In the late '70s, as the punk explosion transformed the British and American rock scenes, some of the biggest groups of the preceding years drew inspiration from the new energy and aesthetic to craft albums which, in many cases, stand as great last gasps before impending dinosaurdom.
The Rolling Stones responded with "Some Girls" (1978), Led Zeppelin with "In Through the Out Door" (1979) and Yes with "Going for the One" (1977), to name a few.
Classic-rock superstars on the same level a generation later, U2 did something similar with "Achtung Baby" in 1991, at the height of the alternative and Britpop movements. But Bono and his bandmates arguably were even more courageous in abandoning the stadium bombast that had come to characterize their sound in favor of much edgier art-rock experimentation and a new ironic attitude that seemed to scoff at their earlier, often pompous and heavy-handed rattle and hum.
It was a good trick, but the Irish rockers could only really do it once, and after "Zooropa" (1993) and "Pop" (1997) continued trying to push the envelope with ever-diminishing results, the musicians retreated to bland, retro-minded U2-by-numbers conservatism in the new millennium with "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (2000) and "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), in between Bono's decidedly non-ironic attempts to end world hunger, cure AIDS and stop global conflict.
These good acts stand in sharp contrast to blatant money-grabs such as the band's mega-merchandising deal with Live Nation or its high-priced stadium tours, and as the musicians edged closer to age 50, it seemed as if their own status as musical dinosaurs was a sad inevitability. Or was it?
That question looms large over "No Line on the Horizon," the band's 12th studio album, arriving in stores on Tuesday (Mar. 3) but already streaming online. It was voiced most eloquently by Bono himself: "If this isn't our best album, we're irrelevant," he told the Times of London (though during the obnoxious hype campaign, I've heard him say something similar to many a great sage, including Billy Bush of "Access Hollywood").
To cut to the chase: No, "No Line on the Horizon" is not U2's best album; that honor still belongs to "Achtung Baby." But it is a much stronger effort than any since, or than I'd have expected the band to still be capable of producing. And if the group doesn't quite seems as brave, original or freshly inspired as it did 18 years back--much less than at the start of its career three decades ago--well, the new disc at least proves that the quartet is not yet totally irrelevant.
Mind you, this is not the same as saying U2 is as important and creative a band as U2 thinks it is, and to an even greater degree than on "The Unforgettable Fire" (1984), "The Joshua Tree" (1987) or "Achtung Baby," a big portion of the credit for the new album's success is due to the familiar production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, as the musicians themselves acknowledge: Despite their long association, this is the first time Eno and Lanois have received co-songwriting credit with U2--their names appear on seven of 11 tracks--and they also performed with the band in the studio, Lanois on pedal steel guitar and Eno on his famous electronic manipulation/"Enossification."
Having abandoned initial sessions with Rick Rubin, a producer who'd have been much more likely to deliver yet another retread U2 rock album, the musicians invited Eno and Lanois to once again challenge U2 about what U2 "should" sound like. Addressing their relationship in 1992, Eno told me: "They have a lot of people obviously who will encourage them to do more of what they've already done... I'm part of the small contingent that redress that by coming along and hearing things that I don't recognize and saying, 'Wow, now that sounds really exciting. Let's follow that for awhile.'"
Here, the best results come from the roiling grooves and otherworldly melodies of the title track and "Unknown Caller"; the gospel transcendence of "Moment of Surrender" (which brings to mind Eno's recent collaboration with David Byrne on "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today"); the Middle Eastern drone of "Fez--Being Born"; the inspired rewrite of the 12th Century hymn "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" as "White as Snow," a song about a soldier dying in Afghanistan, and "Cedars of Lebanon," which finds Bono channeling Frank Sinatra during a barroom chat set against trademark Eno ambience.
Through it all, the musicians are at the top of their games, with drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton sounding more fluid but propulsive than ever, and the Edge once more proving himself a master of minimalism while adding half a dozen simple but striking new sounds to his bag of sonic tricks. As for soon-to-be-49-year-old Nobel Peace Prize contender Paul David Hewson, his instrument remains a strong one, though he's increasingly confused about whether he wants to say Great and Important Things ("I was born/I was born to sing for you/I didn't have a choice but to lift you up," he croons in the soggy and ponderous "Magnificent") or scoff Fly-like at that very notion while laughing at his own ubiquitous image ("Stand up to rock stars/Napoleon is in high heels/Josephine, be careful/Of small men with big ideas," he advises in the equally annoying "Stand Up Comedy").
Even worse are U2's collaboration with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas on "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," an ill-advised attempt to get funky, and the first singe "Get On Your Boots," a space-age take rewrite of a vintage Nancy Sinatra psychedelic go-go ditty. Both tracks find the musicians protesting their youthful vitality to such a degree that they wind up sounding like dirty old men too repulsive and embarrassing to be cast in a Viagra commercial.
Given the cringe-worthy lousiness of those four significant missteps, it's even more of a testament to how the lush melodies and swirling sonic inventions of the rest of the disc keep you wanting to come back again and again (albeit with judicious use of the skip/fast-forward function of your CD player or iPod). "Let me in the sound! Meet me in the sound!" Bono chants at different points in no fewer than three of these new songs, and it turns out to be an invitation that's still well worth accepting.