It's generally accepted wisdom that U2 lost its direction, fire, and clarity of purpose with the early '90s efforts "Zooropa" and "Pop."
Those albums are routinely referred to as self-indulgent failures, and this strain of thought paved the way for the reception granted the first post-millennium U2 albums, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb," both of which were welcomed as "comeback" efforts.
This logic was flawed, but it only seemed to pick up steam as time went by, to the point that the members of the band themselves seemed to have accepted it. They also seemed to channel the feelings into a more conservative approach to record-making and songwriting, a simplification of intent, and a reliance on grandiose pop-rock tropes that earned U2 dubious honors as the kings of something called "stadium rock."
"Leave Behind" and "Atomic Bomb" are great albums, but that internalized conservative strain kept them from being wholly transcendent, except in patches. What was missing? The broad experimental streak that gave us "Achtung Baby's" sonic frippery; the dreamy surrealism that made U2 the greatest "B-sides" band in the universe; the marriage of the sublime and the seedy that transformed U2's best work into the fractured gospel music of modern man in his fallen state.
What else was missing? The full-time collaborative input of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the production/songwriting/musician team that helped Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. transcend their own musical limitations and grab a creative comet by the tail. "The Unforgetable Fire," "The Joshua Tree," "Achtung Baby" -- U2's three finest albums -- were all helmed by this expanded team.
U2's new disc, "No Line On the Horizon," brings Eno and Lanois back to the party. It also returns to the unfinished cross-pollination business of the much-maligned "Pop." The album is out Tuesday, but it has been streaming for several days now on U2's MySpace page following an uncredited Internet leak.
"No Line" is a wildly creative album, and is readily indicative of a band experiencing yet another creative rebirth. It immediately shakes off the stadium-rock-anthem garb of the past two records and tours, which was coming dangerously close to turning U2 into the one thing it had never before been -- a safe band churning out great music that came to it rather easily.
Struggle has always been the magical ingredient in U2's alchemy, and it's here, in abundance. That said, "No Line" hedges its bets -- rarely, but clearly. The songs produced by Steve Lillywhite come closest to the creative vertigo of "Vertigo," a good song and huge hit that always struck one as being a bit too obvious.
It's as if the band was scared to wholly alienate the (considerable) fan base it picked up with its last two albums. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," "Get On Your Boots" and "Stand Up Comedy" are indeed creative, and perhaps their purpose -- grouped together as they are smack in the middle of the album -- is to provide contrast to the brilliant esoteric abstraction of much of the rest of the material. It might be a quibble, since all three offer a smart blend of great part-writing and U2's own version of dance music. But the midpoint of "Horizon" does feel like a deeply inspired Eno/Lanois/U2 session was interrupted by a load of rabble-rousers who just wanted to get drunk and dance with Bono. Fun, but a diversion.
That aside, "No Line" is simply stunning. It's as widescreen as U2 has ever gotten, and it also is as brave a record as the band has made so far. Routinely, conventional song structures are kicked to the curb; the contemporary tendency to edit away all the rough edges in search of a perfect (and perfectly soulless) pop presentation is ignored; and songs are allowed to breathe freely of the atmosphere they create. It's music to dream to, an album surrounded by open windows and doors held ajar to let in the light and the cool, clean air.
That air seems to have loosened Bono's vocal cords, for throughout the record, he sounds like a singer 20 years younger than he is. "Horizon" proves the former Paul David Hewson is still one of the strongest, most emotive and convincing singers in rock history.
Two minutes into the album, and U2 owns you. You recognize many of the pieces, but the puzzle is something entirely new.
"Magnificent" finds Clayton returning to the hyper-distorted bass figures he favored to great effect on "Pop," and again, Edge does his edgy thing with conviction. The guitarist is a master of mood conjuring, and it's most likely the manner in which he layers his guitar conceptions that gives Bono the fire he needs to get the job done.
It's "Moment of Surrender" that makes plain the fertile terrain U2 and Eno/Lanois are digging around in this time. The song's mash-up of sci-fi soul and Sunday-morning-coming-down gospel continues the work started with "Zooropa's" "Lemon" and "Achtung Baby's" "So Cruel."
Bono is a masterful lyricist, and part of his mastery can be located in an ability to contrast divergent setting, moods and images. Throughout "No Line On the Horizon" the lyrics equate physical longing with the more spiritual variety, repeatedly suggesting that surrender to the mystery of the given moment is more a requirement than it is merely one of many possible choices.
The best music on "Horizon" is of the gorgeous, billowing, minimalist variety, where U2's spiritual post-punk finds a worthy, reliable partner in Eno's icy ambient music and Lanois' muddy organicism. All involved appear to be intent on experimentation within this context. It's so fitting, then, that the heart-shattering, sparse beauty of "Cedars of Lebanon" ends the record in such a haunting, ethereal manner.
Still trying to balance the static-to-noise ratio in an increasingly complex, cacophonous, and often soul-crushingly bleak world, U2 takes solace in the universe it conjures through its art, and bids us to do the same, for a while. Thirty-three years into the game, the band is still making such a proposition plenty enticing.
No Line On the Horizon
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)