Wednesday, April 29, 2009

U2's Fine Line

I own every album that U2 has recorded, but I wouldn't call myself a passionate fan. I've never seen them live - I'd like to, but at the same time would hesitate shelling out the big bucks that their concert extravaganzas demand these days.

Observers and critics of the band seem to fall into two camps - those who consider "The Joshua Tree" to be their masterwork, and those who prefer the band's more experimental turns on records like "Zooropa" and "Pop." I'm firmly in the former category, and believe that the band is most effective when it stays within the confines of a more mainstream approach. I thought "Zooropa" and "Pop" were self-indulgent and sometimes unlistenable, and off the top of my head not a single track from either one comes to mind.

The album where the band stretched the limits of its ability to greatest effect was "Achtung Baby," and the new album - "No Line on the Horizon" - reminds me in tone and substance of that record. It bends the U2 template, but doesn't break it. There are still songs ("Magnificent") which contain the instantly recognizable guitar chords that are unique to the sound of Edge, but there are also songs ("Fez - Being Born" being a good example) where the band tries some new things, plays around with the song structure, and comes up with something powerful in the process. And then there's "Get On Your Boots," which doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album, as if the boys sat down in the pub one night and said, "by God, we are going to have a hit single!" You're either going to like it or hate it, and I like it.

The production is again by stalwarts Brian Eno and Daniel (called "Danny" on the liner notes) Lanois, with the usual assist from Steve Lillywhite. Eno and Lanois pride themselves on forcing the band out of their comfort zone, and you can hear their influences all over the record. The album's last song even borrows part of a tune from Harold Budd, sometime Eno collaborator, which appeared on "The Pearl" (to this day, my favorite Eno ambient album). Overall, there's no question that the album sounds great.

And then, of course, there is Bono, one of the most recognizable pop stars, for better or worse, on the planet. When Bono sings, you immediately know that you are supposed to listen to the words, that something important is going on. To be perfectly honest, I couldn't care less. You can debate all you want about whether Bono is one of the planet's most notable humanitarians or just a naive political hack, but for this listener his band has always been about the sound.

And this one, although it may not be the greatest album U2 ever made, sounds pretty darn good.

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