Sunday, 8 March 2009

My Pod - Music and Stuff: U2 - No Line On The Horizon

It’s been a tough few months for British guitar bands. With the UK still pretty much in the thrall of r’n’b, dance music and Simon Cowell’s endless stream of frightened-rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights Mariah Carey-wannabes, proper bands with guitars and singers and songwriters have been edged out a bit and have found it increasingly-difficult to keep a toehold in the nation’s consciousness. The Kaiser Chiefs, Razorlight, Snow Patrol and even Oasis have found reaching out to the download generation a little harder than they might have expected. Despite the fact that the term ‘hit single’ is now pretty meaningless as the actual physical CD/7” single suffers a long and painful death, any new album needs a big hit – a song people will go out of their way to actually purchase – to give its parent album a decent chance of hanging around longer than the inevitable couple of weeks guaranteed by those initial hardcore fanbase purchases. None of the once-reliable guitar bands to have put out new material in the last six months or so have scored a notable ‘hit’ and as a consequence their albums have found their way into the bargain bins with unseemly haste.

So what fate awaits U2, the biggest, most popular – arguably most pretentious – of our guitar bands as they launch ‘No Line On The Horizon’, their umpteenth album, their first for four years? With the first single, the slightly derivative and unexceptional ‘Get On Your Boots’, peaking only at no 12 in the single charts and already plunging, the omens don’t seem to be good. But U2, of all the guitar bands, are really all about the body of work, the whole album. They’ve regularly scored hit singles but their reputation’s been earned through their albums and titles like ‘The Joshua Tree’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ are pretty much landmark albums in the history of contemporary rock music. And regardless of whether ‘No Line On The Horizon’ spends a month or a year in the album charts, Stuff can report that the band have turned in another bold, confident and – excuse my own personal pomposity – majestic sets of songs which won’t disappoint fans who’ve stood by the band for the last quarter of a century or so.

I wouldn’t say I’m a devoted fan of U2 – I can’t recite their lyrics with any degree of confidence and I wouldn’t really go out of my way to see them live (it takes a very special act to get me to stand in a big stadium with 50,000 complete strangers of varying degrees of sanity) but I’m surprised, flicking through my CD collection, at how many of U2’s albums – mainly the more recent ones – I’ve actually got. I think the fact is that most of us like a little bit of U2 and it’s a testament to their power and their popularity that they have the potential to remain as relevant today as they ever were in their late 1980s heyday. Hell, the fact they’re even still out there and making new music and not slogging around the nostalgia circuit says at least something in their favour...

So to ‘No Line on the Horizon’ and it’s very much business as usual for U2, a band who have rarely been followers of fashion (and when they have in the past – cough ‘Pop’ cough – they’ve tended to come a bit of a cropper) so here they’ve stuck to their tried and tested formula – long-time collaborators Brian Eno, Steven lilywhite and Daniel (Danny?) Lanois are back on board – and the sound remains much the same. If anything #No Line on the Horizon’ is a bit more contemplative than some of their more recent work. There are a couple of chunky rockers here – the aforementioned single, which sounds a bit stronger in the context of the album it was written for ‘Stand-Up Comedy’ and the powerful, rolling beats of ‘Breathe’ and ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’, characterized by the Edge’s chiming guitarwork, evokes U2 at their rawest and reminds me of the first time I heard ‘New Year’s Day’ back in 1984 and wondered what this guitar stuff was doing in my pop chart.

But the album works better when U2 are being a bit more laid back. The title track is mature and wistful, the sound of a band contemplating its own mortality and track two, ‘Magnificent’. Has the air of a late 1980s soft rocker about it – and it’s none the worse for the comparison. The outstanding tracks on the album are the two real lighter-in-the-air tunes; ‘Moment of Surrender’ is a long, languorous thing of beauty, genuinely touching and uplifting and in another singles chart world would be a guaranteed number one. Then there’s ‘White As Snow’, a delicate, touching ballad, an elegy for lost innocence. ‘Unknown Caller’ impresses with its typically U2 harmonies (with all four boys in the band contributing to the unorthodox chorus) whilst album closer ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ sort of fizzles out and probably demans more relistenings than the rest of the album will probably allow it.

I’m utterly, abjectly unqualified to judge how ‘No Line on the Horizon’ compares with U2’s massive output to date – I have to judge it on its own terms as a body of work. Yes, I’ve enjoyed U2 albums in the past but there’s a handful of strong songs here I’ll come back to again and again in the coming months (and there’s rumoured to be another album coming at the end of the year, so prodigious were the sessions for this collection). In a climate more favourable to guitar bands ‘No Line on the Horizon’ would be a chart fixture for most of the year – at the moment it’s hard to predict what fate will befall it in the weeks to come when U2’s fans have snapped it up (and they’ve snapped it up to the tune of 65,000 in the first day alone so far). Whether it’s up there with their best work is up or whether it’s just another workmanlike album by U2 is up to others to discuss/decide but it’s certainly impressed me as a powerful, strident set of songs from, a band who, by rights, should be drifting slowly into musical senility by now. ‘No Line on the Horizon’ gets a big musical thumbs-up from me and I’ll doubt if we hear a better mainstream guitar album in 2009.

Stuff coming soon: Watchmen...24...Party Animals...No 1 Ladies Detective Agency...

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