U2/”No line on the horizon”, another step towards infinity
John Waters reflects on U2’s new album: “No Line On the Horizon”
The last two U2 albums, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”, were disappointing for anyone who had truly tuned into the band’s mission. Confusingly, they sounded good, even sounded like great rock ‘n’ roll albums should, even sounded like great U2 albums. But they didn’t sound like the albums U2 should have been making at the age they were, in a sequence defined from “Boy” to “Achtung Baby”.
I do not judge the in-between albums, “Zooropa” and “Pop”, which were essentially scrapbook albums of various experimental elements trackable to the revolution that had occurred in the band’s imagination at the time of the extraordinary 1991 opus “Achtung Baby”. But the more recent albums cannot be excused on this basis, since they were produced at leisure and after considerable contemplation.
For many people, the idea that there was anything wrong with these albums may seem satisfying. Sure, they were massively successful, and it is difficult to argue with success. Sure, the music had resonances and references that evoked different parts of the band’s past journey, but it seemed to be more about affirming U2’s role as the world’s foremost rock ‘n’ roll band than about the U2 mission as understood from the beginning. U2 always promised more. They promised meaning and mission and undertook to liberate rock ‘n’ roll from its Dionysian obsession. They said the world could go far if it listened to what they said. They gathered up a ragged medium and sought to reintroduce it to its own roots. They demanded of pop no less than that it grow up. Having started as pop-illiterates, they acquired an awesome competence which they emphasised was for an exalted purpose. They seemed to represent something in the human heart, in defiance of imposed cultural notions and yet utilising these notions as the very fabric of their creativity. U2 always spoke about rock ‘n’ roll as a sacred mission, which their followers more recently understood to transcend the evangelical simplicities of the early years. We had all grown up together and wanted to grow even more. There was something here about redemption, about taking the devil’s music back, about wrestling the guitar from the grasp of the dark angel, about demonstrating some connection between inspiration and faith, reason and humility, love and rigour, hope and desire. It wasn’t just about giving God a good guitar sound, but about showing how some hitherto implausible connections could be extended into the stratosphere of the pop imagination, infiltrating the secular consciousness with something beyond the hip and the harmless. It was about giving a voice to things we all felt, underneath, but lacked permission to speak.
That purpose, though constantly implicit, tended to move ahead of the band, a vaguely defined but nevertheless deeply-held ambition that promised something extraordinary for those who stuck around. With “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby”, there was a sense that the target had stopped moving leftwards in the corner of your eye, and was about to be pinned. U2 were, it seemed, about to reach out and touch the thing they had existed to acknowledge. But the target kept moving and, more worryingly, U2 appeared not to notice. They kept talking about how music is more than diversion and about the possibilities of the medium to make a difference beyond the dance floor. And they kept on making music that seemed to miss the point of their own existence. That music was unquestionably U2, but when you took the wrapping off there was nothing there.
This crisis went largely unnoticed within the culture U2 inhabited. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, it went unnoticed even by the band-members themselves. Indeed, because the problem sounded like it arose from an increasing atomisation of the band, perhaps the very process of undoing conspired also to conceal that undoing. The thing about U2 had always been that the whole was much greater than the parts. But their more recent music had conveyed a sense that what they embodied was no longer a passion born of friendship and ambition, but four individual forms of craftsmanship acquired in togetherness and now rapidly diverging. There was, in the predictable grammar of their newer songs, in the adherence to fashion and formula rather than the forbidden, in the frequent self-consciousness of Bono’s singing of his own lyrics, a vaguely detectable hint that what each of the four was now contributing was less defined by the internal dynamic that had made the band great and more and more mediated through a language belonging to the outside world. U2 had become, to an extent, trapped in the codes they had started out trying to subvert. They no longer appeared able to access the collective recklessness that made them great.
Or perhaps it would be more true to say that this recklessness was no longer audible in the band’s recorded output. In the context of the entity that is U2, and in the band’s essential demeanour and live manifestation, the quality remained relatively intact, but the foursome seemed unable to capture the growth of this personality in recordings that suggested the journey was continuing in a coherent and meaningful way. Perhaps the problem was that the story they wished to tell had already, for themselves, been told to completion in the first 15 years or so of their existence. Whatever the reasons, the band’s new music seemed to go around in a circle, seemed to be a concentrated version of the essence we had identified in their early output. U2, having always understood themselves as having an essential quality that could neither be described nor replicated, seemed themselves to have settled for capturing and bottling this essence so as to maintain their status while they worked out what to do.
This is what makes “No Line on the Horizon” such a welcome arrival, a recording that at once consolidates U2’s position as the world’s great rock ‘n’ roll band and reasserts their core mission to subvert the manmade pseudo-realities that block our view. It provides evidence of both forward movement and deeper understanding of the relationship between music and meaning. In a subtle way, without disturbing the core U2 sound or sensibility, it takes us somewhere new.
What can pop music do? Almost nothing, you might think … and yet. In my 1994 book about U2, “Race of Angels”, faced finally with this question, I concluded that it all came down to a moment of solitude in the universal city, confronted by the constructed version of reality smoothly excluding the created reality behind. And at the centre of this hard-centred nothingness, the human “I” sits” pointless and bereft, at the end of what Springsteen called “the hard-earned day”. And then, out of the murk of noise and knowing nonsense emerges a word, a phrase, a sound, something that causes the constructed version of reality to dissolve, even if only momentarily, to lay bare the truth of the human relationship with the created universe. Great music, of any kind, involves the creation of a soundtrack in which the citizen may hope to hear, at those moments of near-despair when manmade reality reaches the outer of its plausibility, something to refer him to the broader canvas. This is all we can expect of U2. It is a lot to ask but not too much. We would not be talking about this at all if the band had not already shown itself capable of surprise.
But, because they are sometimes caught up in a game of survival, in the constant effort to cling to their place in the constructed reality, they forget, or fudge, or let it go until the moment is more auspicious. And this turns the promise into a living lie.
But, in this album, they, or perhaps that should be “he” … Bono, seems to be mindful all the time of this mission to subvert what is supposed to be. He is singing better than ever before and seems again to be at home in the sound the rest of the band are creating around him. His words ring true again. This, from the title track. “I know a girl with a hole in her heart/She said infinity is a great place to start/Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh/She said “Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear/Then she put her tongue in my ear/Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh”. U2’s mission, as much as it has been about taking the secular world face to face with the sacred, has been about reminding us that we are both spirit and flesh.
Or this, from “Magnificent”: “I was born/I was born to sing for you /I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up /And sing whatever song you wanted me to/I give you back my voice/From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise…”.
Or this, from the subline “Moment of Surrender”: “I’ve been in every black hole/At the altar of the dark star/My body’s now a begging bowl/That’s begging to get back, begging to get back/To my hear/To the rhythm of my soul/To the rhythm of my unconsciousness/To the rhythm that yearns/To be released from control”.
It is at this level, that this album deserves to be assessed. And yet it also the case that this album can be described without reference to the virtues of individual songs. Like its tremendous predecessors, “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby”, it has a wholeness that owes as much to mood as to playing, lyrics or sonic integrity. U2 have only briefly, in the middle phase, been about songs. Really they have in recent times been about a Proustian rampage through the debris of a music that happens too quickly for clarity, excavating pieces that seemed like they might have contained something more than they suggested first time around. In these tracks, you keep hearing snatches of elusive allusiveness that take you to a deeper level of memory, but somehow redeemed through a filter that acknowledged and applies a deeper sense of what the human heart desires.
In one sense, U2 have squandered a decade casting around for a direction that would not compromise their commercial position until it seemed they would eventually have to risk frittering away their audience to complete their mission. For a long time it has seemed the band was running on the spot, standing still while suggesting radical movement, lost in time and space with no clue what to do next. With this album U2 have started to move again, to begin a further step into the improbable.
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