Larry Mullen pounds away like the Eveready Bunny on speed. Adam Clayton’s fingers stampede up and down his bass guitar’s fretboard. With his amp dialled up to 11, The Edge fires off savage riffs of mass destruction. U2’s misfiring ‘Get On Your Boots’ certainly relies on a shock and awe approach. And yet what hits hardest is an almost throwaway line from Bono: “I don’t want to talk about wars between nations.”
And, for most of the band’s 12th studio album, the man who never shuts up about poverty, Aids, third world debt and wars between nations actually keeps his word. The Big Themes are edged out by character studies of ordinary people, himself (“Napoleon in high heels”), and, clearly unable to ditch the political entirely, an Afghan man wounded in a bomb blast.
He’s changed — but just a little. For all Bono’s talk of “vision over visibility” (look past what is in front of you to see what could be), the band spend more time looking back over their collective shoulder at potential rivals — Kings of Leon, The Killers — than beyond the horizon.
The much touted experimentation — recording sessions in Morocco; mumblings of a concept album; the producer calling it all “fantastically innovative” — is cautious rather than daring, as if the initial vision was blurred by commercial consideration. Certainly, reuniting with long-term collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois doesn’t suggest a band moving forward.
‘No Line On The Horizon’ is vintage U2 — confident, spiritual, epic, and crafted to fill a thousand stadiums around the world — and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The perfectly titled ‘Magnificent’ is a grand slow-motion run through the fields (“Only love can leave such a mark”). The alternately ranting and joyous ‘Breathe’ has all the elemental power and vivid wordplay of ‘Until The End Of The World’: “I’m running down the road like loose electricity / While the band in my head plays a striptease”. The self-referencing ‘Stand Up Comedy’ roughens up the swing of ‘Mysterious Ways’ with a killer ‘Vertigo’ guitar riff. The pastoral ‘White As Snow’ is as intimate as ‘One’. And ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’ is glorious pop in the fine tradition of ‘Beautiful Day’.
Amidst such familiarity, surprises do appear. The impassioned title track learns a thing or two from Kings of Leon about rootsy, primal singing, while the sweeping, majestic seven-minute ‘Moment Of Surrender’ is easily the most ambitious and textured song these four Irishmen have ever attempted.
But the most daring moments — sitting uncomfortably alongside the potential hits — are those that hint at what could have been if there were no accountants to answer to. ‘FEZ – Being Born’ is an earthy wash of African rhythmic textures; Eno’s warm keyboard atmospherics; sparse, almost incidental vocals; Edge’s chiming chords; and an eyes-to-the-sky sense of wonderment.
And album closer ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ — a downer like ‘Mothers Of The Disappeared’, ‘Love Is Blindness’ and ‘Wake Up Dead Man’ — has the biggest band in the world and its motormouth frontman sounding haunted, fragile, even broken. As Bono, his voice cracking, sings “Choose your enemies closely ‘cos they will define you / Make them interesting because in some ways they will mind you” you can’t help but wish they’d looked a little beyond their usual chart “enemies”: Coldplay, Snow Patrol et al.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.