Thirty-three years, more than 140 million record sales, 22 Grammy Awards, 13 studio albums. By this point, it’s impossible to place U2 within the standard parameters of the ‘rock’ band: they’ve been innocent, religious post-punk underdogs, earnest political songwriters, hyper-ironic sonic adventurers and, since the turning of the millennium, the self-proclaimed best band in the world. Their fans are numerous, as are their detractors– you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for a religion, a government or a business, such is their ubiquity.
How, then, are we supposed to their thirteenth studio album, ‘No Line On The Horizon’? Well, let’s look at the statistics again and see what we find. Their first album in five years, their seventh to feature production from Brian Eno, five different formats (including a magazine format: an advertorial, a manifesto or a religious pamphlet?), eleven new compositions and a running time of just under 54 minutes. These, at least, we can take as truths.
This time round though, U2 seem less interested in statements of subjective truth, a la “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, or in the questioning of objective truth found on ‘Achtung Baby’, and it’s certainly being promoted as one of the vaguest U2 albums yet. Bono’s spoken of his attempts to create characters to deliver the songs rather than relying on the first person, and the sedate nature of tracks like “Moment Of Surrender” attempt to avoid the obvious. But for far too much of the album, U2 don’t even sound like they’re on autopilot – they just don’t sound like they even turned up to the studio. The nauseatingly leaden lead single “Get on Your Boots” is a patronisingly contrived attempt to marry White Stripes fuzz to their standard arena stylings that sounds not like the work of four flesh-and-blood beings but a room full of marketing executives, pie charts in hand (or, considering how ham-fisted that chorus is, just a roomful of pies and distortion pedals).
And that’s why U2 exist only in statistics now – there’s no reality left to them. Every song here has no other reference point other than the ghost of U2 past: the title track’s percussion is pure “Mysterious Ways”, while “Unknown Caller” is their latest attempt to top “One” (brief spoiler: they don’t succeed). Doubtlessly, this album will add another million or two to their bank accounts, bump up the record and ticket sells into the realms of the truly absurd, but that’s all there is of note about the record. Long gone are the days of Zoo TV and genuine risk (remember for a second that this the same band that used to call up Sarajevo during their concerts and picked Public Enemy and The Fatima Mansions for arena support slots), and in it’s place there’s nothing but the distant hum of a cash register ringing.
Review by Mark Corcoran-Lettice