An orthodoxy of sorts seems to have hardened among decent right-thinking folk about U2: let's call it the Pop paradigm (wait! Come back!) According to this view, 1997's Pop was a grotesque overreaching attempt to stay relevant, overblown in some places, half-finished in others. Was that an attempt at a techno song? "Discoteque": huh? This isn't the U2 we know and love. Pop has gone down in U2's history as the Tap--like turd full stopping the ironic carnival that started with Achtung Baby! and which gifted us such steadily diminishing returns as Zooropa and, heaven help us, Passengers. Too many giant lemons, not enough joshua trees. That this critical trashing was merrily aided and abetted by the band themselves, eager to tell anyone who'd listen how the album had to be rushed to market so that they could get on the road for the Popmart Tour and how everything in future would be Back to Basics, yes indeed. The job of best rock band in the world is vacant, said a penitent Bono, and we're reapplying. Their reputation was only fully rehabilitated with the triumphant All That You Can't Leave Behind and confirmed with How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. So goes the orthodoxy.
Of course, the trouble with orthodoxies is that they're too often balls. Pop is perhaps my favourite U2 album, the subsequent two albums being, to these ears, all but unlistenable (not least because the very best songs have been played to death on TV and adverts)*. Pop came out the same year as albums like OK Computer, Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space and, um, sundry other great records (OK, alright: I was referring to Attack of the Grey Lantern). I was working in a Virgin Megastore at the time, and would often play them over the PA (somehow, all that great music is inextricably linked in my memory with the comet that was visible throughout that summer.) Pop has some of their best songs: "Please", "Gone" (which comes with a very atypical Bono chorus: "Goodbye/You can keep your suit of lights/I'll be up with the sun/I'm not coming down": Bobbie Gillepsie would have been proud), "Wake Up Dead Man", "Discoteque", "Mofo". That some of the songs on Pop are somewhat sparse works in the record's favour: where the band's subsequent output tends towards bloated maximalism, all the joy and spontaneity crushed ruthlessly from the songs by an obsessive working and reworking, Pop's best songs sound conjured from thin air, alchemised by four guys who go way back just playing in a room.
The last two records... actually I can't remember a great deal about the last two records, since I listened to them all the way through only a handful of times. They certainly seemed horrible: not an ounce of wit or playfulness, too many chants written explicitly for the stadium (don't U2 at their best sound like they're playing just for you, not a stadium; even if that is, in fact, what they're doing?) But precisely because I owe this damn band an enormous (yes) debt of gratitude, I imagine I'll always have to listen to whatever they put out between here and the day they stop. And so here's No Line On The Horizon. Are they redeemed?
Yes. More or less. This album has the band's best songs since Pop, even if there are a couple of now-obligatory mid-tempo clunkers. The lyrics stay mostly on the right side of embarrassing, Bono's still in fine voice, the songs about Africa are happily absent, the production from Lanois and Eno (listed as band members in the sleeve notes) is frequently amazing. The title track is a mysterious swamp of guitars and bass, Kings of Leon by way of the Glistening Chimes of Eno.** "Magnificent", despite its hostage-to-fortune title, is a triumph, actually, with a piping little keyboard hook in the chorus that's just swell; "Moment of Surrender" has some lovely unexpected chords; "Stand-up Comedy" is blithely self-referential and "Unknown Caller"'s chorus is nicely odd.
The best songs come last. "Fez" swirls coquettishly before deploying the big Edge chords, the single let's just say it at least makes sense on the album, and "Cedars of Lebanon" is another downbeat album closer much in the mold of "Love Is Blindness". So. If U2 are never quite going to get back to the restless spirit that created "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" or "Lemon" or "Numb" or Zooropa's title track, then so be it. But this'll do.
*Though it's worth noting here that the band's tendency, since at least All That You Can't Leave Behind and the Best Ofs, for offensive clipping and too much loudness. I suspect that this album is no different: there are a number of songs where what should be the thrilling in-rush of Edge's guitar sounds no louder than what went before. You know you're in trouble when a supposedly quiet verse with no guitar is no quieter than the subsequent verse with guitar. Try "Until The End of the World" for an example of sane mastering: when Edge's guitar solo comes in, it sounds like the song suddenly enters a fourth dimension.
** Can someone call a band that please?