U2 has always been able to walk the thin line between reinvention and repetition in their long history. It's been said again and again, but a band capable of staying relevant for 30 years has something good, some sort of secret X-factor that allows them to do that. If you look back at their history, rarely can you say that two of their albums have sounded the same. All that You Can't Leave Behind is NOT Pop is NOT Achtung Baby is NOT Joshua Tree is... well, you get what I mean.
This time around, U2 yet has modified their tone again to create a cohesive, listenable-from-front-to-back album, all while managing to keep their core sound intact. It becomes obvious why this album was given a March release date and not a bombastic June blowout -- U2 comes off as much more reflective this time around then even their last record, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Like the album cover, there's a certain sense of zen and calm on these eleven tracks that is unlike anything I've heard from the group before. In fact, it's probably good to note that the lead single, "Get On Your Boots" is not a good representative of the content of the rest of the album -- that song's a standalone, as if the band was lobbying to be the theme song of the next Bond movie.
The album starts off strong. "No Line on the Horizon" has two heads - Bono lets lose on the verses, but the chorus is reeled in a sort of good-cop-bad-cop routine that is surprisingly effective. It gives way to "Magnificent", a slow-building synthfest that gives way to some classic Edge work and a Bono preoccupation with the title word. It remotely feels like "Original of the Species, Part Two". "The Moment of Surrender" is one of the high points of the album -- Bono might have finally Found What He Was Looking For.
Other points of note on the album include the three-song sequence of "Stand Up Comedy", the confusingly-named "FEZ - Being Born" and "White As Snow". The three tracks almost run as a three-moment piece, because the transitions between these varied tracks are virtually seamless. "White As Snow" is bound to become a fan favorite, but "FEZ" stands highest among the three - it calls back to "The Unforgettable Fire" or "Acrobat" in its arena grandeur. A final high point worth noting is the second-to-last track, the 5-minute long "Breathe", where Edge and Bono seemed to show a little Bob Dylan influence.
Now, that X-factor I mentioned? It becomes quite apparent on this album that their secret weapon has been and still is long-time producer Brian Eno. Some cracks are apparent in the facade of this U2 installment ("Unknown Caller" relies heavily on the band's chanting segments of the lyrics, which sounds less like a motif than a lack of inspiration for a tune) but Eno has done a great job of giving this batch of tracks integrity, and even a subtle unity. It makes sense that the one sore thumb ("Get On Your Boots") is a Steve Lillywhite production and not Eno's. Otherwise, the album is a masterpiece of production. Clicks, whirs, synth and vague echoes to previous tracks all seem to fit together like a dream that slips away when you wake up.
The album stumbles a bit at the end -- Bono starts to ramble on "Cedars of Lebanon", as if Sting and Randy Newman had a lovechild whose future career narrating documentaries. But whether or not one finds it to be an overwhelming problem relies on their philosophy about music listening. For those in the 21st century who do not listen to albums from beginning to end anymore (read: virtually everyone) there is lots here to pick and choose from. For those who do listen through albums in their entirety, it does not really detract from the overall package.
No Line on the Horizon mostly imparts a feeling of reflection. The members of U2 are getting older -- they have been from the day they released "Boy". Their trip through life has produced everything from "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to "With Or Without You" to "The Fly" to "Vertigo". One can get the feeling from No Line that these guys are taking a breather to reflect on everything that has come before. We got hints of this on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb ("Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own"), but it's full-force on this album. Introspection is fine, as long as it doesn't overtake you.
This is not a bad album. In fact it is a nice addition to U2's body of work, expanding into some aural territories they have not touched much on before. It's understated, and maybe it's understated to a fault. With that established, this thought lingers: the next album needs to be fierce.
Scarecrow's Score: 6/10