Wednesday 25 April 2018

No light on the horizon for U2

Future imperfect: U2 pose on Dollymount Strand
Future imperfect: U2 pose on Dollymount Strand

I'm having a hard time reconciling the glut of four-star reviews I've been reading for U2's new album with the record that I heard last week.

To these ears, it sounds frustratingly disjointed and jumbled; a set of songs that don't really belong together, that rub each other up the wrong way.

This lack of continuity is only to be expected, when you consider that it was recorded in four different countries in three different continents.

And this doesn't include the original sessions with uber-producer Rick Rubin, which were jettisoned in 2006. It appears to have been a case of rip it up and start again.

Much has been made of the attempt to rediscover their mojo in Morocco. The Mighty Boosh are thanked in the sleeve notes, and Bono has mentioned his love of that classic episode where Howard Moon ventures deep into the desert to find every musicians' holy grail: a new sound ... only to find Chris de Burgh!

By fetching up in Fez, the band obviously hoped the exoticism of the ancient walled city would give them a shot in the arm.

But with the exception of 'Fez -- Being Born' (which is less a song than a Zooropa-type sonic experiment bearing Brian Eno's fingerprints) there are few musical souvenirs of their North African adventure to be found here. Anyone expecting Horizon to be U2's answer to Paul Simon's Graceland (in which the music and culture of South Africa are imbedded in its very DNA) will be disappointed. They haven't altered the template that radically.

But that's more an observation than a criticism. One problem I do have with No Line On The Horizon is the lack of killer singles -- you will search hard for any anthem with the immediacy and joyful abandon of, say, 'Beautiful Day' or 'City Of Blinding Lights'.

And yet the album starts so promisingly. The title track has a pleasingly grimey one-chord riff that is more Arcade Fire than 'Unforgettable Fire'. And Bono sounds free and easy.

Then comes 'Magnificent', apparently modelled on a Bach melody, with Bono rolling back the years with a cloud-bursting falsetto that evokes the late Billy MacKenzie of The Associates. And Adam and Larry really hit a groove here.

Next up is 'Moment Of Surrender', which for me is by some distance the best song on the album. A seven-minute gospel-tinged epic in which it all comes together: the terrific rhythm section, Edge's soulful slide guitar, the church-like organ, Bono's curious vocals about a drug addict's spiritual epiphany on the New York subway, and Eno and Daniel Lanois' mercurial production... It's one of U2's best songs.

But the band struggle to reach these heights thereafter. 'Unknown Caller' is musically fine: Edge delivers an epic Neil Young-style guitar solo, and its expansive, stadium-sized sound will go down great in Croker come July -- but the lyrics really let it down.

'Get On Your Boots' is less a song than a disembodied riff on a Red Bull binge, with a lyric that goes: "I don't want to talk about wars between nations". That makes a change! 'Stand Up Comedy' has Bono slipping back into first-person mode, singing about his own ego ... .

'White As Snow' is a forgettable slice of cod-country that was reportedly written especially for Jim Sheridan's forthcoming movie Brothers.

The closing 'Cedars Of Lebanon' sees Bono again in third-person mode, this time as a journalist in the Middle East who's happy to talk about the wars between nations. It's another case of Bono's clunky words getting in the way of a perfectly good tune.

I don't share the view that Horizon is a courageous leap forward for U2. I think it has a

couple of good songs, one great one, and a lot of filler. It's very well produced -- as you'd expect with Lanois, Eno and Lillywhite on board -- but Horizon sounds like it was a real struggle to make.

When I think of classic albums such as The Strokes' debut or the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, one gets the sense that the music just bled from them. The songs just flow into each other. Never mind years, they sound like they took mere hours to record. The stop/start Horizon, though, is the sound of a band trying too hard to recapture the magic.

nkelly@independent.ie

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