In hindsight, 1997’s Pop shook U2’s musical confidence more than anyone realized. That album, which found the band experimenting with synthesizers and of-the-time electronic production, wasn’t lauded like the similarly left-field Achtung Baby. As if to (over)compensate for the sonic deviation, U2’s next two albums, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, played it safe, their songs following the classic U2 formula: chiming Edge riffs, brisk tempos and grandiose Bono revelations. Despite moments of brilliance, Behind and Bomb felt self-conscious, as if U2 had forced itself back to its ’80s glory-days mind-set as penance for embracing modernity. Too bad; U2 is best when challenging its legacy.
The weakest moments on latest effort No Line on the Horizon (“Moment of Surrender,” “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”) sound like Behind-era B-sides, while the best tracks’ references are all over the place: the bluesy swing of “Breathe,” the inky trip-hop of “Cedars of Lebanon” and the swaggering electro-R&B of “Get on Your Boots.”
Longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois help sculpt Horizon’s sprawling atmospheres (five songs run past five minutes), and their trademark cushiony keyboards and outer-space ambiance really suit the album. “Fez—Being Born” is at once joyous and impossibly sad, as anguished vocal wails mix with lullaby beats and funeral-mass guitars. “White as Snow” feels like a solemn Catholic service (mainly because its tune is based on the carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), but its glassy piano and Bono’s vulnerable delivery are bone-chilling. And “Magnificent” is just that, a classic U2 combo of swirling guitars, an insistent tempo and destined-for-greatness vocal sentiments.
Horizon’s weakness is its lyrics. To get to “Snow”—a song about a soldier dying in Afghanistan—we have to make it through the title track, which contains the cringe-worthy couplet, “She said, ‘Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear’/Then she put her tongue in my ear.” And then there’s the downright embarrassing “Unknown Caller,” a clumsy attempt to employ technology metaphors (“Force-quit and move to trash”; “Restart and reboot yourself”). Shades of Kraftwerk’s obsession with computers, perhaps, but more like your parents fumbling with Facebook.
It’s a sign that U2’s transcendent days have gone the way of its youthful naivete. Still, the band’s willingness to take risks is a welcome change from the hermetically sealed authenticity of its previous work this decade. Horizon feels sincere in ways not seen since Pop, an album built upon songwriting that has stood the test of time. It’s not a stretch to think at least some of these new songs will, too.