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U2

No Line on the Horizon

Produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite

Interscope

Feb. 27, 2009

To be honest, I wasn’t going to pick up U2’s most recent effort, No Line on the Horizon. When I was looking at Billboard release listings for the month of March, U2’s name didn’t even stick out. Yet, their album cover did. I saw it in a magazine, but recognized it as something else: Boden Sea, Uttwil, or a time-lapse photograph of Lake Constance taken by my favorite photographer, Hiroshi Sugimoto. I wasn’t sure how the use of the photograph could have anything to do with the content of the music, so I delved a little deeper.

The jewel case itself bears not only a replica of the original photograph, but an unholy blemish as well: a silver equals sign is slapped onto the gorgeous image of the calm waters. The album title, No Line On The Horizon could refer to the fact that Sugimoto emphasizes the meeting of both sky and sea in contrasting colors, yet smooth contours that essentially blend one entity into another. The title track opens the album and misleads the listener: is that really Bono singing? He’s adopted a harder, edgier tone for the song. Though it’s a style he’s accomplished before, the performance is misguided with limp falsettos and lackluster riffing. What’s surprising is that Bono’s voice — arguably the strongest and most distinguishing characteristic of U2’s music — is equally weak on later tracks including “Magnificent,” “Moment of Surrender” and the bouncy, rock-driven “Stand Up Comedy.”

As fans anticipated the release of No Line, Bono mentioned in online newsletters that U2 was pushing for a more experimental and textured sound. The textures are definitely there — the majority of the tracks benefit from a variety of sound palettes and instruments. A number of synthesizers provide padded backgrounds to give that wall-of-sound feel so many other artists, like Coldplay, have successfully achieved recently. A double take at the liner notes revealed the origin of this new sound: Brian Eno was at the boards playing the role of producer. Furthermore, he and co-producers Danny Lanois and Steve Lillywhite participated heavily in the songwriting process with the members of U2. Unfortunately, it seems that No Line is not purely a U2 album, but some of Eno’s ideas projected on the legendary rock band. He even takes performance credits on some of the songs.

Eno’s production decisions are still amazing and the songs sound well-mixed, but the sound is largely inconsistent. Layers of instruments tumble in and out of particular tracks, offering little emphasis to the songs themselves. Bono’s mention of experimentation doesn’t necessarily fulfill itself with this record. With such hype around changing the sound around U2, using Eno as an unofficial fifth member may not have been the best solution. The result is a largely standard rock album, one that finds Bono searching for the voice that empowered a whole new generation of rock vocalists. It seems now that those who once looked up to Bono are surpassing the talents of the Irish Giant. U2 will soon embark on a massive summer tour to promote the album, featuring a full revolving stage. Don’t be surprised if Eno, Lanois, and Lillywhite show up too, instruments in hand.