September 07, 2009

Requiem for a Music Geek: All of This Has Happened Before

The ongoing cycle of death and rebirth may be one of life's only truths, but that doesn't make it any more fun to write about. See, usually Truth can be a shockingly powerful weapon—even a deadly one, in the hands of the righteous and insane—albeit one so final that it obliterates all the pissy little details that writers love to obsess over, and sucking the truth out of anything usually demands huge swaths of time, with often little reward for such massive emotional-temporal investment. That's a massively pompous thing to barf up on this Labor Day weekend, but remember that we're now looking down the barrel of Fall, the season when things begin to die, and contemplative rumination becomes all the rage as we each hoard our little harvests of sanity.

Good things take time, after all, so maybe it's understandable that it took me this long—six months or so—to squeeze out any semi-coherent thoughts about droll things like rock & roll albums by bands I used to really, really like. Specifically, U2's twelfth platter No Line on the Horizon, belatedly released this past March amid a carpet-bombing of promotional appearances by the Rich Irish Dorks in question. Obviously, U2's pretty popular on our little planet, so everyone and their dog felt compelled to weigh in on the merits—or lack thereof—attached to this thing, deluging us all in the depressing idiocy of both good and bad reviews.

Flaccid yawns erupted from planet Pitchfork, and over-the-top fellatio dribbled in from Rolling Stone, Q, and other points mainstream. The haters took yet another opportunity to lob their pathetically harmless envy-bombs, and the insecure fanatics once again leapt to defend their heroes at the slightest criticism. The band themselves swaggered into places like the Ed Sullivan Theater and the BBC studios, calmly and professionally dispatching the new tunes with the skills of (nearly) fifty-year-old road warriors, and there was much to pontificate about.

So I figured it would be a far, far better thing to just sit on this thing until the craziness blew over and U2 were set to hit these American shores with their monstrous "360" tour before strapping on that rusty old rock-critic juvenilia yet again and blathering on about the creativity of people I'll never meet. Yeah, let the thing ferment a while and kill off my initial hateful impulses, or see if they would simply wither on their own. However, all the baggage that goes into a U2 album these days is damn near unavoidable—for them as well as the rest of us—so now's as good a time as any to tackle No Line with the requisite revisionistic re-appraisal I love to foist on other people's creations.

The quick verdict—for those of you already rolling your eyes and clicking away—is that I actually do like the thing, and much more so than its immediate predecessors (2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), two stumbling, neo-classical behemoths that rival the Ptolemies in backward-grasping bombast. Yes, I like No Line, but I've found that I like it but mostly because it reminds me of other—better—music they've already made. That's a wretched thing to say, but unfortunately it's the truth. How can it not be, with the Eno/Lanois/Lillywhite Axis of Pomp back on board? Does U2 genuinely not know how to work well with anyone else? Do they even need to know that?

Ah, who cares. The new album is in that regrettable decade-ending position of U2's other supposed gaffes, 1988's Rattle and Hum and 1997's Pop; like those, it's received a lazy, schizoid reception of ecstatic adulation, shrugging sneers, and slavering hatred. It deserves none of those things, but U2's post-1998 history of abject banality had already heavily weighted my own personal scales, so everything you read in this column is already hopelessly biased. I've had lots of time to listen to it, but other than the usual silly subjective bullshit, the most I can say is that this album merely confirms how much U2 borrows from themselves with every new recording. They do not, contrary to wisdom, "reinvent" themselves every time. They merely offer up a different spin on the same old things they've always been good at: huge, vaguely-meaningful anthems on love and faith.

Take the opening title track, for example: a song I immediately enjoyed precisely because it's the incestuous spawn of two older songs I already love ("The Fly" and "Ultraviolet," both from Achtung Baby). Does it matter that I was effortlessly manipulated by the song's flagrant inbreeding—which was so strong that "No Line" was left without a chorus? Not really—Bono's gloriously wordless hollering in the verse more than makes up for that. The similarities to previous works don't stop there, though—they only intensify. Adam Clayton saunters to the front on "Magnificent," a matronly and graceful update of "Mysterious Ways," as if the female belly-dancing deity in the lyric has aged 18 years, had three kids, and put on about 40 pounds, but can still shake it on the weekend.

And that, folks, is where the album peaks for me—those two songs. Well, there is one other high point, but we'll get to that later. After "Magnificent," No Line lurches between sluggish ballads (which nevertheless contain good Edge guitar work) and overcompensatory rockers for most of its remaining length. "Moment of Surrender" is ruined right away by Bono's singing—he crashes through the window at full volume, when he should have eased into, and built up to, the kind of climax this seven-minute monster demands. The colossal stupidity of everything about "Get On Your Boots" (the execrable first single) helps obscure the mere dumbness of "Stand Up Comedy" and "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," but this shit sandwich in the album's mushy middle very nearly croaks the whole thing. It's a terrible, terrible sequence—no matter how much your toes tap—and no amount of dissembling from Bono ("we were trying to do an Eagles of Death Metal song!" or "people bitched about 'The Fly' like this too!") can save it. But except for those tinkly bells in the weak chorus, "Boots" is irredeemably bad. I once called it "a monstrously half-assed jalopy of suck," and "worse than 'Beautiful Day' or even the depths of 'Vertigo'," and I stand by that insult. It absolutely deserves it—the music sucks and the lyric is stupid. I can't believe Larry Mullen let this one out of the barn.

Speaking of lyrics, well, that's another near-fatal flaw on this album. Much has been made of Bono's supposed writing in character for No Line. The problem is he never even got halfway there. These things aren't alternate points of view; they're clumsy, amateur stabs at skills he's never had. Bono is great at first-person narrative metaphors, but by explicitly claiming these are stories he injects an aura of craftsmanship into them that as a lyricist he frankly has not possessed for over a decade (and then only fleetingly so). The one glorious exception, full of (relatively) energetic wonder, is a stone cold killer line from Track 10, "Breathe" ("I'm running down the road like loose electricity/while the band in my head plays a strip-tease"), but that single blast of genius is quickly smothered by the weight of all the surrounding half-assed lyrical effort, and is a nasty reminder of how long it's been since Bono was writing from a genuine place of inspiration and the metaphors came with every Biblical turn of the page.

That's another thing: for all the vaunted out-front religiosity of this disc, its sentiments are much more plastic than the genuinely subversive faith U2 displayed on the supposedly piss-poor Pop album. God seems less real on some of these songs than on any other U2 disc (the watered-down matriarchal worship in "Magnificent," the sluggish, boring exorcism that is "Moment of Surrender," the flat-out failed sci-fi surrealism of "Unknown Caller"). There is indeed a palpable aura of holy-fool seeking in the music, which seems to be an equal-parts distillation of October-era sonic babbling and Unforgettable Fire-like ambient atmosphere topped off by some disjointed Pop-isms—but it's consistently sabotaged by the same laughably awkward mistakes we've come to expect from this band. Now, they obviously don't care, so why should I? It's pretty cool that the same four jokers are still together making music after all this time, even if it's a relatively transparent echo of past glory.

So yeah, I spun it a lot when it was released, and probably will continue to as the tour crosses the continent, but six months later, the only songs I still really want to play from this album are "No Line on the Horizon," "Magnificent," the amplified sketchbook of "Fez/Being Born," and "Breathe." Those are the four keepers for me—the same amount as that from both previous albums ("Walk On," "Kite," "City of Blinding Lights," and "Fast Cars"). For this bitchy little fanboy, U2 has finally arrived at its own Big Crunch. Their sonic universe has collapsed in upon itself in a frantic re-arranging of matter and energy not seen since the Rolling Stones dropped Steel Wheels twenty years ago. Sure, U2 has been doing this for their whole career, but in the last decade of neo-classical revisionism their volatile recycling act has seemed its most ham-fisted and blatant, and I'm sure other people will love it much more than I do. Which is perfectly fine, as long as they recognize—and remember—that all of this has happened before and, thanks to dumb, castrated plagiarists like Coldplay, all of it will surely happen again.

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