Let’s open the case file of “Great Moments in the Pot Calling the Kettle Black”, shall we? A couple of weeks ago, while doing a radio interview to promote No Line On the Horizon, Bono (he’s in some band or other… can’t think of which one) apparently called Chris Martin (for the heterosexual males in our audience, Chris Martin is the guy from Coldplay) a wanker on the air. The DJ tried to wrestle an apology out of Bono, but didn’t really get one. Which is ostensibly good because, come on… Chris Martin is a wanker. But so is Bono. In fact, I’ve come to feel that Bono and Chris Martin are engaged in some kind of Highlander-esque battle of wankerdom that will culminate in one of them beheading the other on a mountain top and becoming the Ultimate Wanker.
My cyncial side (which is about 75% of all of my sides) says that Bono was trying to drum up a little controversy to boost album sales. There was a massive media blitz to promote No Line On the Horizon before it came out, including a five night residency on Letterman and the afore-mentioned live BBC Radio interview. When you’re hustling that hard to promote a U2 album, there’s a reason. And the reason is that No Line On the Horizon is a complete meandering mess of a record.
This was touted as U2’s Big Change Album, the one where they set out to radically change their sound. Apparently, that meant hiring Brian Eno and jamming some songs into 5-Plus minute territory. No Line On the Horizon is the kind of change you make at U2’s age – a safe, calculated “change” that’s mostly in the wrong direction. There’s still The Edge’s annoyingly chimey guitar tone (although it’s buried in some of the songs), Bono’s histrionic vocal spams, and his lyrical cliches (“Only love can leave a mark like that,” he sings on “Magnificent”), which are getting lazier by the day (see all of “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” if you can stand it). The only really surprising thing about No Line On the Horizon is its uniform awfulness. But even that’s not much of a stretch in my mind, because I’m one of the only people on earth who didn’t like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (I thought “Vertigo” was a pretty embarrassing song, but then I heard “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Get On Your Boots”). In fact, when I think about it, Achtung Baby is the last U2 album that I still listen to from start to finish and I only do that on occasion.
There’s some new musicality to be found on No Line, a few more keyboards and electronic noises, but it’s not compelling enough to help you forget the tossed-off lyrics – it’s almost as if Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were brought in to try and hide the fact that Bono is becoming a worse writer by the day. Not only does “Get On Your Boots,” weld the vocal melody from Elvis Costello’s far superior “Pump It Up” to the melody from that 80’s song “Wild Wild West” (who the fuck did that song? I can’t remember for the life of me. Was it Culture Club? Who cares?), it features the not-at-all-revelatory statement, “You don’t know how beautiful you are”, a line I was putting in songs back in the 9th grade. For the record, those songs have been destroyed.
“Be careful of small men/ with big ideas,” Bono warns on “Stand Up Comedy,” a song that makes me sorely miss “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”, and that seems like a credible warning for someone who is going to brave a listen to No Line On the Horizon. For all its attempts to shake things up, it only reveals that U2 is incapable of the radical departure that they think this album is. If they really wanted to shake things up, they’d make an acoustic blues record, or a stripped down punk album, recorded live in one take (in other words, they’d plug The Edge straight into a Marshall amp with no goodies, forbid him from playing clean, and see what he’s really made of. I suspect the answer is that he’s less than the sum of his annoying effects pedals), or… well, it doesn’t matter because they can’t do it. Take Bono’s Coldplay-baiting radio comment. It’s exactly the sort of faux-controversial comment you make when you’re incapable of being really challenging. I’ve no doubt that Bono really believes Chris Martin is a wanker and that’s kind of my point – everybody believes that Chris Martin is a wanker. Bono – and his bandmates – are buried too deep in their own innocuousness to come up with something really radically different. For instance, Bono could’ve gone on the radio and said, “Gordon Brown is a monkey-fucker” or “I’m sick of Morrissey’s bullshit and I hereby challenge him to a pistol duel at dawn,” or really anything more interesting than pointing out something that is already ingrained in the public consciousness as firmly as the absolute knowledge that Chris Martin is a wanker.
In their day, U2 was a really great pop band and there’s nothing at all wrong with being a great pop band (The Beatles, anyone?). I can understand the band’s desire to change their sound a bit, but they don’t have to sacrifice good songs to do it (again, The Beatles, anyone?). The biggest change that U2 has made between How to Dismantle a Decent Band and No Life On the Horizon is that they’ve gone from ignorably bad to actively terrible. No Line contains three of the worst tracks I’ve ever heard from U2 – “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” “Get On Your Boots,” and “Breathe,” which apes Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” on the verse and doesn’t get much better on the chorus. Granted, I’m not the biggest U2 fan in the world (can you tell?) but there is one test that U2 should be able to pass with flying colors: my beautiful girlfriend, who can fully acknowledge and forgive both Chris Martin and Bono for their inherent wankerdom, likes both Coldplay and U2. Her take on No Line On the Horizon? “It sounds like Old People music.” I can assure you that she has no greater perjorative in her vocabulary for music (she’s much nicer than I am) and I’ve cringed with despair when she’s leveled that charge at some of my favorite acts. I used to think that only 2 things were objectively true about music: 1) everyone’s girlfriend loves Coldplay and 2) everyone’s girlfriend loves U2. Number 2 is on shaky ground at the moment.