U2 remains, after nearly three decades, an enchantingly unsettled lot. Just when we were getting used to the streamlined rock and pop of its two most recent albums — which, in turn, were reactions to Achtung Baby and Pop's glam attack of the '90s — we have a new album that is sparse and elemental in some instances and full of fuzzed-out abandon at others. It is both confessional and anthemic, with a sound as familiar as it is brand-new.
In short, No Line on the Horizon presents the band as a restless curiosity or, as Bono's ethereal falsetto on Moment of Surrender puts it, a "vision over visibility."
Horizon is an album that plays with expectations — as in the way three moody confessionals in a row threaten to stagnate the record at the halfway point before the warp-speed Get on Your Boots (a Vertigo-like romp with a Pop-flavored makeover) blows the solemnity to smithereens. It harks back to the earliest and most elemental of U2 soundscapes — namely, The Edge's chiming guitar lines and Larry Mullen Jr.'s militaristic drumming — but then it sprinkles Eno-isms (bits of keyboard ambience, courtesy of co-producer Brian Eno) over some songs like fairy dust. And sometimes, as on Magnificent, the results are exactly that as all those notions set off a chain reaction that results in one of U2's most infectiously righteous songs in ages.
As the ghosts of U2 past battle for supremacy on Horizon, Bono sings of very elemental themes: love, lust, faith, war. That pretty much covers the bases here.
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On the album's title tune, Bono encounters a woman as changing and commanding as the raging sea. "One day she's still, the next she swells," Bono barks over a coarse crackle of guitar and organ. "You can hear the universe in her seashells." That the tune comes with one of those delicious wordless choruses that you just know were designed for arena-size concert audiences to wail along with is a bonus.
But as Horizon kicks off its boots, the real and surreal worlds settle in. White as Snow and the album-closing Cedars of Lebanon offer differing snapshots of war — the first from a soldier, the second from a journalist — that are vivid not just for the images they convey but for the faith that is summoned to make at least partial sense of the battered humanity.
"Once I knew there was a love divine," Bono sings in White as Snow. "Then came a time I thought it knew me not." Cedars of Lebanon is even more sobering because its casualties of war and the enemies they envision are more internalized ("They're not there in the beginning, but when your story ends, gonna last with you longer than your friends").
The whole album isn't that weighty, of course. That's what the pressure-valve rocker I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight is for. Ditto for the face-slap of Stand Up Comedy, a curious affirmation ("stop helping God across the road like a little old lady") wrapped in The Edge's beefy guitar discourse.
The latter is one of the few tunes that waste no time hitting their intended targets (Get on Your Boots is another). The rest of the album might take some getting used to, which, in an American Idol age of instant celebrity gratification, might be something U2's commercial profile can no longer afford.
No matter. Horizon re-launches U2 with music that is bold, unnerving and, in its sense of pop past and present, wondrously indefinable.