“Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d”
– William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697)
Anyone who spent more than 10 minutes with me for the two decades between 1992 and 2012 knew, without a doubt, that I was a U2 uber-fan. I’ve seen them in concert 5 times, been a member of the fan club, memorized lyrics before actual release dates, and generally learned everything there was to learn about the band. I lived and breathed U2 for quite some time. I wore out tapes. I have two copies of Achtung Baby on CD when a packing error while moving left me thinking I’d lost my original. I’m one of those chumps that Bono referenced on U2 Go Home who had “given us about £500.” That’s around $800 USD. After paying (on average) $100/ticket, $15/CD, and $40/year for five years of the fan club, I’d say that’s actually a few hundred short.
Let me be clear where I’m going with this: No Line on the Horizon is my 4th favorite U2 album behind The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and The Unforgettable Fire (position in that ranking subject to day and mood). Of the 11 tracks, I could do without two of them – “Get On Your Boots” and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” Unfortunately, that represents 2/3rds of the singles from the album. No Line had everything that you expect from a U2 album – a song about how much Bono loves his wife and/or Jesus (“Magnificent”), a song to remind us that heroin addiction will kill you (“Unknown Caller,” “Moment of Surrender”), and a song about how we shouldn’t kill each other (“White As Snow,” “Cedars of Lebanon”).
From 1991 to 1997, U2 put out 4 albums (Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Passengers, and Pop), which can practically be viewed as one long, weird creative process. After that, they took three years to put out All That You Can’t Leave Behind, four more years to put out How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and then another five years for No Line on the Horizon. After No Line released in September of 2009, the band claimed that they’d have a album out by the end of the year. Then it was going to be out that March. Then definitely the end of 2010. Or the end of 2011. Maybe 2012. 2013? Probably. Five years, and in that time, U2 probably leaked 100 times that they’d have an album out “soon.” Because let’s not forget about them!
When it became apparent that U2 really truly meant it and had definitely been in the studio, they “shocked the world” by releasing Songs of Innocence, their first album in 17 years with a title of three words or less, which is about the only noteworthy thing I can say about it.
“You wanted to get somewhere so badly, you had to lose yourself along the way. You changed your name, but that’s okay… it’s necessary. And what you leave behind you don’t miss anyway.”
Man, U2 sold out hard.
Prior to 2004, U2 was never willing to accept corporate cash. They never had a sponsor for their tours, never gave up music for any sort of promotion, and rarely even lent their music to soundtracks. They rose to the top of their prominence on their own. Then they hooked up with Apple for the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, using it to shill for the iPod. After that, it didn’t really come as a surprise that they’d drop their new album on the planet at the annual Apple new product feeding frenzy. Since then, they’ve licensed their music to promos for Sons of Anarchy (a show where the protagonists run drugs, kill people, and generally treat the women they love terribly) and The Walking Dead (a show where taking a tween girl with serious mental problems and shooting her in the back of the head was part of a character’s redemption arc) – disclosure, I actually like both of these shows, but let’s not kid ourselves, these aren’t really what the band that sang “One” is all about.
But hey, I’m reviewing an album. Let’s not get hung up on the commercial butterfly that U2 has transformed itself into. Let’s talk about the music!
“Can’t sing but I’ve got soul”
I said in 2009 to everyone I discussed No Line on the Horizon with that I loved it, but there were a few songs I could do without, and that while it’s a great album, I could see the direction they were headed with the promotion of those songs, and wasn’t very confident that I’d like the next album. When that album finally arrived in the form of Songs of Innocence, and it was free, I realized I’d gotten what I paid for. There is one song that I even remotely like, and that’s “Every Breaking Wave,” which is the only song on the album where U2 tries to directly rip themselves off instead of parroting whatever its imitators are doing these days. I’m not even sure if Adam Clayton plays bass on it, or if they just took the master from “With Or Without You” and used his line from that.
Once claiming to not be able to sing, but have soul to make up for the deficiency, Bono seems to have reversed that trend – He can sing well enough, but there is no soul on this record. Yes, there is the song about loving his wife (“Song for Someone”), one probably about heroin (“The Troubles”), and one about not killing each other (“Raised By Wolves”), but let’s just say it’s no Achtung Baby… or even Zooropa (I really like Zooropa, by the way). Lyrically, the album skews heavily autobiographical, with nearly every track telling some vignette from U2’s past when they cared about music and taking on the world. Those days seem long behind them now, but I get the concept of attempted nostalgia. The problem is that they’re trying to connect to a past that they no longer understand.
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” are apparently odes to The Ramones and The Clash, two bands that helped define the scrappy Dublin-based band in the early 80s. And what better way to honor those bands than to make drippy pop songs that they would hate, and spray one of them all over television to sell a product that practically (actually?) sells itself? I’m imagining Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer beating up Bono in an alley, spitting on his back, and telling him to piss off with his “radio rock.” These songs are insulting to the memory of everything that Ramone and Strummer stood for. Even when U2 evokes The Beach Boys on “California (There Is No End To Love),” it sounds like the disjointed, uninspired depths of “Miami” from Pop, which was rightly panned in its time (Pop had some gems, but also some real clunkers).
“Raised By Wolves” was, for me, the most disappointing track on the album lyrically, because it sounds like someone born in the late 1990s writing about The Troubles in Ireland. We went from “September, streets capsizing / spilling over down the drain / shards of glass splinters like rain / But you could only feel your own pain” from “Please” to “Blue Mink Ford I’m gonna detonate and you’re dead.” Bono claims that it’s about a bombing that he barely missed getting caught in, but it’s so impersonal, so disconnected from the actual events, that I wonder if the 16 years since Omagh have doused the righteous fire of the man who stalked around a stage screaming “Fuck the Revolution!” U2 has a lot of amazing songs about a conflict that was intimately personal to them, but “Raised By Wolves” doesn’t even belong in that pantheon.
“Haven’t seen you in quite a while. I was down the hold just passing time. Last time we met was a low-lit room, we were as close together as a bride and groom.”
-Until The End of the World
The direction that I heard them going on No Line with “Boots” and “Go Crazy” was that it was over-produced, commercialized, radio-friendly pablum. The problem with that is that U2 was all over the radio when they weren’t doing that, and now that they are, it’s not what gets the heavy rotation. You’ll hear this noise (if you still listen to the radio) for about a week, and then it’ll cycle off for the new hit single from whatever U2 imitator U2 will try to imitate next. U2 were at the top of their game when they were experimental and dangerous. When they wrote songs like “The Unforgettable Fire” that might feel at home in a goth club on an album that had a song about Martin Luther King, Jr. and a practically psychedelic track about Elvis Presley. When they would tell the IRA to fuck off and then go live full-time in Dublin. When they would go from The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby and dare the world to flinch. When they would go from Achtung Baby to Zooropa and dare the world to figure out what the heck “Lemon” meant and why The Edge was droning at us. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “One” were every third song on alternative radio in 1992. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is going to get more play as an Apple commercial than it will on any radio station.
Let that sink in.
Seriously, that is the defining criticism here: This album, this hyper-produced, designed-to-sell-yet-given-away-for-free album is going to get more exposure as a 30-second hype piece for Apple than it will by the media it wants to get in front of. Because U2 has sold out. They sold out their vision, they sold out their claim to being the most important band in the world. They’ve betrayed their fans, and they’ve betrayed themselves. U2 died in that five-year gap. What came back is a sad, unrecognizable shell.
My favorite song from No Line is “Cedars of Lebanon.” Bono dreamed this song up from a character’s perspective; it’s not personal experience, it’s just an imagined scenario. But it is beautiful, a perfect slice of his writing that is poetic and allegorical and genuinely musical in the way that 99% of humanity fell in love with back in 1987 when their mind was universally blown by The Joshua Tree. I’m going to imagine that was the last U2 song. I’m going to believe that they start with “I Will Follow” and go out with “Cedars of Lebanon.”
“I was on the outside when you said, you said you needed me. I was looking at myself, I was blind, I could not see.”
-I Will Follow
“Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you. Make them interesting, ’cause in some ways they will mind you. They’re not there in the beginning, but when your story ends. Gonna last with you longer than your friends.”
-Cedars of Lebanon