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U2 is uninspired

Nick Anderson | Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It all seemed pretty clear cut for a while there. We all had U2 figured out. “Pop” had just been released to low sales and mixed reviews. The following “PopMart” tour, which famously involved a 40-foot mirrored lemon, seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of a once great band. The only reasonable response to U2 was to pay lip service to their early work while ignoring their current releases.All of this worked until Bono declared that they were “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world.” Ridiculously, this worked. By their 2005 “Vertigo” tour, U2 was cool again. Musicians such as Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, Kanye West, Scissor Sisters, Keane, and The Killers all lined up to play a supporting role in their shows. U2 had regained its place as the premier stadium rock group. No one else was even close.So how did they go from dead in the water to the most important band in the world? Largely by redoing what they had done before. By returning to the classic rock sound of their earlier work, they regained much of their early acclaim. They could do no wrong. They released a U2 iPod with barely a mention of commercialism. Six years after Bono’s fateful proclamation, his words were fulfilled. U2 was the “best band in the world.” The only major criticism leveled was the lack of experimentation. Still, U2 never was a group to leave well enough alone.The band turned to musical titan Rick Rubin, who was responsible for the reinvention of Johnny Cash. After two promising singles, “The Saints are Coming” with Green Day and “Windows in the Skies,” a roadblock caused the band to release Rubin and return to two other legendary producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They were each veterans of U2 masterpieces, “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby.”The resulting album, “No Line on the Horizon,” is less than inspired. It finds U2 standing in place for most of the album, and in its weaker moments, trying to catch up. Hints of promise are spread throughout the album, but they only entice the listener, failing to follow through with a complete song.The most promise is found in the first single from the album, “Get on Your Boots.” The Edge takes full advantage of his crunching guitar in the opening riffs. Bono’s staccato, half-speaking vocals find their perfect environment by exploring a new style different from the impassioned wailing we’ve come to expect.It’s hard, however, to accept such a light single from a band that has always appeared to take itself so seriously. The listener can even begin to feel slightly guilty about buying into the image and forgetting the music. This feeling disappears immediately when Bono sings, “I don’t want to talk about the wars between nations,” a line that sounds entirely unbelievable and artificial. U2 is a band capable of great music, but they are just as serious as ever.The other high point of the album, “Cedars of Lebanon” takes advantage of Brian Eno’s atmospheric production. It’s a departure from the stadium sound of most of the album and instead delivers a dark, moody song that feels like a true exploration of sound.The remaining nine songs on the album suffer from weak writing (“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Cray Tonight”, “Magnificent”) and complacent instrumentation (“Moment of Surrender”, “White as Snow”). While not terrible songs, they merely rank rather low in U2’s catalogue.”No Line on the Horizon” is a disappointment, but not one without merit. To anyone with a preconceived notion of U2, it will fit perfectly. It will appease their fans while providing ammunition for those who dislike U2. And for those of us without strong feelings, it will be essentially forgotten.