Both glowing public reviews and private emails I’ve lately received for some reason (subject line: “Fuck you!”) have graced U2’s No Line on the Horizon with praise so specific it’s risen to the level of meme: “Their best since Achtung Baby.” This would seem to be a tremendously powerful statement, as that album came out in 1991, way closer to 20 years ago than anyone should be comfortable with. I am on the fence about whether this is true, this comparison, for reasons I will attempt to be elucidate. What I know for sure, though, is this: Even if Horizon is, indeed, their best since Achtung Baby, it can still be lousy.
This is not to dismiss U2’s output over the last two decades, which has been pretty fantastic. Full albums just ain’t their strength anymore. “Beautiful Day” is top-five-all-time material, and I’ll ride for plenty of latter-day jams: “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” “Walk On,” “Electrical Storm,” hell, even “Lemon.” In that span they’ve been, if not the best live band on earth, certainly the most monumental tour attraction. And most importantly, their 2002 Super Bowl halftime show is the single best thing they’ve ever done, period: No one else on earth could’ve pulled that off. (Springsteen’s own post-9/11 recovery plan was plenty stirring but still wan in comparison). As showmen, as media-manipulators, as full-flung deities, these are very conceivably the boom years. They could hardly translate to 45 minutes on a thin piece of plastic, and they have not.
The unfair standard of comparison that proves this, that separates U2 Then from U2 Now, is not the big guns, “With or Without You” and “Pride” and so forth. It’s “Acrobat.” “Acrobat” is the best song on Achtung Baby, track 11 of 12, by no means a radio entity or concert staple, but just a simple, volatile, fiery burst of arena-rock surliness all the better for not being overplayed and overexposed, with just a slight air of ragged spontaneity, of not-overthought-to-death-ness. U2 Now’s big singles, whether triumphant (“Beautiful Day”) or somewhat admirably goofy (“Vertigo,” “Get on Your Boots”), are good and/or ubiquitous enough to get them over, to sustain the myth. You need b-sides that killer, though, for your albums to achieve the greatness of your marketing.
Finally: My “best since Achtung” fence-sitting is due to Pop, now understood as an egomaniacal, irony-overload overreach, their ill-advised foray into visual excess and what we all were seriously then calling “electronica.” Its low points are deathly low indeed, but other parts of that album are incredibly weird and incredibly brave — try getting anything as bewildering as “Mofo” out of them ever again. Everything since then (i.e. 1997) is apologetic backlash, the whole “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world” shtick, return-to-glory, back-to-basics, no more electronic bullshit. They begged us to love them again, and we did, we do. They gave up their liberty for our security. So that’s all we get.