2009 / Music

Review: U2’s ‘Horizon’ Hints At Group’s Creative Sunset

Irish Superstars Release 12th Album

Give credit to Bono and his U2 bandmates for their years rallying awareness and mustering support for a cross-section of worthy causes around the globe. But after championing those in need and it comes time for these Dublin lads to strap on their axes and get back to business, it’s U2 that desperately needs a hand these days.

Photo: Mercury Records/Island Records/Interscope Records

Photo: Mercury Records/Island Records/Interscope Records

Sure, the current Great Recession means everyone needs a little help, even the world’s biggest rock stars. Their woes aren’t fiscal and yet every bit as massive. When reflecting on U2 and their decades-long impact on popular culture, the only truly worthy analogies suggest institutions that dominate and influence the very foundations of Western society. Sometimes, it’s the church if we’re focusing on these Irish mega-stars’ ability to inspire and command blind devotion. Other times, it’s multi-national corporations if we’re talking about the way this little quartet is able to mobilize an industry’s heft to promote a new album or tour.

So, just as an ailing, behemoth financial company like AIG is propped up because of the cascading effect its demise would have on the remainder of the global economy, U2 is a band that’s just too big to fail. And in a way, taxpayers’ dollars are being used to keep these guys afloat for reasons other than the quality of their latest record. Super-fans and those who buy one CD a year will see to it that their latest album sells thousands of copies based solely on the group’s still-vibrant brand and legacy. However, a fair listen of U2’s new disc, “No Line On The Horizon,” will reveal that a lack of clear purpose, not financial mismanagement, is leaving the group to flounder between stylistic half-measures.

Blame it on U2’s iconic status, but these guys are at the point that they just can’t release an OK album anymore. Better or worse, when you’re at the top of the rock pile (excuse the bad pun), every new song is a gauge on Bono and the Edge’s hit-making status and a bellwether of the group’s overall fortunes. And there’s no end to the list of artists and their accompany hype machines who are looking to supplant U2 on the world’s biggest stages. “Horizon” suggests the combo is at a musical and commercial crossroads and they’re refusing to choose a path between their commercial instincts and their artistic aspirations. Worse still, the songs just aren’t that great.

The group’s last two efforts, 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and 2004’s “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” were obvious in their intentions. These CDs were collections of largely forthright stadium rock that unabashedly tried to swing for the fences each time. U2 was still smarting from their critical and commercial drubbing they received from 1997’s kitschy, techno-dabbling fiasco, “Pop,” and the moribund Passengers project. Seeing other acts overtake them as rock’s most influential force inspired the foursome to seek out ways to reapply as the “best band in the world,” as Bono infamously boasted at the Grammys a few years ago. With numerous charting singles, strong album sales and even more lucrative touring, the scheme was largely successful.

Now that their comeback has largely solidified — despite how creatively anemic “Bomb” often seemed — “Horizon” finds the band with a far fuzzier purpose. U2 is a different period now and in a mode that ultimately seeks to be more experimental than the last two records yet still futilely gunning for hooks that will stand out on any listening device’s shuffle setting. And apart from going all acoustic or releasing a hip-hop record, the quartet’s stylistic territory has already been carved out by now. As such, “Horizon” has no monster singles of necessary caliber and steps closer to self-parody and hollow evangelism than listeners should feel comfortable hearing from this outfit.

Confusion seems to have hampered U2’s recording process from the start. Sessions for the album began with uber-producer and current Columbia Records executive Rick Rubin, but the results were soon scrapped. Perhaps Rubin, a notorious coddler and encourager of big-name talent, proved ill-equipped for a band jonesing to imbue their next proto-smash single with a bit more David Bowie allure than Rubin’s “be your best self” philosophy to record-making. The band soon hooked up with its frequent collaborators of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, who’ve helmed all of U2’s greatest releases and in the case of Eno and Lanois, steered their course during their recent resurgence. While this trio has already proven adept at giving U2 tunes otherworldly qualities and a general New Wave ambience, bringing the old gang together again assembles all the same heads and ears in the studio together. Familiar patterns of working are a natural symptom of this shared history and ultimately seem a losing strategy.

The biggest drawback affecting most of the cuts on “Horizon” is how unmemorable they all are. The tracks aren’t inordinately bad, just bland. Any old combination of melody and licks don’t instantly make the kind of transcendent art that can get an entire arena of people want to sing along. Sonic trackbacks to parts of “The Joshua Tree” or “Zooropa” suggest that these guys are running short on new ideas.

For example, “Get Your Boots On” liberates the snaking rhythm of their last smash hit, “Vertigo,” and melds it with Bono’s take on a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” vocal jive. While Bono is desperate to impress with a verbal mismatch, the Edge gives the song some new texture by flashing some surf guitar power chords into the melee, giving listeners a glimpse of his often-suppressed aggressive side. Taken as a complete song, this cut doesn’t coalesce into the ear candy that the moment demands. It’s the album’s first single and arguably its best song and it would be a ludicrous to see this song land a slot on the next volume of U2’s greatest hits album.

Not only does U2’s stellar back catalog cut them an inordinate amount of slack, but it’s ultimately hard not to fall under the spell of a singer as instantly emotive as Bono. His clear timbre, cheeky charm and expressiveness, which so skillfully blends his desires for sales, artistic credibly and salvation, still make him rock’s Great Communicator. Over the year, he’s so beguiling that we’ve forgiven frequent lyrical blunders because of how well he sang a melody. Now, he only asks us to ignore the fact that the melodies aren’t that hot either.

“I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice to lift you up,” Bono coolly seduces amid the antiseptic melodicism of “Magnificent.” “Sing whatever song you wanted me to/I give you back my voice.” In fact, the singer does nothing of the sort. He might be confessing that he’s caught in the rock star’s hamster wheel and yet he’s conceding to popular tastes and going back to the early ’90s for inspiration. The ever-frugal Edge only lets loose a galloping, “Achtung Baby”-era riffs for the chorus, leaving Bono’s endearing vocal swagger to do all the convincing. Even the eerily slide guitar solo harkens back to “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” In this case, the new song just isn’t.

Even more troubling is a track like “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” which shares its opening notes with Journey’s creepy, ’80s power ballad “Faithfully.” The midtempo rhythm is fine and Edge’s crystalline, guitar echo give the song some lift. The cut’s weakness is Bono’s relaxed and playful vocal attack. He toys with the words like he’s engaged in banter with an old friend. However, his looseness and lazy use of opposites keep listeners from buying into the passion that he marshals come chorus time. It seems like an act and when we hear him yelp, “I know I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight,” it comes across like stagecraft.

Other tracks just disappoint. Rocker “Unknown Caller” has all the hallmarks of a U2 hit from yesteryear. Scales of guitar notes ring and reverberate like electronically modified chimes. Bono plays a man of mystery who coos and hollers for all to hear. Unfortunately, the hook that will sweep listeners to the heights of “The Joshua Tree” or “Achtung Baby” never materializes.

For those holding out hope, there are glimpses of the old U2 magic. “Stand Up Comedy” leaps out of the gate with the Edge playing a lightened version of a Soundgarden riff and Adam Clayton’s bassline has an unexpectedly funky swing that effectively jousts with the Edge’s echo-laden slaps and chops. On “Moment Of Surrender,” the band members singing together as a organ hisses and Edge’s guitar effect wizardry scintillate. Bono takes his position as storyteller more seriously than his frontman duties as he narrates “Cedars Of Lebanon.” Here, he’s finally created a coherent story for his audience to follow and listeners can hear that the lyrics have meaning, symbolism and complexity. We finally know he’s not just filling verses with clever phrases, attempting to complete the songwriter’s equivalent of a crossword puzzle.

The idea that Bono — whose vocals are at their best when soliciting his audience to come to a higher calling — can produce drivel comparable to any lyrical hack effectively is a blow to his mystique. As was the case with “Bomb,” these supposedly infallible rock deities are faltering even if this is the news no one wants to hear. To the public at large, overwhelmed with industry hype and the group’s track record essentially mean the charade will continue.

Sooner or later, however, history will have the final verdict — just as it will all those who’ve played a role in the current financial meltdown. Clouded by confusion of the moment, this day of reckoning won’t be today. But, an album as unsatisfying as “Horizon” gives every indication that the sun is setting on U2’s creative horizon. The band’s good works and legacy can’t whitewash that.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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