Monday 20 May 2019

Eamon Carr's Verdict: U2

Bono will be 49 soon. For the last 33 years he's been punching the air and casting out demons as frontman with U2. Thirty-three years! As glam rockers Mott the Hoople would have it, that's "a mighty long way down rock'n'roll".

Many of U2's musical contemporaries have either retired or disintegrated. Some have reformed and returned to play the seniors' nostalgia circuit.

But the Dublin quartet are still kicking against the pricks. Still putting themselves through collaborative purgatory to reach a creative heaven. This is to their credit.

Work is what defines an artist. U2 take their gig seriously. Theirs is a vocation. But that's no guarantee of excellence.

Rock stars tend to get flabby. They can afford the many attractive distractions that come their way. As a result, the music suffers. This has been the pattern since before Gladys Presley discovered she was pregnant.

That U2 have delivered a 12th studio album of such elegance and abandon at this stage in their career is quite remarkable.

I'm not bigging up my buddies here. Nodding terms suits both parties. But I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight what I consider to be an artistic heart at the core of this new work that's unerring, fragile and true.

Taken collectively, these songs are a serious piece of work.

There's a line tucked away in the sleeve notes that thanks record company executive Jimmy Iovine "for believing that U2 are a brand new band". Huh! We've heard this before. Yet, once again, the band have managed a unique reinvention.

Not that they're going to emerge as crossdressers or Moonies. But, over the past decade the band appear to have undergone a profound metamorphosis. There's a depth to this album that is subtle, not strident. We've been catching glimpses of it over the years.

Today, there's a scuffed maturity in evidence here that can only come from life experience. It serves U2 well.

In the natural order of things, the ageing U2 should by now be trailing in the wake of younger, more dynamic bands. This is not the case. No Line On The Horizon raises the bar for Coldplay, The Killers and Kings of Leon.

It's an expansive record. Ranging from the seductive ambience of Moment of Surrender, through the sonic maelstrom of Stand Up Comedy to the rural hymnal purity of White As Snow, this is an 11-track collection that reveals itself gradually. While labyrinthine, the songs are sniper-sharp.

Steve Lilywhite, who was first to capture the band's anthemic thrill-power, is at the helm for about half of the new songs. Like the planned next single I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, these tend to be the tracks that reprise U2's high-octane garage band origins.

Having abandoned earlier sessions with producer Rick Rubin (who recaptured the greatness of Johnny Cash in his later years), U2 co-opted their previous collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as writers and producers. It was an inspired move that has resulted in a series of songs that give the album its supple spine.

Some years ago Bob Geldof told me that Prince was the only artist whose work left him puzzled as to how he arrived at an unconventional song shape and an equally inventive production soundscape.

Many of the songs on No Line On The Horizon display similar attributes. Regular compositional structures are overturned, yet songs build from one memorable hook to another as U2 push a few boundaries.

The effect is to create layers of mystery which gradually unfold to reveal some brushstrokes of great beauty. Essentially, U2 are a guitar, bass and drums band. They retain the spark that's ignited the rock'n'roll fire from The Yardbirds to Television. But they've developed a communal imagination and group mindset that enables them to curate a song as a piece of contemporary art as much as to blast it out like primitive rockers.

They retain the arty curiosity that gave an added dimension to their earlier work. But they have become more surefooted, more confident in their risk-taking.

The writing in these new songs confirms the band's place as important voices. Like a new car design or a new piece of software, this album is a richly-textured and sleek machine that marries smart technology and human emotion.

From the cover photo by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto to the album's abrupt ending, there's a studied artistic awareness at work throughout No Line On The Horizon that few popular music artists can approximate.

But ultimately, as the saying goes, it's only rock'n'roll. However, in this case it's rock'n'roll that alludes to something greater.

If No Line On The Horizon isn't ultimately rated alongside The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby as one of a triumvirate of superlative U2 albums, then I'll be eating my pork-pie hat.

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Ireland’s leading music critic reviews the band’s latest album

1: No Line On The Horizon

It's the tremendous sonic dynamics that grab you as the bass and drums lock into an irresistible Madchester beat and carries on with a rising lift that oozes optimism as Bono sings, 'She said, "Infinity is a great place to start"'.

2: Magnificent

Larry's snare drum builds in dramatically before a familiar chiming guitar sound stamps U2 on the the song.

3: Moment of Surrender

A gorgeous soulful mid-tempo song that seems destined to be covered by hundreds of other artists. Huge synthesized bass sound and heartfelt vocal as Bono sings about 'playing with fire till the fire played with me'.

4: Unknown Caller

A warm New Orleans-style undertow to a song that doesn't reveal itself too soon.

5: I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight

Will work brilliantly on a stadium stage. A further example of the band's unformulaic approach to writing.

6: Get On Your Boots

A powerhouse track that shakes up the album when it rattles in.

7: Stand Up Comedy

A monster riff from The Edge on a song that kicks the album to a different level of fun and excitement. More thought-provoking lines. 'Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady. . ."

8: Fez - Being Born

Atmospheric soundscape intro leads to an example of how well U2 have refined their trademark stylistic musical motifs.

9: White As Snow

Due on the soundtrack of Jim Sheridan's Iraq war film, Brothers, this sparse and haunting hymn is where performance artist Laurie Anderson meets alt-country and even at 4.39 seems short.

10: Breathe

Ushered in by a guitar buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, this is demented rock'n'roll with Bono in holy-roller mode invoking bizarre images including, 'I'm running down the road like loose electricity while the band in my head plays a striptease'.

11: Cedars Of Lebanon

Like a prize-winning short story, this has an insightful documentary feel that makes it the perfect coda to the album.

The writing here is brilliant and, as throughout, the playing shows a band at the height of its powers.

It's the tremendous sonic dynamics that grab you as the bass and drums lock into an irresistible Madchester beat and carries on with a rising lift that oozes optimism as Bono sings, 'She said, "Infinity is a great place to start"'.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News