna talk about wars between nations,” it’s a signal to turn down the rhetorical lights and feel the love again.
If Achtung Baby was the sound of the clock striking midnight of a broken affair, then Horizon is the dawning of a resurrected love—”It’s not if I believe in love but if love believes in me/ oh believe in me.” Those simple lyrics from “Moment of Surrender” reflect the essential theme of No Line on the Horizon. It’s this transcendental exploration of the heart that U2 has been searching for since Achtung Baby. Songs like “Magnificent” with lyrics like “Only love can make such a mark and only love can heal such a scar” reflect U2 reflecting the lyrical antidote to those songs like “So Cruel” that ached with betrayal. Why did it take so long to get over the pain from those reflective melodies? The answer is in the lyrics to “I’ll go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”: “A change of heart comes slow…We’re gonna make it all the way to the light.”
Adding another layer to their lyrical heart are the beats in between these quixotic melodies. Horizon showcases the band expanding their rhythmic pallet with atmospheric soundscapes layered with the help of Eno and Lanois. You can feel Eno’s experimental flourishes in “Moment of Surrender” and “Fez-Being Born.” Lanois can be heard with his trademark guitar and tender productive tones in the very eloquent “White as Snow.” Listen for both of their reflecting backing vocals harmonizing throughout the halls of these breathtaking horizons.
I am not trying to dismiss any of the albums that came between Achtung Baby and No Line on the Horizon. All That You Can’t Leave Behind holds a personal place for me in my corazon. It came out when I first lived by myself in my first bachelor apartment in New Orleans. That was the soundtrack of my rebirth. But there’s something about Baby that makes it my favorite U2 album and the record of theirs that I keep coming back to. It’s the vivid sound and the timeless feeling within the heartbreak of Achtung that reigns supreme. But I’ve been waiting 18 years for the cure and finally Horizon has distinguished Baby‘s blues.
Those hits from Pop, Behind and the Bomb may have been memorable but to me they were lacking the emotional depth found within the confines of the beautiful melodies of No Line on the Horizon. Just like your favorite novel or a film you have to watch over and over again, Horizon calls for repeated re-visitations. For every listen you will discover something you may have missed your first spin, fans of Behind may notice similarities in the “Walk On”-esque guitar part in Horizon‘s “Unknown Caller.” U2 have finally come full circle with an album worthy of their legacy.