Thursday, April 9, 2009

“The Fat of the Band”

No Line on the Horizon (U2) (2009)

As I sat to write this, I remembered when former Observer critic Marlon James said that the reason U2 was failing as a band (circa 1997) was because the group ‘never rocked to begin with’. I’ve had time to assess such a statement with each release after Achtung Baby and, not surprisingly, came to the same conclusion. Apparently, so too did the band because they have spent the ensuing years tinkering with a sound that has never been known to settle for uniformity. It took guts to follow up War with the experimental The Unforgettable Fire then bridge both ideas with the master-stroke that was The Joshua Tree, and for that U2 had my respect. No other band sounded more vital in the 80s nor had the grasp on crowds that turned up to be a part of the arena-rawk movement that the band had help foment in Europe.

Then a new decade came and kids were expressing rage through grunge by listening to Nirvana and the burgeoning college-rock scene exploded with voices like Michael Stipe (R.E.M) and Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins). It’s not that U2 panicked but more like they tried to buy into a scene that they could never fit into with arty collage efforts like Zooropa and Pop. Suddenly U2 were everywhere, at the drop of a pin, snatching every conceivable popular culture moment while ignoring their music. Thus they stopped being the ‘best band’ in music and became the ‘biggest band’. I’m not sure what such a label means though because Radiohead is undeniably the best rock band out there---stop kidding yourselves and agree already---and Coldplay the biggest selling (out?!) band, then where does that leave a dinosaur like U2?

So, now what does Bono do…he goes back to the drawing-board and regurgitates. That means Brian Eno is present to sweep sonic gloss over No Line on the Horizon and the band queues up and dole out exactly what is expected of them. The title track opens things up fairly enough but by track two---the uneven Magnificent—Bono is already crooning that he was here to sing for us and he couldn’t help it if he tried. As if. Then there is Get on your Boots where Bono deigns to remind us, albeit briefly, that he still considers himself a rock star. As if. The album ender, the numbing Cedars of Lebanon, if not pretentiously-titled already, has Bono’s vocal wrap slumbering over such hash like, ‘This shitty world sometimes produces a rose/ The scent of it lingers and then it just goes’. Lyrically, the track tackles the very issues that the band is dealing with but it’s devoid of any passion or sense of direction. Not surprisingly, the band fares better when the lyrical focus is on Bono particularly. Breathe succeeds in at least firing them up in an almost religious fervor. Bono’s sonorous approach doesn’t harm as much as it placates.

The album however trips under its own deep-rooted good intentions far too often. This is not surprising as given the halo of irreverence that surrounds Bono; it was always likely that the band would eventually nosedive under its own excess. Not only is White as Snow terribly boring but a line like ‘Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not’ serves as a test to the resolve of even the most diehard fans (and there are many, trust me). Fez takes forever to start up and until it really gets going I feared some type of (gulp!) Sting-like train wreck best suited for mid-level business managers at the end of a stressful work day. Stand Up Comedy is embarrassing enough with clunky lines like, ‘The DNA lotto may have left you smart/ but can you stand up to beauty?’ Moment of Surrender is the worst offender though in terms of pure verbiage. Here is Bono, sounding as if on a cross himself, draining all energy out of an already lacking song.

The biggest problem with U2’s music however is one of direction or the lack thereof. Back in the late 80s they helped to define and amplify a movement that preferred their rock stars front and centre on stage and not generic dispensers of isms. It’s not that the music here is totally horrid but for a band that used to evocate loss and sadness on a grand scale, a track like Unknown Caller simply pales in comparison. Nothing sticks thematically except Bono’s nauseating goodwill. War had its Irish politics to frame protest from and The Joshua Tree suffused loss in a myriad of unforgettable ways but what keeps die-hard fans from openly admitting how terribly uneven No Line on the Horizon is framed , is really beyond my comprehension.

The most stunning thing about the average U2 fan though is how clueless their music appreciation is. They praise the ground U2 walks upon yet conveniently ignore Radiohead, the band Bono is desperately copying with each record. Ironically, these fans do not listen to Radiohead and would sooner recite the fifty states that make up the USA than come up with any three songs from that band. Nothing is wrong with adapting ideas though and using them ruthlessly for your own schemes, I mean look how fabulous Paper Planes turned out for M.I.A and now everyone loves her even though they wouldn’t give her the time of day initially. When U2 pillage on this record though the effect is a type of sappy sentimentality that I always suspected Bono of. There is a deep insularity to No Line on the Horizon as if its own reward was upon completion. Of course this threat of gratuity looms as the years pass for each band, especially one as celebrated as U2. Bono has been accepted by every cultural indicator that we mark as a sign of someone who has achieved importance and in that inner-peace zone we all idealize. The trouble is, like Sting (ugh!) it is precisely at that point where the insistence and hunger to record music wane significantly. Twenty-five years ago when the future was unsecured and in front of the demanding crowd Bono then was an effective lead singer, railing on the hopes of those who couldn’t be up there with him. That is, essentially what rock and roll is, but whose pain is he eviscerating now? Even worse, Bono has forgotten what he is: a rock musician. His music has stopped influencing his politics and the reverse is true, thus making his statements less than the sum of their parts. Now, U2 is too neat, too concerned with saying all the right things, too flawless to make a beautiful yet flawed piece of art.

I never took that Bono statement at face value when he said it but the mere fact that he felt the need to reapply for vitality meant that on a very deep level he understood the predicament that surrounded him. His failure though is in clinging to a safety zone that is boring at this point, instead of opening up his band to newer possibilities. That, in a nutshell, sums up No Line on the Horizon, an album that toils hard at its insides and still, for all its labor, comes up empty and well short. Heading into a fourth decade, it is clear that those great, relevant days are behind U2 and we are all witness to what Marlon James calls, to borrow another quote from him, ‘talent leaving the talented’.

RATING: 4/10