I mentioned in a previous post that there was one hill I am willing to die on— that U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon is their best late-career album and very underrated. Due to COVID-19, we’re all stuck at home amidst sad news, misinformation, frustration and a long, long path to “normal.” In the middle of the unknown, I find myself thinking and writing about what I do know. This is my time to die on this hill. In an attempt to get a better representation of my socially-distanced brain, I recorded myself talking about why No Line on the Horizon is underrated. I only allowed myself one take. Below is a transcript of this recording, edited slightly for length—I talked into my phone for fifteen minutes, like an idiot.
Alright, U2’s No Line on the Horizon and why I think it’s underrated.
So a quick crash-course on U2 lore—if you aren’t familiar with U2, they started in Ireland in the 80s as part of a movement that was called post-punk. It made more sense to call it that when it was actually coming after punk, but it kinda took the simplification of music that punk rock brought and maybe brought some more pop sensibilities to it? Or at least it wasn’t tethered to a strict ethic of no-frills like punk was. It’s kind of an 80s thing. It sort of started as a smaller movement and grew throughout the 80s, with U2 becoming the biggest band that comes out of it. But that’s not the point of this.
So at the beginning of the 80s, U2 is more underground. They breakthrough with a huge album called Joshua Tree in 1987. Uh, then they get weird in the 90s—they kind of get into electronic and dance [music] and embrace kitsch. Not everybody liked that, but some people found it exciting. This period has mixed reviews. Then in the twenty-first century, U2 have been very straightforward arena rock for the most part and have been seen as very vanilla.
So that’s U2’s trajectory in a nutshell.
Oh, another contextual thing about U2 is that they’re very good at having ideas, or at least very good at talking about the ideas that they have. A lot of times when they’re working on an album, they have a very, uh… they’re very good at setting the context for where their mind is at or the method that they’re using [for writing] and making it all sound very interesting and presenting it as, “we’ve never done this before, this album is going to be way different for us, this is like a reinvention.” They’re pretty good at making that believable, or at least for me. Maybe I’m a sucker. Then the album comes out and it’s not how they said it would be. Or there’s maybe two or three songs that you’re like, “ok yeah, maybe that’s the result of that [method],” and then the rest of it is like—they got scared of that [method] and kind of walked it back a bit.
So, uhhhh, that’s maybe most true of No Line on the Horizon. At the time it came out they had done two very big arena rock statements in their vanilla period and, uh, a lot of those had been used in iPod commercials and such. U2 at this point are sort of like the, uh, big, overblown arena rock band. They seemed to come into No Line on the Horizon with a need for reinvention or a desire for reinvention. It seemed like this reinvention was going to be a push into smallness, maybe? Not smallness in concept, but smallness in sound.
The way they talked about starting No Line on the Horizon was, uh, they wanted to make an album, um, full of modern hymns [laughs], which, like I said, is grandiose in concept and very U2—very Bono—to think of himself capable of writing something like that. I think he even said he wanted to make melodies that would be sung forever or that would become part of, like, a tradition. I think that maybe he meant that that was the goal—I don’t think he had any illusions that the songs would become hymns passed down to generations, but that was what the goal was. These were going to be, I think, more ambient—and in the context of U2, that’s maybe not true ambient music, but more on the ambient side of their sound. [Kendra yells up the stairs that I can release our cat from the bathroom because she’s done with the at-home product photo shoot she’s doing. Actually, “release the Kraken,” is what she really said, but I understood what she meant and let the cat out.] Yup, she’s released. This did not sound like an album that was going to be made to tour in arenas.
To do this, they were going to go work with Brian Eno, who is a common collaborator. Brian Eno, if you don’t know who he is, is a very respected, uh, producer and ambient artist in his own right. He’s kind of known as a very artsy guy who works with less artsy people and brings out their weirder side. He’s worked with Talking Heads, he famously worked with U2 on Joshua Tree and brought out elements of their sound that weren’t there before… he’s kind of a guy that makes you cool.
All of this sounded phenomenal to me. The idea of U2 going in and stripping everything back to make a smaller album that’s a little more ambient without the pretense of, “this needs to fill an arena,” and working Brian Eno—that all sounded phenomenal to me.
So that’s kinda how they talked about the album [laughs]. And uhhhh…
The album comes out and in true U2 fashion, it is [pauses] not exactly that. What I mean by that is that there are some songs on there that are very conventionally U2 that do not fall into this modern, ambient hymn ethos. And that is kind of—the fact that there are these types of songs on an album that it sounded like there wouldn’t be these types of songs—that’s the enduring narrative of this album. That’s what people talk about and that’s why people were disappointed.
Um. Why I think it’s underrated is that even though there are these other songs, some of which are really bad and some of which are really good—and I’ll maybe talk about that more in a bit—about half of the album does fall within the mindset of a more ambient album, smaller and more intimate and hymn-like. That half of the album is brilliant. I think some of those songs got beefed up a bit from where they started to make them a little more poppy, but you can really hear that mindset… it’s really present on songs like the title track and on a song called “Moment of Surrender” that is maybe one of my favorite U2 songs ever; there’s a more instrumental song called “Fez-Morocco” [NOTE— the song is actually called “Fez—Being Born.” Oops.]; and then there’s a song called “White as Snow” that actually uses the melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” that’s a soldier’s elegy if I remember correctly; and then the last song is called “Cedars of Lebanon” about a journalist covering a war, I think, that’s more talk-y and how U2 would sound if they wanted to age into sounding more like Leonard Cohen. Maybe the poetry of that song is a little heavy handed or whatever, but it’s a cool sound for Bono and his voice and for the whole band. So those are the songs that you hear Brian Eno’s influence and the mindset of the album and I think those songs sound great and really work for me.
And then the other half of the album is not that—is almost decidedly not that. These are the songs that fit very much in the conventional U2 mold. You get a song called “Magnificent” that is sort of the big, arena U2 song, which is actually great and a good example of U2 being U2— it’s a song that makes it clear why they would want to write these types of songs. Then there’s a couple others that are fine. I think “Unknown Caller” is ok, maybe.
But then you get these three songs smack-dab in the middle—“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” “Get on Your Boots,” and “Stand Up Comedy”—and these… these are maybe the worst songs in U2’s discography. “Get On Your Boots” was the lead single, too, which did not help the reputation of, “oh you were going to write a good album and then you wrote a bad one.” It’s this weird, kinda funky… I don’t know. It’s a weird song. I would probably like it better if it was a rare B-side and not the lead single from an album that was promised to be ambient and Brian Eno-influenced. Very strange decision there. And then “Stand Up Comedy” is terrible. Just a dumb song. So that middle section of the album, that’s kind of the enduring memory of the album for a lot of people.
I will not say those are good, but those are three songs in a ten or eleven song album, most of which are very, very good. So I guess what I’m saying is No Line on the Horizon COULD have been a phenomenal album. It could have been a brilliant album. It could have been the type of album that changes the narrative of how U2 is viewed. Maybe it changes them to a band that isn’t filling stadiums, or at least not if they aren’t touring their legacy catalogue, but maybe they tour theaters for this album instead. I think those shows would have been really, really well received and created a buzz of like, “U2 has aged gracefully into a band that is doing what they want to and using the platform they have to push themselves.” But instead they cemented the reputation of being a band that is too lost in celebrity and fame to trust themselves enough to make something great.
So yeah, with all your free time go listen to at least the title track and “Moment of Surrender,” and uh, maybe, “White as Snow.” I think there’s a lot of unreleased recordings from the early Brian Eno sessions for No Line on the Horizon. Maybe those will be released someday and we can all create our own version of No Line on the Horizon and dream about what could have been.
Jordan Petersen Kamp graduated in 2017. He works as the controller for Trellis, a certified Herman Miller furniture dealer located in West Michigan. In his spare time he enjoys talking about the books and albums he looks forward to reading and listening to someday—the ones that he’s definitely heard of but not heard or read yet.