Fez. This Moroccan city conjures images of bustling bazaars, aromatically arousing cuisine and ornate, colorful Islamic architecture. One might ask, “What does this African locale have to do with the European-based U2?”
A change of scenery has been at the forefront of U2’s attempts to constantly reinvent itself as others have tried to imitate the band’s signature sound. U2’s progressive attitude to shed its skin and reveal a new identity, albeit a few setbacks in the form of the divergently experimental “Zooropa” and “Pop” during the ’90s, has allowed Bono and company to rise to the pedestal of the “Biggest Band in the World,” 30 years after the band’s birth in the late ’70s.
Pivotal moments in the band’s reinvention have centered around new songwriting destinations such as U2’s sessions in the lush, bucolic setting of Ireland’s expansive Slane Castle for the recording of 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” whose epic quality sounded just as massive.
After the global success of “The Joshua Tree,” U2 retreated to Hansa Ton Studios in post-communist Berlin, where it was reincarnated into a collective that sought refuge from the limelight through musical indulgence, experimenting with electronic elements and dancey grooves that resulted in “Achtung Baby.” Both of these albums saw U2 drifting in new directions without veering off-course, retaining its core sound of atmospheric, stadium-sized rock with a heavy dose of catharsis.
This leads to Fez, the starting point for “No Line on the Horizon,” U2’s newest attempt to prove that it can still push its sound beyond the classic “The Joshua Tree” era channeled in its last two albums, which defined the band’s career. With musical abstractionists Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in tow, U2 certainly entered uncharted territory, creating a record as diverse and unique as Fez.
It all begins with the title track, whose initial strains immediately indicate a shift in what we have come to associate with U2. The Edge’s fuzzy, fast-charging guitars march forward to the pace of Bono’s forceful voice until the refrain hits, leaving a moment for pause as a reflective piano line is played before the song speeds back up again.
This leads into the more recognizable “Magnificent,” which it truly is. A true U2 anthem, “Magnificent” has all the goodies that give you the hair-raising thrill that makes U2 synonymous with epic. Larry Mullen Jr.’s thumping bass drum kicks and crescendo drumming build into The Edge’s meteoric guitar echoes while Bono delivers a soaring vocal that touches the sky, singing, “I was born to sing / For you I didn’t have a choice / But to lift you up / And sing whatever song you wanted me to.” Yet, there is still room for a sweeping, humming solo from The Edge that should solidify the song’s status as a concert staple in the years to come.
Arguably the album’s centerpiece and already highly lauded by Eno and Lanois, “Moment of Surrender” is the brightest diamond of the album’s down-tempo tracks. The album’s closest moment to a religious awakening, “Surrender’s” subtle, church organ gospel backdrop crawling underneath a scratchy, shuffle beat put it in the batch of classic U2 slow burners.
Continuing with the optimistic mood, the echo-driven “Unknown Caller” brings the listener into more familiar U2 ground, traveling back to “The Unforgettable Fire” era, and creates a vast, far-reaching musical landscape dominated by collective “oh-oh-oh” chants and Adam Clayton’s bass fills.
Keeping with tradition, the mouthful of a title that is “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” contains a series of chiming, delay guitar squeals that could have come straight out of “Bad” before transitioning to acoustic guitar and a foot-stomping chorus as Mullen Jr. pounds away with reckless abandon.
Strategically placed at the album’s midpoint, “Get On Your Boots” sticks out as the album’s sore thumb, a seemingly forced attempt to create a riff-based Zeppelin-esque lead single that comes off as a lesser, watered-down companion to “Vertigo” and moves at far too brisk of a pace for a record that treads the line between slow and midtempo. Bono yelps “Let me in the sound” but if anything, he and his band mates drown in the sound.
Similarly unsatisfying, “Stand Up Comedy” sounds like it could have come straight off of an Audioslave record with its groovy, yet unoriginal single-string, Tom Morello influenced guitar riff. For a band that has propelled itself to success by deconstructing the traditional rock format and taking it to the stratosphere, it’s disappointing when U2 decides to return to Earth and churn out a back-to-basics classic rock song.
As is the case with nearly every U2 album, the latter half of the record simply doesn’t meet up to par with the first half, and is where the band starts to lose its form as it branches out and reconstructs its musical art in the form of abstract expressionism and minimalism.
“Fez – Being Born” comes off as far too ambient and out of touch with the rest of the album, drifting into space and musical revelry without ever turning back as its military drum rolls and futuristic keyboard chimes become more of a free-form musical exercise than a cohesive song.
On the other hand, “White as Snow” is the closest thing to a blank canvas, led by a somber organ and simple, yet somber acoustic guitar that would be commonplace on an indie-folk record. However, the big band horns and ringing tremolo guitar add an infusion of energy to an otherwise calm track mired in solace.
Despite a chorus with some classic alternating ascending and descending melodic passages from The Edge, “Breathe” is like an uneven collage, mixing garage-rock rawness and ranting vocals to weak effect as Bono aimlessly chants, “16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up / And I’m coming down with some new Asian virus.” It’s great that Bono is keeping up with the news, but his direct lyrical approach leans more toward commentary with fewer insightful metaphors and unnecessary modern references.
Clearly having done one too many iPod promo spots, Bono exclaims, “Force quit and move to trash” in “Unknown Caller” while the bank inspires Bono to remark, “I was punching in the numbers at the ATM machine / I could see in the reflection” in “Moment of Surrender.” However, in the same song, he does offer a glimmer of some insightful lyricism as he reveals that he has, “Been in every black hole / At the altar of the dark star.”
It’s not that Bono necessarily lacks the introspection or portrayal of internal struggle that made “The Joshua Tree” so lyrically powerful. It’s just that his observations seem to get muddled when he tries to make a serious point.
Somewhat of a mirror of “White as Snow” in terms of its snail pace and tranquil tone, “Cedars of Lebanon” closes the record with ambient guitar and Rhodes piano as Bono displays better lyricism, solemnly reminded the listener in a near breathless, dying voice, “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you / Make them interesting ‘cos in some ways they will mind you.” It’s not exactly a profound ending to the record, but sums up the point that U2 isn’t taking the safe route to success.
Ultimately, “No Line on the Horizon” is a detour from the norm that we’ve come to expect from U2, with a fair share of hits and misses. As seen earlier last year with Coldplay, Eno and Lanois have also taken U2 to a new level that is far away from the typical U2 sound that has yielded great success in the past decade.
If anything, this reinvention leaves open the question of where U2 will head next. Will it continue on the path of experimentation and fall into the same trap as it did in the ’90s? Or will it stick to its core, signature sound without straying too far? Perhaps the city they venture off to write its next album will provide the answer.