Author Topic: U2 RETURN: Uneven new CD a musical tug-of-war  (Read 1174 times)

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U2 RETURN: Uneven new CD a musical tug-of-war
« on: March 05, 2009, 03:06:38 PM »
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"No Line on the Horizon," U2's first new studio album in five years, bears the unmistakable sound of a tug-of-war.

On one side (which totals more than half of this album's 11 songs) is U2, the biggest band in the world not named The Rolling Stones. This Irish quartet has been making major statements -- as well as topping album charts and filling arenas and stadiums -- for the past 25 years. At its best, U2 transforms universal truths and personal trials and triumphs into epic songs -- such as "One," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" --that have a bigger-than-life impact.

On the other side is U2, the biggest rock band in the world still willing, if not eager, to deviate from the norm. This U2 is happy to experiment and to subvert its musical approach, as it did on such notable albums as 1984's "The Unforgettable Fire," 1993's "Zooropa" and 1997's uneven but intriguing "Pop." It has done so even at the risk of confusing fans and alienating radio programmers by bravely turning the sound and imagery of rock's mainstream inside out, a long-stated U2 goal.

The quest to please and provoke, to stretch boldly and wink slyly, is precisely what can make U2 so special. Lead singer Bono confirms as much here in a key verse from "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" (a title rivaled perhaps only by Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Going to Rock You Tonight"): The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. Or as he recently told an interviewer: "... when you become a comfortable, reliable friend, I'm not sure that's the place for rock 'n' roll."

But you can't have it both ways, which is what U2 unwisely attempts with the alternately daring and predictable "No Line on the Horizon." The result is a creative impasse that fascinates and frustrates. U2 attempts to satisfy its artistic impulses, but without seeming willing to take all the necessary risks.

Seven of the songs were co-written with longtime collaborators (and album co-producers) Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, but to no discernible advantage. One of them, "Moment of Surrender," suggests a strange mix of the Stones in its early 1970s country-rock phase and Terence Trent D'Arby's 1987 hit "Sign Your Name."

When U2 takes chances, as it does on such songs as the album's graceful, war-inspired closing number, "Cedars of Lebanon," and the hushed requiem for a war victim, "White As Snow," whose melody is based on the 12th-century Advent hymn "Veni, Veni Emanuel," the band soars (however softly). But the band lands with a thud when it stays in its comfort zone, as it does on "Unknown Caller" (whose chiming guitar figure seems to borrow from U2's own "Walk On"), the tepid funk-rock of "Stand Up Comedy" and the hyperactive but shallow first single, "Get Your Boots On" (whose verses are so similar to Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" that a litigious attorney might start immediately salvitating).

The rest of the album is well-crafted and listener-friendly. But U2 is too often content to deliver songs that are good or very good when it should have stopped at nothing less than great. A band this accomplished should settle for no less. Neither should its fans.