When No Line on the Horizon was still in the working stages, co-producer Daniel Lanois talked a lot of smack in the press about how U2 was pursuing an unprecedented sound. We gave them the benefit of the doubt, remembering how we almost got whiplash way back when they made the breakneck stylistic changeup between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby. Hell, we thought, those middle-aged multimillionaires might still have a surprise or two up their sleeves yet.
The bad news: Lanois seems to have gotten a little overexcited in his assessment of the band's degree of groundbreaking. There's little here that hasn't been tried in one form or another on previous U2 albums, either from their latter-day "mature" phase or from their '90s shape-shifting experimental period. If you've been hoping for some new, lemony-fresh-scent version of the Dublin rock gods, you're in for a disappointment.
The good news: The bad news doesn't really matter. Sure, "Get on Your Boots" is this year's "Vertigo" or "Elevation," with a touch of "Numb" thrown in for good measure, and there's a hint of "Walk On" in the title track. OK, maybe "Cedars of Lebanon" has got a little "Running to Stand Still" running through its veins. Get over it; these same four guys have been making music together for some 30 years now. It's not easy being the biggest band in the world, you know.
Don't you think the Beatles would have started repeating themselves if they'd remained together for half as long as U2 has? By this point, it's within their rights to utilize pieces of their past in building a new present for themselves, as long as they don't half-ass it and start turning out inferior remakes of their old tunes. That's not what's going on here, and if anything, No Line is ultimately a more visceral and memorable effort than either of the band's other two 21st century offerings.
The release of a U2 album will always be big news, no matter how much more recognition Bono gets for his humanitarian work. For better or for worse, U2 is the 21st century equivalent of a Led Zeppelin-esque Biggest Band in the World, and every album they release is virtually guaranteed to garner multiple Grammy nominations and go platinum.
Actually, by 2009, the Grammys are a safer bet. Despite U2’s previous album, 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, going triple platinum in the U.S., selling over 8 million copies worldwide, and garnering its very own iPod, a lot has changed in the music industry in following 5 years, not to mention in the general world economy. Lil Wayne topped album sales in 2008 with 2.8 million—a laughable number 20 years ago. U2 seems pretty invulnerable, but with acts like Usher, Ashlee Simpson, R.E.M., and—yes—Guns N’ Roses falling well short of expectations in 2008, it seems that no one’s safe. Suffice to say, the music industry has a lot banking on U2’s success with No Line on the Horizon, which comes out just in time to pad Universal’s Q2 sales margin.
Bono’s been doing his part to push the album, making bold comparisons to The Joshua Tree. Strangely, Kanye West may have done work to diversify U2’s audience, spreading unverified rumors that Will.i.am is doing some engineering work on No Line on the Horizon. Though Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are officially listed as producers, U2’s done nothing to deny this rumor. (The more cynical amongst you will look to Kanye and U2 both being signed to Universal.)
But U2 is nothing if not dedicated to old world practices, delaying the album to make sure it’s absolutely perfect, and launching an ambitious event-based release of No Line on the Horizon with 5 different versions (CD, Vinyl, Digital, “Magazine” Style, and Hardcover, all with their special perks). It’s hard to believe that U2 would be able to return to the band’s ’80s form, but the band is certainly making their best pitch to make No Line on the Horizon seem that way. With an entire billion-dollar industry riding on their shoulders, can you blame them?