The new U2 record is pretty lousy, and that’s lousy news for us all—devout fans, professional detractors, and the defiantly indifferent alike. Your personal emotional investment (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, the rising tide of No Line on the Horizon‘s overwhelming artistic/economic triumph would have lifted all boats, would have trickled down to the grateful masses, would have delivered enough stimulus to reverse our inexorable slide toward the Greatest Depression. No other band wields power this awesome anymore. (As overexposed as Coldplay has gotten—and as resoundingly superior as their deft, adventurous, and at least slightly less pompous Viva La Vida might have been—they ain’t cuttin’ it.) So we all tried really hard to make this work. The boys appeared on national television like 50 times last week—five straight Letterman shows and, just for the hell of it, an early-morning Fordham University extravaganza for Good Morning America—and your friends and mine in the music press rained down the five-star reviews and “Good Lord, it’s their masterpiece!” coverlines. (Rolling Stone and Q, disrespectively.)
Like General Motors, a new U2 album is too big to fail—too much auxiliary talent (Eno, Lanois, Lillywhite, Corbijn, etc.), too much expectation, too much accumulated goodwill. But accumulated goodwill is all it has, merely aping “classic U2” as opposed to evoking or improving it. These new songs will remind you of other, much better songs, but in a way that only makes you want to go and listen to those other songs instead and then fret over the fact that they’re quite possibly older than you are. So when the rumbling bass and flashy squiggles of Horizon‘s introductory title track start to get stale two minutes in, and Bono reverts to some break-glass-in-case-of-floundering-album peals of “ohhh, ohhh, ohhhhh, ohhh,” the “Pride” echo is almost shameful, a warm-blanket defense mechanism they can’t yet leave behind. “Magnificent” is much improved, the pace quickened, the lithe maximum-impact minimalism of Bono’s supporting cast welcome as usual as they set a tight, propulsive, repetitive groove in place and power through it as their singer insists he was born to save the world through the healing power of Rock (“From the womb my first cry/It was a joyful noise”). We don’t let just anyone get away with this messianic shit, but at least he’s good at it.
But the sluggish, overlong “Moment of Surrender” kills any momentum the album has or could have had, a wan ballad/bathroom break that vies for “One”/”With or Without You” bombast, but fires off one lyrical clunker after another in its quest for poignancy: “I was speeding on the subway/Through the stations of the cross,” etc. Woof. “Unknown Caller” is, unfortunately, worse, stumbling through a string of eye-rolling computer-as-humanity metaphors: “Force quit! And move to trash!” Bono chants. “Restart and reboot yourself!”
The balls-somewhat-near-the-wall rock songs are more effective, but less memorable. “Get on Your Boots” is a schizophrenic mess (as vertiginous as the much better “Vertigo” was straightforward), but it’s volatile and unpredictable in a way that the smoother, blander, overly sane “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is not (“It’s not a hill/It’s a mountain,” goes the chorus, in a bout of wishful thinking). “Stand Up Comedy,” meanwhile, is Bono’s not entirely convincing attempt at self-deprecation—”Stand up to rock stars/Napoleon is in high heels,” he declares with a wink perfectly visible from the cheap seats, backed by a sleazy romp as close as U2 has gotten in years to the late-’90s irony-overload electro-rock that everyone claimed to hate at the time and kind of misses now.
And then the producers take over. With one notable exception, Horizon ends with a series of increasingly solemn, frail, tone-poetic, atmospheric washouts, throwaways in that regard the way all their albums have throwaways, but surer footing to end on than the we-used-to-rock-and-still-can-sort-of stuff. “Cedars of Lebanon,” a jumbled war-correspondent lament with no clear narrative or resolution, finishes us off on a lovely note of distress and unease, with a refreshing lack of corn, overconfidence, and pomposity. Of course, Horizon‘s penultimate and best track, “Breathe,” succeeds by indulging in all three. It killed on Letterman last Monday night.
Or, more accurately, 45 seconds of it did, and that’s enough. “Breathe” is a rocker, saddled at the onset with a plodding beat and one of Bono’s aggravating quasi-Stipe free-associative rants: “I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo” and so forth. The chorus is no great shakes—just a four-chord boilerplate hook and a nice belting note for amateur karaoke enthusiasts to end on: “There’s nothing you have that I neeeed.” But midway through, as the Edge rattled off another affable anti-solo, the cameras swung around and pointed at the raucous Ed Sullivan Theater crowd, rapt and whooping at Bono’s command, and when everyone realized they were the ones on camera now, they whooped louder, and that small avalanche of revelry spilled into the last chorus, modified slightly to reflect everyone’s current location and weather situation: “Walk out/Into the snowbound streets/Sing your heart out, New York!/Sing your heart out, New York!” It was hopelessly cheesy and gratuitous, but deeply affecting all the same, just a whiff of the rousing arena-rock power that fewer and fewer bands possess anymore, something felt too infrequently on Horizon, defined here more by the pain felt in its absence.