there’s no line to cross, so they just keep on going

Considering that the last few days of my life have consisted of very little outside of listening to the new U2 album and reading, I thought I should spend a bit of time writing. I’ve got a few things lined up to write about, but, I have to say, I am enjoying the new album so much that I really need to share some of my thoughts on it, lest I burst. I will say that I’ve been blown away by No Line on the Horizon even more than I thought I would be. There are some peculiarities and patterns that I am seeing in it, and that I expect will carry over into the next album, which I hear is to be released in early 2010.

Track by track, I was taken for a bit of a ride the first time I listened to No Line. It seemed to come more naturally than How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and the order of the tracks creates a musical mountain range of sorts, a metaphor that seems apt, considering. Bono’s lyrics seem a little more dynamic and have a great deal of depth, even for him; Edge’s guitar is gritty and soulful in places, and it soars so high at times you’d think it would easily fly over Kilimanjaro. Adam and Larry remain solid as always, though they’re working in what seems to be a very lush rhythm section populated with strange and wonderful sound techniques. All of this together sets the stage for an incredibly well layered set of songs that form an album that, I can certainly say, I will still be discovering years from now.

One of the things about U2’s music that I love, and that always amazes me, is that it’s classic and timeless without really trying to be. I think that comes from the mix of music and lyrics, rock and spirit that they embody at their best. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, you’ll know what I mean after you’ve finished reading.

And now, ladies and gents, my track by track breakdown of the new U2 album: No Line on the Horizon.

The title track of No Line is the track I keep wanting to say is my favourite, and then I remember I have five others that I see the same way. This is a great example of that lush rhythm section I mentioned — it’s wildly atmospheric and feels like a musical cityscape. I imagine the boys standing smack in the middle of a giant intersection in New York City, and the entire city is there just to make the song happen. The lyrics do less telling and more showing, which I think is something they did extremely well on Achtung Baby, but haven’t really managed to pull off again with such precision — until now.  Easily the sexiest song on the album, it’s also a true experience of a song that begins a serious experience of an album.

Magnificent is so aptly named. I know that there are a million other people who are going to make that comment — either saying it is or it isn’t — but it’s absolutely true. I blast this one in my ears and I can’t help but dance. The strange thing about it, though, is that I feel like it could have been one of those so-pretentiously-Bono songs, but someone saved it. Someone saved it and made it into this powerful, raging, spiritual rock song, the opening to which seems to have come from a place deep in the darkest hearts of everyone who worked on it. I recall hearing someone making a comment about the new album feeling as though Bono was on a spiritual journey of sorts, and listening to Magnificent, it’s easy to tell why. Magnificent is, at once, dark and booming, soaring and fragile. It’s incredible.

I feel as though Moment of Surrender was the song that convinced me that Bono was getting laid and seeing God, again. Anyone who knows U2’s music even a little, knows that an enormous amount of it has to do with either women or God, and lots of times, it has to do with both at the same time. There’s an ethereal sorrow and, at the same time, an experiential grit that flows through this one. It’s like the river that flows through the album and, at a length of over seven minutes, what a river it is. Edge’s guitar effortlessly commands the attention of your heart, and Bono’s lyrics are a true mix of earthly pleasure and spiritual surrender — the genius of which is that one can listen to the song either way, and be moved by it, every time.

Unknown Caller is definitely the most blatantly spiritual song on the entire album. It has the lads chanting, almost choir-like, and the lyrics urge you to “escape yourself and gravity”. It’s hymn-like through the middle with organs and Edge’s high notes, and it leaves me feeling a little like I’ve just been to church, to tell you the truth. It’s probably the song I listen to the least on the album, but I will say that it made me cry the first time I heard it, a feat which no other song I’ve ever heard has accomplished.

The sentiment in I’ll Go Crazy is pretty close to my heart at this point, which is a good bit of why I like it so much. It’s filled with a list of truths and questions, fun and fancy, and it seems like it may have been written for “the girls”, much like Original of the Species was. It’s also one of those songs that makes we want to dance a bit, and it doesn’t provoke a lot of thought, but it makes me feel special, and I thank God for that — or perhaps Bono and God.

Get on Your Boots was the first single from the album, and still remains the song that I like the least. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, because I do; particularly the “let me in the sound” section, which always prompts me to turn up the volume and rock out when no one is looking. It’s the fastest, most pop-like, rockin’ song on the album. It’s sexy and fun, and is a very clear “we love women and think they rock” statement.

Stand Up Comedy is the song on the album that it took me a while to warm up to, and clearly requires much volume in the listening. I feel like you need a serious amount of bass on your stereo system to really get the worth out of this one, and until you have that, the stomping bass and insistent lyrics will be largely lost on you. Another one that is clearly very spiritual, yet transcends any real cultural or emotional boundaries, it’s completely anthemic and comes off like a cheering section for standing up for what you believe in, which is, I imagine, exactly what they were going for.

Fez – Being Born is a wild listen, the first time you hear it. The opening is a strange mix of sounds that actually make me feel like I’m inside a ball, floating around the solar system. The sounds in this song — the guitar, the piano, the chanting — they all feel anticipatory in some way, which is the genius of the song, really. Whether you like it or not, the amazing thing about it is that it’s a song about being born, and the music really makes it feel that way. The lyrics disappear behind the music and it becomes this wall of beginning that I’m not even sure I understand. Regardless, it makes me wonder what sort of high the boys were on when this one was delivered in the studio.

White as Snow
is a special song, in many ways. It’s very simplistic and reminds me a lot of Johnny Cash, both in musical and lyrical ways. It also reminds me of an earlier time for U2, and it tells a story rather than creating a world, like the song before it. It strikes me as very Irish, as it has an almost folk feeling to it. If you view the entire album through a Christian lens, this song definitely qualifies as a section of the Old Testament put to song.

Breathe, the first time I heard it, threw me for a bit of a loop because of the speed and rhythm of Bono’s lyrics. Now, though, it’s rapidly becoming my favourite song on the entire album. It strikes me as the Beautiful Day of the album in the way that it is harsh and hopeful at the same time. I love the strings in it as they are ominous and stable, and being awash with Edge’s trademark vaulting guitar, they make for such a perfect addition to what is already a solid song.

Cedars of Lebanon makes me go quiet. To anyone who knows me, that will mean something pretty serious. To those who don’t — it is quite the accomplishment, let me tell you. It puts me in mind of Bob Dylan in some ways: the semi-spoken way Bono delivers his lyrics, the stoic atmosphere of the song. It also recalls Achtung Baby, and feels a little like it is being haunted by the ghost of Love is Blindness, while following in the tradition of Mothers of the Disappeared (which goes right back to The Joshua Tree). It seems to me to be the dark horse of the album, but I like it more and more every time I hear it.

I saw a headline the other day when I was cruising @U2, from some Christian news source or another, that claimed that No Line on the Horizon was U2’s most Christian effort to date, and I can absolutely see why. I’m tempted to go through the lyrics myself, now, and pick out all of the Christian bits and pieces scattered throughout. I do know, however, that the good folks at @U2 will do that soon, if they haven’t already. If one of the great things about U2’s music is that it’s timeless and classic, one of the other great things about it is that it may have a whole lot of Christian allusions and metaphors and such, but it can stand apart from that and exist outside it, too. My instinct here is to launch into defensive mode, but I won’t. There’s something sad in feeling as though one needs to stand up for one of the most successful bands in the world, but then again, they are my boys, and I will do so if called upon.

And so, there you have it folks — my track by track breakdown. I don’t pretend to be an expert, or even much of a critic, but I am honest — of that you can be certain. No Line on the Horizon feels to me like the coming together of some of the best bits of U2, their best influences, their best producers — all in an effort to create a musical machine that glides ever higher and burns ever brighter than anything they’ve ever done before. Where All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a clean and beautiful, organic love letter of an album and Achtung Baby was a gutter flower; where The Joshua Tree searched for earthly truth and Zooropa and Pop were the glitterati marching forth, No Line on the Horizon is the mercenary-turned-missionary, with verse in his heart and his eyes on the skies.

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