Ten years ago, U2 released an album that saw their stronghold on pop culture slipping, despite their greatest efforts. But there’s a lot to love about No Line On The Horizon.
In retrospect, the five-star review in Rolling Stone was a bit much. It felt like the magazine, a long time supporter of U2 and many other rock legends, was trying to convince us that the band had created another Joshua Tree-level classic and that they were still as relevant as ever, despite all evidence to the contrary. By 2009, mainstream pop culture was losing interest in rock bands, veering towards simpler and more danceable pop music, hip-hop and, increasingly, EDM. The top ten best selling albums in the U.S. that year included new releases by Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Hannah Montana (aka Miley Cyrus) as well as Jay-Z, Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas. Kings of Leon’s Only By The Night was the only rock album in the top ten.
As Bono would tell you, it takes an awful lot of audacity to attempt to be a rock star. It takes even more audacity to think that you can be a pop star when you’re pushing 50, as all the guys in U2 were in 2009. To be fair, U2 had one of the longest runs of pop relevance that any rock band ever has, starting with their 1980 debut Boy, which immediately put them on the map as a significant band. By 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2 had been through a number of reinventions and one dramatic “return to form” with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was heralded by an undeniable first single, “Vertigo” (“Uno! Dos! Tres! Catorce!”) and the album had legs thanks to the profoundly moving “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” and the powerful “City Of Blinding Lights.” The album got good reviews, and won nine Grammys, including Album of the Year in 2006.
U2 knew that they were breathing rarified air: few rock bands enjoy that kind of radio play and respect, nearly a quarter century into their career. And that may be why they were a bit trigger-shy when it came to the followup. The five-year stretch between albums was the longest gap in their discography. That was, in part, because of a ditched first attempt at an album with Rick Rubin, who they’d worked with on two tracks from their 2006 compilation U218. They ultimately returned to their most frequent collaborators, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite.
And they stumbled, straight out of the gate: they released the lead single “Get On Your Boots” in January 2009, and performed the song at the 51st Grammy Awards in February 2009 to less-than-enthusiastic response. “Get On Your Boots” seemed like the runty little sibling of “Vertigo.” It just didn’t work. As Larry Mullen told Rolling Stone in a 2015 interview, “‘Boots’ was an absolutely catastrophic choice for a single… that was the beginning of the end. We never recovered from it.”
“Magnificent,” a spiritual heir to “Where The Streets Have No Name,” failed to connect as well, reaching only #79 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2009’s culture of immediate gratification, the song may have been penalized by radio programmers and the public for its epic introduction: we don’t hear Bono’s voice until fifty seconds into the song.
Bono seemed very enthusiastic about another single, “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” which featured will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, who was credited with “additional production and keyboards” (Steve Lillywhite was the song’s main producer). And while will.i.am was a hot producer at the time, his presence and contributions didn’t help the song crack the top 40, something the band clearly wanted. The band apparently planned four singles from the album, but stopped after three.
U2 come from an era where the album ruled, and deep tracks were valued. But in 2009, they found themselves in an iTunes-dominated world of singles. The band even questioned the relevance of albums in their interviews. But the deep tracks are where No Line On The Horizon‘s gems are found. And those gems were often the songs where Bono took a new lyrical approach: for the first time, he created characters, and wrote from their perspective. He told The Guardian, “I just got tired of the first-person so I invented all these characters; a traffic cop, a junkie, a soldier serving in Afghanistan.”
“White As Snow” was the song written from the perspective of the soldier in Afghanistan. It’s a harrowing song: the soldier is telling his story in his final moments before he dies. It’s worthy of Bruce Springsteen, or even Johnny Cash. The narrator of “Breathe,” meanwhile, finds himself in the middle of Bloomsday, the celebration of the Irish writer James Joyce. This song sees Bono at his most Dylan-esque: “Ju Ju man, Ju Ju man/Doc says you’re fine…or dying/Please!” “Breathe” has a happy ending: “Walk out, into the sunburst street/Sing your heart out, sing my heart out/I’ve found grace inside a sound/I found grace, it’s all that I found/And I can breathe.” The Edge cranks up the volume here; the song sounds inspired by his experiences with Jimmy Page and Jack White on the 2009 documentary It Might Get Loud.
But the album’s masterpiece is “Moment Of Surrender.” The band actually nailed the seven-and-a-half minute opus on their first take; producer Brian Eno described the session as “The most magical experience I’ve ever had in a studio.” Buoyed by warm keyboards, this is the song where Adam Clayton shines with a simple but percussive bass riff. However, the song is really Bono’s showcase, boasting some of his best singing and lyrics ever. Sung from the perspective of a drug addict having a crisis of faith, the title comes from the term used in Alcoholics Anonymous describing the point when an addict admits their helplessness. “Moment” has probably the saddest line ever about an automated banking machine: “I was punching in the numbers at the ATM machine/I could see in the reflection/A face staring back at me.” It’s a face the narrator barely seems to recognize.
It seemed to transcend the album, regardless of its impact on the pop charts. One U2 fan testified about how the song helped her stay sober: “When I had one drink, I couldn’t stop. So I quit drinking altogether. At the one-year mark, I got myself a commemorative bracelet that I had engraved with the ‘Moment of Surrender’ lyric: ‘Vision over Visibility.’ It’s when you know that you can’t control anything or anyone, so you surrender that control. Sometimes you can’t see where you’re going; but remember the destination, and you’ll get there with faith.”
Lars Ulrich of Metallica told Rolling Stone it was his favorite song of the decade. The drummer has surely dabbled in drugs, but he may have been hearing something a bit different when he listened to the song. As he recently told Kerrang!, when discussing the future of his band: “It’s getting tougher and tougher. I don’t know how long it can last in terms of the physicality of it — can we do this when we’re 60 at this level? At 70?” His “moment of surrender” was likely the realization that he may not be able to continue doing what he’s been doing for decades: playing drums in the world’s most popular heavy metal band.
Whether or not they’d admit it, No Line On The Horizon may have been U2’s own “moment of surrender.” In 2011, after the album’s promotional campaign was over, Bono said in an interview, “We’ve been on the verge of irrelevance for the last 20 years, dodged, ducked, dived, made some great work, I hope, along the way – and the occasional faux pas. But this moment now, for me feels like really close to the edge of relevance. We can be successful and we can play the big music and the big places. Whether we can play music for small speakers of the radio or clubs or where people are living right now, remains to be seen, we have to go to that place again if we are to survive.”
Part of growing up and growing older, though, is realizing that life has lots to offer, even when you grow out of hanging with 20-somethings. And realizing that you can have something relevant to say as an older person. When the grey hair starts to show, and the lines are tougher to cover up, the media tends to turn its cruel and increasingly trendy gaze towards the young, pretty, shiny thing of the day. Yet, life’s later years clearly provide stories that are worth hearing. “Moment Of Surrender” is an example of that: it’s a song that a younger person simply could not have written. And yet, it’s one of the bands’ finest achievements.
Has U2’s more recent music gotten love from “the small speakers of the radio or clubs where people are living right now?” Not so much. Yet they have continued to play “the big music” in “the big places.” And on the tours for 2014’s Songs of Innocence and 2017’s Songs of Experience, an interesting thing happened: fans enthusiastically greeted, and sang along with, the band’s new material. Surely Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen took note: hopefully, they’ve learned that success and relevance in your 50s looks different than it did in your 20s. It’s a “moment of surrender” that everyone should experience.