Friday, March 06, 2009

No Line On The Horizon

U2 Album Day! U2 Album Day! I may or may not have yelled that at some point last Tuesday. 'No Line On The Horizon' is the first U2 Album Day that I've ever celebrated outside of the Music World at Westmount Mall. Yes, thanks to Westmount's sad deterioration into a ghost town with a food court, that Music World location is no more. I had to get the album at a Future Shop. Geez. I'm such a corporate whore. (Note to any of my cousins who might be reading this: that statement in no way means that I don't want any more Future Shop gift cards for Christmas. Since I used said card to buy this very album, it was the best gift of the year. Keep the joy alive!)

After I've had a couple of days to process the album, I'm ready to give it a proper review. Welllll......maybe a few more than a couple of days. You see, a couple of weeks ago I was walking down the street when I came upon a homeless person listening to an iPod. While not making eye contact, I asked what he was listening to, and he said the new U2 record. Astonished, I asked to borrow his other headphone ear-bud and sit and listen along with him. After warning me that he had dysentery, I sat down, pulled up a seat/space of pavement and enjoyed the album in full. Thanks, random bum on the street!

--- Dramatization: may not have happened. ---

'No Line On The Horizon' is something of a departure from U2's most recent albums, though it isn't an overall departure from their sound. NLOTH sounds sort of like, of all albums, an uber-merge of October, Zooropa and The Unforgettable Fire; some of the same ambience and arched melodies and chords, and without some of the more direct rock that you'd find on other early records like Boy or War. NLOTH, like Zooropa in particular, works very well as a whole album. It flows very well from song to song and seems to build on itself. I'm pleased that after the back-to-basics approach of All That You Can't Leave Behind and the forced-back-to-basics-because-we've-got-too-many-damn-producers-working-on-this-thing approach of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2 are still able to make a fully realized record full of good tunes.

The title track is currently my least-favourite song of the disc but I can understand the intent of its placement. Since tracks 2-3-4 pack such a punch, they require a bit of build, so it makes sense that the opener is just a chugger of a rock song that isn't expected to take off itself, but just act as more of a countdown. On the bright side, it does provide the first great chill moment of the record thanks to Bono's chanting during the middle eight. That was the moment of takeoff, so to speak. (There's also a second version of the song that is apparently a bit faster-paced. It was released as the b-side to the GOYB single, and unfortunately I haven't been able to find it on YouTube since it's rather unhelpfully titled just, 'No Line On The Horizon 2.' Great.)

Magnificent will probably be played at every U2 concert from now until doomsday. Talk about a classic U2 anthem. It has the same kind of straight-forward melody as the title track, except this one's a driver instead of a chugger. Adam Clayton's bass has rarely sounded better. This one killed on Letterman on the other night, and I expect it to kill when I see them in Toronto this, uh, fall? Winter? Hurry up and release those tour dates! Rumour has it that U2 are returning to stadiums for this tour, so everyone queue up for tickets for the Sk...Sky...Rogers Centre!

Moment Of Surrender is currently my favourite track on NLOTH. Apparently it was recorded in one take and represents one of those pure, fresh moments during a recording session when everything comes together like a well-organized orgy. Ironically, the term for this in the porn world is a moment of surrender. Anyway, let's just forget those last two sentences and focus on the song's great vocal lilt and Edge's great atmospheric guitar. The shortest seven-minute song you'll ever hear.

Unknown Caller is about a guy whose phone starts giving him spiritual guidance through text messages (presumably from God). It may sound like U2's take on the highway road sign that guides Steve Martin through 'L.A. Story,' but it's actually oddly moving. Even stuff like the Edge's chanting vocal of 'Force quit and move to trash' comes off as insightful rather than cheesy. It has a great build throughout and I have a feeling that this will be the lead-in song for Where The Streets Have No Name on tour. p.s. if any of U2 are reading this --- and I presume they are --- I be reached between the hours of 10 AM and 4 PM for more setlist advice.

I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight is here because I presume U2 thought they need at least one old-fashioned pop-rock track on NLOTH, and hey, that's fine given that it's actually a very good pop-rocker. This one sounds sort of like a less inspiring version of Walk On, and (I'm sounding like a broken record here) goes to a new level when played live. Also, if that wasn't enough, it also inherits the title of Most Awkward U2 Song Title from Stuck In A Moment That You Can't Get Out Of. Couldn't they have just called it 'Crazy Tonight'? Is Bono paid by the word?

Get On Your Boots follows in the grand tradition of 'Discotheque' as a lead single that doesn't really give a good sense of what the rest of the album is about. In Pop's case, almost any song would've fit that description given that the album was intended to showcase various different musical styles, but 'Get On Your Boots' sounds even more of an oddity on the comparatively less rocking rest of the album. I feel like everyone (fans, radio stations, me) had the same reaction to the song; the first impression was good but not great, but it seems to be growing on everyone all at once. It helps that U2 are now playing it literally everywhere they go, and it's growing as a live track at the same time.

Stand-Up Comedy is also a grower. First few times I listened to it, I thought it was just a throwaway rock track, this album's When I Look At The World or All Because Of You. Then, listening to it in my car, I thought it kicked ass. Maybe this is just one of those tracks that needs to be played through a heavy-duty sound system....wait, that can't be right, I drive an Echo. This is a track inspired by Edge's recent work with Jimmy Page and Jack White on a documentary about guitarists; Edge got into the kind of riff-heavy rocking sound that Page and White have perfected over the years. Then Edge went a little too far and insisted that Larry Mullen dress as either John Bonham or Meg White for all of U2's live shows. So, a corpse or a woman who kind of looks like a corpse.

Fez: Being Born is the most Brian Eno-ish track on the album, thanks to the sound collage in the first minute (the 'Fez') part and the overall ambient nature of the actual song ('Being Born'). Setlist advice tidbit #2: this would make a really interesting opening song of a concert. The band comes onto the stage with Fez playing over the PA system, then they play Being Born to build things up a la the title track, and then they bust into GOYB or something. Money. Is 'setlist writer' a job? Let me check Craigslist......annnnnnnd no, it's not.

White As Snow is the sort of very stripped-down, acoustic tune that U2 almost never release. If you imagine that U2 and Rick Rubin had continued to work together on this album and ended up making a Johnny Cash-esque American Recordings kind of disc, this would be the sort of song that would've appeared on such a record. It's based on the Christmas carol 'Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel.' so if you like that, you should like this. I haven't actually heard the original version of the carol, though I have heard that specific line uttered before just before a moment of surrender. Uh, moving on....

Breathe has pretty much the most generic song title ever, but whatever, it's good. This is another track that stepped up greatly in my estimation after hearing it live on Letterman. On the record, the opening Dylan-esque lyrics that Bono half-sings, half-spouts sound a bit too measured, sort of like someone trying to ape Dylan*. Live, the opening actually sounds as if it's about to burst out of control, which is presumably the desired effect. 'Breathe' is another example of U2's habit of putting one of the best, if not THE best, song on an album second-to-last on the track listing (Electric Co., Surrender, Exit, Acrobat, Please, Original of the Species).

* = Wouldn't it be hilarious if I meant Jakob Dylan, for some reason? Poor Jakob. I mean, it's got to be hard to follow in footsteps that big, but come on, "The only difference that I see/Is that you're exactly the same as you used to be"? At least look like you're trying. I think I agree with Bill Simmons' theory that the Wallflowers were ruined when they performed 'One Headlight' with Springsteen at the MTV Awards. Talk about being blown out of the water. That was the equivalent of going to an acting audition and getting Gary Oldman to run your lines with you.

Cedars Of Lebanon is maybe the best example of a songwriting technique that Bono often uses on this disc that I haven't mentioned until now (the last track...nice timing). Bono decided to write several of the songs in the guise of a character. For example, the singer of Unknown Caller is the aforementioned man at the end of his rope suddenly being inspired by his mysterious texts. The singer of White Of Snow is a dying solider. And for this one, the singer is a war correspondent who is somewhat at the end of his rope but unfortunately doesn't have a phone handy for celestial Tweets. Very moody, contemplative end to the record, par for the course for a U2 album. And 'Cedars Of Lebanon' makes up for the generic-osity of Breathe's title.

So overall, yeah! Fuckin' A of a record! Actually, wait, I don't think I want to call this a fucking asshole of a record, scratch that last compliment. It's an outstanding record. A 'magnificent' one, if you will. Fun fact: if you were to buy the (more expensive) digipak, magazine or box formats of NLOTH, you would've gotten a special bonus DVD of a silent film made by my favourite U2 video director Anton Corbijn that uses the album's songs as the soundtrack. Why do I mention this? The protagonist of said silent film is played by Said Taghmaoui, a.k.a. the new guy on LOST. LOST and U2 and Anton Corbijn, three of my favourite things all together in one package! Or, two of my favourite things plus a Dutchman.

(holy shit, I just looked at Taghmaoui's IMDB profile...he's playing Breaker in the G.I. Joe movie?! Mr. Eko is Heavy Duty?! Sienna Miller is the Baroness?! The kid from Third Rock From The Sun is Cobra Commander?! Good lord, who cast this movie, my fevered brain?!)

(how in the world did a U2 album review degenerate into fanboyish gushing about a G.I. Joe movie?)


Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Mark, Westmount's deterioration didn't cause that Music World location to close. That store closed on the same day as every other MW in Canada when the corporation declared bankruptcy.

Hal Incandenza said...

I am shocked--shocked--that you gave the latest U2 album a rave review. (I haven't been this surprised since Misha professed his adoration for Chinese Democracy).

My preliminary review (through two listens):'s not really doing it for me.