“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” reads like a bumper sticker on an SUV in a Wal-Mart parking lot — a meek yelp of rebellion from a mortgage-stressed husband who dreams of creeping out for Nascar Bud Shootout night at Hooters. But on the song of that title from U2’s 12th studio album, Bono belts out the line with liberating glee — like a giddy favela kid swinging onto an arm of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. And we’re right there swinging along too, because when surging vox and chiming guitar and frisky beat congregate in the proper spirit, and when the foursome don’t sound like geezers defensively proclaiming their conceptual or aesthetic vigor, U2 still inspire flashes of elation, awe, and yes, hope like no other rock band.
And for most of us, that’s enough — they created a sound, they shrewdly expanded and reinvented it, and they never became ghoulish, price-gouging buffoons like the Stones. But unlike 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (the follow-up to 1997’s electronica-tweaked misfire Pop), No Line on the Horizon isn’t content to reaffirm U2’s iconic sonic virtues. With coproducers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois explicitly included in the songwriting, it’s an effort to tinker and rough up and refine anew their music’s essence — with nobly sketchy results.
The title-track opener masses the Edge’s guitar and synth tracks into a dense whir and swirl amid gurning polyrhythms, giving Bono’s whoa-ohs a gritty context (as if he’s fronting a reanimated Killing Joke). “Magnificent” could’ve been a standard U2 secular hymn, but it’s constructed like a Sasha & Digweed trance anthem, with peak-hour drum programming and electronic swoosh. “Moment of Surrender,” a celebrity-at-the-crossroads soul ballad, is given an ambient gospel sweep that’s both haunted and joyful. More clumsily, “Stand Up Comedy” and “Get on Your Boots” adopt a self-conscious Zoo TV swagger that only exposes Bono’s dodgier wordplay.
And ultimately, No Line hinges on your appetite for, or patience with, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee’s lyrical approach. “I’m sick of Bono and I am him,” the singer admitted of his persona recently. So he abridges his first-person pronouncements, taking the point of view of a war correspondent on the moody diary “Cedars of Lebanon,” and of a suicidal man who thinks his phone is texting him instructions via computer commands (“Force quit and move to trash!”) on “Unknown Caller.” He imagines himself as invisible in “Moment of Surrender” and is a mostly phonetic presence during”Fez-Being Born.” It’s odd that the world’s most voluble one-named activist, who holds forth at will on, say, Larry King Live, seems unsure of how to express himself in a musical context. Maybe, like most rational adults, he’s lost some faith in pop or rock to transform the planet, but if you’re gonna be the leader of U2, you oughta embrace the pulpit.
So it’s finally startling when the confident rumble of “Breathe” emerges. Bono sounds wired, paranoid, and defiantly sympathetic, ranting about an “Asian virus,” “juju man,” and “St. John the Divine.” Then, suddenly, his ambivalent anxiety recedes. And by simply being a rock star who’s singing his heart out, he depicts our ability to reenter the grind every day without cynicism as a near-heroic act. The edge’s concise, ascending solo sears the point home.
Sick of Bono? Maybe. Sick of U2? Not yet.