U2 No Line on the Horizon(Interscope) Buy it from Insound
Review for U2 fans
U2’s latest reunites them with the crack team of Eno and Lanois, who brought us The Joshua Tree. This promises great things, which aren’t really delivered, but so what? The boys are back doing what they do best, sounding cool, emoting meaningfully and rocking out once in a while. It’s hard for me to tell you which ones are the good ones because I don’t really like any of it, but I know enough to tell that some of this stuff is vintage U2. I can also say that the production is relatively uncluttered and on songs like Unknown Caller, they seem to be connecting with the best of what they do, with The Edge providing color while Bono sings about deep stuff, with a rousing chorus imploring you to “recruit yourself”. The single is too weird for U2 fans to like so we can skip it and focus on life-affirming, propulsive tunes like Magnificent. Sure the riffs are recycled, but oh what riffs they are! They’re avoiding ballads and fruity stuff like that in favor of moody slow ones like White as Snow, so that’s an improvement. All in all, a departure from recent forays into overt commercialism that doesn’t always work but provides a little U2 juice to keep the true believers happy for a little bit longer. The numbered review above is for you folks.
Review for Everyone Else
Maybe the normal state of culture is rot. Maybe each of us webslingers searching every Myspace page of young bands, and poring through promos is wasting his time looking for the next revelation because when it comes it will be so blindingly obvious that we won’t be able to miss it. And all this nonsense we spew and recycle on a regular basis comes less from a passion for all this music than from feeling the need to fill a utilitarian function in the cogs of consumerism, pushing the latest product for no commission. What a bunch of suckers we are! Maybe the place we are most comfortable is in a cocoon of deadened emotion, cut off from the vividness of reality which can be either too beautiful or to ugly to confront directly. So what we call art is the cracking of this cocoon, and the momentary glimpse of the real deal, which is the realization that every person is the same and yet utterly unique, all at the same time. And those things we see in that moment are unbearably painful or joyous, but they are true, which brings with it a need to reconnoiter our prior perspective to conform to the sudden crystallization of insight. But this experience is usually only available to the seeker or the vulnerable, whereas those with strong enough defenses can pass it by. When the experience is shared by a wide swath of the public, revolutions occur. In the medium of rock music we are well aware of the touchstones; Elvis shaking his hips and ours, the Beatles shaking their heads and ours, etc. These were artistic happenings en masse, and changed how the ordinary person saw the world, and so the people who lived through it can remember the distinction of living before and after the two cultural events.
But these are exceptions, and eventually entropy sets in and the defenses are quickly rebuilt. The demands of the marketplace take precedence and people go about their business, safe from unexpected enlightenment. Actors in the game, in our case musicians, know the score instinctively and internalize the limits. Those who reject these limits can potentially do the most interesting work but are usually stuck at the margins. The dominant strain of post-sixties rock music has been characterized by conformity to the requirements of a culture whose deepest feelings are kept safely under lock and key. People still have these emotions, and they need safe outlets for them. In the past this was the domain of religion, but as committed worship and faith have faded and are now a major fringe movement in America and minor ones in other industrialized nations, something has to take its place. Pop music has increasingly filled the void, and the biggest acts have been able to tap into the emotional needs of their audience by acting out their feelings while asking as little of them as possible. Hence Thriller became the biggest selling album of all time by providing something for everyone to hold on to, while steadfastly refusing to be about anything at all.
Here’s where U2 comes in. They certainly sound committed and emotionally involved. With Bono’s voice and The Edge’s guitar, they certainly have the tools to really turn our heads around and shake us out of our stupor. But on the new album and in fact for most of their career this is precisely what they have refused to do. They have chosen to remain detached by putting up a front of intense involvement and deliverance through passion, while they played it safe, every step of the way.
Oh I can hear the carping from the U2 fans already, “Safe?! But they’ve made a career out of constantly experimenting with new sounds and textures and have taken stands on major issues like war and racism!” First off, what are you doing down here? Your review is up top and stop playing in our sandbox. Second, the sonic explorations and posturing have been part of this band’s hook and gimmick right from the git-go. It was their way of distinguishing themselves in a crowded marketplace and it was a smashing success. Sure, there were exceptions, when their talent overcame their conservative stance and the result was kind of magical. But for those of us who don’t really dig U2, or claim not to get what the fuss is all about, I think this is what we sense. It’s why we call Bono pretentious and overblown, because we get the feeling that he’s not really being straight with us, that all the intensity is much ado about nothing. For those of us who think that the artist should take a tip from Andre Breton and fire his guns blindly into a crowd, the whole U2 aesthetic rings false, because they elevate by reaffirming our preconceived notions. They run out into the crowd blindly hugging each passerby.
On the new one, nothing has changed. They don’t do it as well as they have on other albums but they are still preaching to the choir and the willing converts. They are the gods of the new religion, promising deliverance by re-enacting the myth, performing the ritual, the Eucharist of the rock anthem. And the people who find themselves uplifted by the experience are like the early Christians who rejected the Gnostic gospels and the promise that Jesus would be found in each and every soul through a journey of self-discovery, in favor of a set of formalized procedures designed to mollify and reassure. And so No line on the Horizon is another offering at the altar of deadened feeling and false passion, now available on iTunes and at your local Walmart.4 March, 2009 - 20:25 — Alan Shulman