So here we are, a dozen years to the day since the release of U2’s first perceived failure, POP. Their second album, October, didn’t set the world on fire in 1981, but U2 weren’t huge then, expected to do big numbers every time out of the gate.
Today also marks the U.S. release date of No Line on the Horizon, U2’s 12th and longest-in-development studio album, though of course it leaked weeks ago and has been streaming on U2’s Myspace page for a week already. U2-biquity week here in the U.S. began last night, with the airing of the first of the band’s every-night-this-week live performances on The Late Show with David Letterman. A raft of radio show appearances and a Good Morning America slot are also booked for the next few days, and secret gigs are rumored at Boston’s Paradise Theatre (recording site of the two of the best bootlegs from U2’s early period) and on the Fordham University campus.
There is also a Comcast commercial in heavy rotation on late-night promoting a new deal that will give subscribers on-demand access to previously-released U2 videos and concerts presented in high-definition for the first time. (I just cancelled my Comcast service a couple of months ago. Thanks, Boys!) U2 made the rounds of the U.K. outlets last week, performing a four-song set on the room of the BBC’s Broadcast House last Friday, and generally appearing on so many Beeb shows that some people accused the government-funded entity of making itself U2’s publicity arm.
Great times, if you’re a U2 fan, of which there are many. And if you’re one of the many who despise U2, perhaps for the very shock-and-awe saturation of the media campaigns that accompany each new album release, well, it’ll all be over in a week or two. Maybe.
Anyway, the fact that No Line on the Horizon is being issued officially on the same day as POP feels significant, because POP was the final album of the band’s Adventures in Irony Phase that began with the paradigm-shifting Achtung Baby in 1991. And after two relatively safe returns-to-form, U2 are once again back in more experimental country with No Line. There’s a symmetry there that I haven’t seen anyone mention. (More symmetry: U2 will also be playing U.S. stadiums this year for the first time since 1997. And Bono’s cut his hair again. Meaningful connections abound!)
No Line‘s looooooong gestation period, and the aborted Rick Rubin sessions, were both danger signs, I thought. Time was, the fact that Achtung took an entire year to make was taken as a sign of how arduous that particular U2 album was. But with the exception of 1993’s tossed-off-in-three-months-and-all-the-better-for-it Zooropa (the most underrated U2 record), every U2 album since then has taken longer than that. And not, presumably, because Bono is away campaigning on behalf of AIDS-stricken Africans most of the time. (He wasn’t in 1996, for example, when U2 were making POP — the album they said they had to release before its time because the PopMart Tour was already booked!)
I’m just relieved that the new record — for all my fears to the contrary — is good. I was nervous even before they pushed its release from November (the month of Achtung and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) to March (the month of The Joshua Tree and again, POP). The choice of “Get on Your Boots” as the lead single did nothing to reassure me. I don’t dislike the song, but it sounds too much like “Vertigo,” and it isn’t in any way representative of the tenor of the album. Worse, it has the same, lame sloganeering-as-lyric that afflicted the prior two U2 full-lengths.
But fear not: Complexity is back. Depth is back. The need to listen more than a couple of times to get it is back — I haven’t felt that about a U2 album since POP. And Zooropa was the last time the pendulum of my reaction to a U2 record swung from hate to affection like this. The day No Line leaked, I was mocking it via I.M. to several parties as I listened, all of whom seem to have come ’round to liking the album. I degraded my own virgin listening experience. Another reason why listening to music the way I do, mostly — sitting at a computer — is no way to do it, no matter how high the bit-rate of your files, or how good your speakers are.
Sure, it might have been better without the bet-hedging, foursquare U2 safe cuts: “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy” tonight feels like more of the Classic U2 Pastiche that felt reassuring on All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000 and troubling on Atomic Bomb in 2004. But “Magnificient” and “Breathe” sound like classic U2, too, and they’re marvelous. (Bono’s opening rap on “Breathe” reminds me of Mick Jagger’s delivery on the Some Girls country parody number “Faraway Eyes.”) “Moment of Surrender” and “Fez – Being Born” and “Cedars of Lebanon,” meanwhile, push the boys out of their comfort zone, with thrilling results — they’re as good as Eno’s collaborations with David Byrne on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today last year. Though you get the feeling it took Eno a quarter of the time to get there swapping files via broadband with Byrne as it did physically in the studio with U2.
I’ve read probably close to two dozen reviews at this point, beginning with the major Irish and U.K. papers, all of which issued glowing notices that I first suspected were inflated. But, no — the U.S. critics tend to like the record, too. Nobody thinks it sucks except Pitchfork, and their pan of it is — as my pal J. Freedom du Lac said to me today — as unsurprising as Rolling Stone‘s five-star rave.
The more interesting domestic write-ups I’ve seen have come from The Los Angeles Times’ Ann Powers, my pal J. Freedom’s in the Paper of Record, and from the Chicago Sun-Times’s Jim DeRogatis – usually the U2-hating half of the the Sound Opinions duo. (I’ve even left a voice message this week on the Sound Opinions listener-feeback line expressing my surprise and delight at DeRogatis’s favorable verdict on the album.)
Most critics seem to agree there are only six or seven essential tracks among the eleven on this album; tellingly, nobody quite agrees on which those are. There are pockets of consensus: Everyone loves “Moment of Surrender,” while nobody is much impressed by “Get on Your Boots.”
Welcome back, guys.