I’m ridiculously loyal to U2. I keep buying their CDs upon release without listening to them first. I have continued to do this even though I effectively stopped listening to new U2 material a decade ago (Pop was the last album I paid much attention to). Even now, when they’ve already looking forward to the follow-up album coming out in the fall. Why do I do this? I don’t know. Continuity? Loyalty? Obsessive compulsiveness?
I don’t know what it was about All That You Can’t Leave Behind (ATYCLB), which was effectively a come-back album for the band in terms of popularity, after unorthodox (but still good) Zooropa and Pop (and–sort of–Passengers) and a somewhat lukewarm (relatively speaking, of course–because U2 and their work can really only be compared to themselves) response to the PopMart tour. ATYCLB has some unquestionably good songs on it, but something about it seemed…I don’t know…forced. And I think it might have been a bit overproduced to the point of being soft-around the edges–like something by Boston (I’m guessing there) or later Big Sugar or Wide Mouth Mason. Yes: a little too polished.
In terms of production, the album which followed–How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (HTDMAAB)—was a much grittier improvement. Actually, I thought it was a much better album overall than ATYCLB, again with many good songs. But still…something didn’t click.
In spite of this, I kept looking forward to the new album. U2 set the bar incredibly high with both The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and I suppose some part of me is anxious for them to do it again, even though that will be nearly impossible to do for them. Shortly before the release of No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH), I read the Rolling Stone review, which gave the album five stars out of five and said it was their best album since Achtung Baby. My hopes skyrocketed again.
The problem with high hopes is that they’re rarely met. After my first listen through of NLOTH I was “disappointingly underwhelmed”, to quote my own Facebook status. Obscure, unsingable melodies; that annoying “Elevation”-“Vertigo”-“Get On Your Boots” guitar sound; seemingly pointless jangly guitar riffs.
Some of these review blurbs from MetaCritic summed it up for me:
“…a grab bag of underdeveloped ideas that never seemed to command the band’s full attention” — The Onion A.V. Club
“…reveal[s] not that U2 went into the studio with a dense, complicated blueprint, but rather, they had no plan at all” — All Music Guide
I was disappointed, unimpressed.
Where were the anthems of yesteryear? Where were the must-be-sung melodies of old? When will we hear something comparable to “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “One”, “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” or even “If God Will Send His Angels”?
And yet I found the songs from NLOTH were stuck in my head and I didn’t mind them so much. I’ve been spinning the album in my car for the last couple of days–much more attention than I gave the last two albums–and I’m beginning to wonder if this will be another one of those albums which, like Zooropa, will become better the more it is listened to. It’s growing on me. Already “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is my favourite U2 song in more than 10 years–probably since 1993’s “Lemon”.
I’m not going to give it a rating. But I’ve given it enough time to realize that there is great potential here. I was originally planning on posting this review the day after the album was released, I’m glad I waited. It may just be their best album since Achtung Baby, I don’t know. It doesn’t complete the Joshua Tree-Achtung Baby trilogy, but I am getting the sense that it does eclipse their last two albums. And, since they are not pretending to be something they’re not, perhaps it eclipses Zooropa as well (but, for purely subjective reasons, I’m not willing to commit to that suggestion).
Some things I realized while listening to this album:
- Bono and The Edge get all the media attention, but the two quiet guys who use their own names–Larry and Adam (drums and bass, respectively)–are the musical heart and soul and foundation of this band.
- In the post-Achtung Baby U2 world, my favourite songs tend to be those that are unusual and less U2-like. On this album: “I’ll Got Crazy…” and “Stand Up Comedy”. In the past: “Lemon” (Zooropa), “Miami” and “Please” (Pop)
- Donald Miller (yes, the writer of Blue Like Jazz) has an interesting review of the album, in which he highlights a fact that we generally overlook, especially when we critique what U2 does: that they are an organization with hundreds of employees, many of whom will have families. It’s not just the four of them that need to be considered, but a whole network of people are affected by how popular their music is and how well their tours do. There is a U2 machine to keep oiled and running.
I’m still not fully convinced about NLOTH, but, as I say, it’s growing on me.
And on “I’ll Go Crazy…” alone (and their amazing tour set–it’s pretty amazing, if that thing falls apart during a concert, the band is dead) I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t make an effort to see them in concert in Vancouver or Chicago in the fall.