No Line on the Horizon
2.5 out of 5 stars
Brian Eno’s influence on No Line on the Horizon is marked. Not only did he produce the album, but he also took part in the songwriting process, which explains why the majority of the songs are atmospheric numbers lacking the hard rock punch U2 is famous for delivering. But the record is still distinctly U2 — as soon as Bono starts singing, there’s no way anybody even somewhat familiar with the Irish lads’ previous releases could mistake them for anyone else. Unfortunately, this combination of Eno-flavored, airy understatement and Bono’s overpowering vocals fails to mix well.
The album opens with the disappointing title track, an echoing synthesizer-led number quickly drowned by Bono’s vocals. He howls “oh” and “woah” throughout the song, sounding like a whiny dog. It’s an odd mix of minimalism and overcrowding — a puzzle whose pieces are individually intriguing but don’t quite fit together.
“Magnificent” follows, starting off with an evil, heavily-distorted guitar and dance-poppy synthesizer. Drummer Larry Mullen adds a good deal of the danceability to the track, tapping a tambourine and hitting the drums in a clap-your-hands fashion. The track is more typical U2, and would probably suit a music video where Bono stands in the middle of an expansive canyon lifting his arms up to the sky and belting out the lyrics.
One of the strongest tracks on the album (and starkest departures from U2’s trademark sound) is “Moment of Surrender.” Beginning with a very basic, almost-groovy drumbeat, the song maintains a relaxing, airy ambiance throughout. A keyboard reminiscent of a dilapidated organ buried in a stained-glass church plays in the background, accompanied by understated strings. Here, Bono almost sounds like a gospel singer taking an extended solo. Lyrics like “Playing with the fire until the fire played with me,” along with a choir-backed chorus, solidify the feeling.
“White As Snow,” a blatant (but acknowledged) rip-off of the traditional Christmas carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is, if nothing else, interesting. Carried by soft plinking on piano keys and the plucking of an acoustic guitar, it’s almost a folk song. Even the track’s lyrics lend a folky feel, as Bono sings about such down-to-earth topics as the land and family rather than his usual sweeping generalizations.
The album closes with “Cedars of Lebanon,” another distinct break from U2’s typical style. It features quiet instrumentation and a drummer-boy beat, conjuring images of lonely troops missing their homes and families. Towards the end of the track, Bono asks, “Where are you in the cedars of Lebanon?,” wrapping up the ballad of a soldier walking through the cold, misty woods — hands in his pockets, eyes fixed on the pine-needle-covered ground, mind pondering love lost.
While it’s clear that No Line on the Horizon is different from U2’s best albums, it’s still a letdown. The band, along with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, toted the record as something of a revolution in a jewel case, boosting the expectations of fans and critics by claiming it was one of their best releases yet. It’s not. It’s not terrible either, but U2 definitely would have been better off had they let their music do the hyping instead.