I’ve read a number of reviews for No Line on the Horizon, the new release from U2. Some think it’s a masterpiece, others think Bono and the boys must have put it together over the weekend.
The variety of reviews made me wonder what kind of pressure the four kids from Dublin must feel when they step into the studio. And I’m not talking about a fear of the critics. The critics are the least of their worries. Imagine being a 50-year old family man, spokesman for a global aid organization and mediator of peace between dignitaries and also having to pull off this:
• Make sure there are at least two arena songs on the album. Arena songs are anthemic, upbeat songs that drive crowds at large concerts. Why, because U2 is an enormous company with hundreds of employees whose families depend on a world tour. It’s not about Bono, it’s about hundreds of people, and those people are on their minds when they walk into the studio. A subtle and creative album would be nice, but essentially that would mean laying off friends who’ve worked for them for decades and count on them to bring in enormous crowds at their live shows.
• Appeal to every civilized culture on the planet. The album will sell and the tour will travel through the west, for sure, so make sure it’s in touch with American sensibilities (remember the disaster of Lemon, inspired by the underground techno scene all the rage in eastern europe, and a complete miss in the states?) but also English and Irish subtleties. And don’t forget the Italians, the French, the Eastern European countries and the enormous following in Latin America. And make sure every culture feels like the album is a soundtrack for their lives, as varied as those lives may be.
• Distance yourself from the politicians and the pious social work because you keep getting bad press for that stuff. Knock it a bit in the lyrics, but don’t knock it too much because God knows you’re not going to give it up. You’ve established thousands of relationships with dignitaries, and you can’t damage those because the movement you’ve created depends on their support. But fans want escapism, not conformity. They want you to stick it to the man. Give them that feel but don’t actually do it.
• Go ahead and speak your spiritual themes, but don’t get too Christian. It’s uncool. Really uncool. Not that you care but you do. Walk the line between expressing the powerful redemptive themes in your work and translating those themes to a western audience that puts those themes in the box of absurd anti-science and judgmental condemnation. Make people who know Jesus think you’re talking about Jesus but don’t talk about Jesus. And do this with a clean conscious. And mean what you sing.
• Continue to appeal to a young generation you may not understand. These kids are into technology. They Twitter and blog and have the attention span of gnats. They think you’re old because their parents like you. but they’ve got the money, so throw them a bone. The twenty-somethings are all crazy about Radiohead. Thom could piss on a pizza and they’d think he was a genius. Did you hear what Thom did, he pissed on a pizza, they’d say. I know, I heard, he’s so creative. If Bono pissed on a pizza they’d want him to act his age.
• That Joshua Tree record was a masterpiece. And remember that Ach Tung Baby album. I loved that. They both sounded so different. Do it again, or I’m done with you. Thom Yorke just pissed on a pizza.
Is it as good as The Joshua Tree or Ach Tung? Not at all. But the pressures are different. And they haven’t quit the game just yet.
Still, they somehow managed to deliver all of the demands listed above.
Get on Your Boots will work in an arena, as will I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t go Crazy Tonight. Magnificent will get all the Christians talking about what an awesome Christian Bono is. I already received a text message saying it was a classic worship song for the ages. And yet the song never mentions God or Jesus. I can jsut see God in heaven, flattered, holding his chest saying Are they talking about me, lil old me? Bono really is a genius. Stand up Comedy will distance you from the very politicians you are in bed with. The tech-crazy kids are going to love the “Restart and re-boot yourself, Password, you enter here” lines in Unknown Caller. That or they’ll think they’re trying too hard to relate. At least they’re trying.
Is there obvious strategy in this album? Yes, and unfortunately it shows. Some of the authenticity gets lost. So does some passion and some soul. But there are glimpses.
Moment of Surrender sounds like a U2 we can look forward to when they quit the game. And if that’s what we can look forward to, we are in for some great music. It’s scotch on the rocks music, the sort of song you listen to and remember that time when you screwed up your entire life. That one thing you did. And I’ll Go Crazy is a text message from a friend about needing to blow some steam, and those are great text messages, aren’t they? Cedars of Lebanon souds like Bono is narrating Adam’s base line, like the words are the low bounce and Bono is just translating. No Line on the Horizon, the title track would play perfectly in a club in Memphis, and music out of Memphis plays well in the whole world. It always has.
Will the critics critique? Sure. But in doing so they fail to remember being a rock-star is a job. You’re the frontman and the CEO. You’re the Executive Committee.
What do I think of the album?
I think they did a great job.