Irish metastars bare their knuckles for an album-length brawl with belief, Big Themes, back catalog
With each passing studio release (and there have now been a dozen of them over the course of a three-decade career), U2 has increasingly had to address a nagging question from its massive worldwide fanbase: Which U2 will show up this time? Will it be a return to the cockeyed spirituality of The Joshua Tree? A detour into beats and burbles like Achtung Baby or its inferior, more experimental cousin, Pop? A “back to basics” gambit such as All that You Can’t Leave Behind? Herein lies the Problem of Being U2: It’s more challenging to ask fans to meet you where you are when they bring the baggage of having met you all the places you were over the course of 30 years’ worth of work. This gets in the way of appreciating No Line on the Horizon for what it is: a well-crafted, classically-sturdy rock album with a modicum of invention and a good deal of familiar-sounding material that will appeal to the faithful but not ask much more of them than to simply pay attention to musical cues recalling milestones throughout the band’s considerable history.
A couple of tracks represent real grabbers that sit easily alongside U2’s best work: “Magnificent” is just that, a stately melody that could easily have been on War and rises just as high to the occasion; “Unknown Caller,” offers a bit of Joshua Tree-style soulsearching; “Get On Your Boots,” the album’s first single, combines a weirdly catchy amalgam of Elvis Costello cadence and Queen-like pomp. But other cuts sink under the weight of their ambition. “Stand Up Comedy” aspires to “meaningful” but delivers “mealy-mouthed,” and faux-beat poetry drags “Breathe” down a long, dark alley. Elsewhere, “Moment of Surrender,” presents little more than a sleepy, gospel-tinged track that comes on like a Rattle and Hum outtake. On balance, No Line on the Horizon represents what October did all those years ago: a decent step forward that nevertheless recalls the past more clearly than it spells out the future.