No Line on the Horizon may be the best of the latter day U2 albums. It’s a logical progression from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and All that You Can’t Leave Behind in that the group isn’t afraid to draw upon its past to gather inspiration for the new music.
Bono’s wordless wail on the title song can’t help but recall their earliest work on Boy and October. The effect is eerily similar, a la War, as his voice plays off the distant echoes of piano on “FE Z- Being Born.” The topicality of the latter album also comes to the fore in “Cedars of Lebanon,” as there’s no pontificating here but rather the sound of a single man bemoaning a culture gone awry. The angst in the singing permeates the spare but ghostly arrangement, produced, like most of the album by Danny Lanois in conjunction with Brian Eno (Steve Lillywhite, U2’s earliest producer, provides assistance on a pair of tracks).
There’s more obvious hearkening to former glory and style on “Magnificent.” Sounding like nothing so much as an outtake from The Joshua Tree, the familiar sound of The Edge’s sharp chiming guitar gives way to an abrasive solo rather than grandiose anthemizing. That melodramatic phenomenon is similarly (and narrowly) escaped on “I‘ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” by which time it’s obvious this is one of, if not the best sounding, of U2’s albums: the mammoth size of the sound, together with the clarity that separates the individual instruments in the mix, begs to be played loud.
“Unknown Caller” certainly sounds best that way as great sheets of guitar wash over the booming drums of Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton’s bass. Meanwhile Bono exalts the human side of himself in conflict with the impersonality of technology. French horn is as appropriate a touch here as the single cello on “Moment of Surrender;” the stark timbre of those instruments stands as an aural corollary to the black and white photography of Anton Corbijn’s that adorns this package.
By the middle of the album, U2 sidestep the potential danger of playing it safe, even if a couple tracks may qualify as throwaways. With its kitschy keyboard electronics, “Get On Your Boots” nevertheless sounds wholly different in the context of the album, rather than as an individual track released as a single. “Let me in the sound,” Bono pleads there and rightly so, just before a gigantic guitar riff, which arguably has no precedent in the group’s discography, appears in the form of the foundation for “Standup Comedy.”
It’s a tribute to U2’s bond as a band that they manage to sidestep their celebrity status and non-musical public persona, at least when they’re in the studio. On the child-like balladry of “White As Snow,” and virtually all the rest of No Line on the Horizon, these four Irishmen sound as human as the rest of us.