A couple of months back, U2 frontman Bono, that carnival barker with a conscience, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times. It was dizzy, besotted, a Seussian word scramble about singing along to Sinatra in a beer-doused Dublin pub. For all its insight into Ol' Blue Eyes, I couldn't get past the chummy idea of the quixotic rock god in billion-dollar goggles bellying up to his neighborhood bar. Hey, Bono, pass the beer nuts!
I kept thinking about Last Call With Bono while listening to U2's new album, the humble, hummable No Line on the Horizon, in stores today. Over the course of 11 albums and 30-plus years, the Irish Four has embraced wild reinvention and sonic chicanery, the biggest band in the world trying like heck to stay there. They were often bold (1997's Pop), if not always memorable (2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).
But No Line on the Horizon isn't about reinvention or showing off. Despite the trippy found sounds and Dr. Who time changes, the album, at its heart, is a creature comfort, a blue-collar buddy. The goggles are off; Bono, 48 years old and calming down, wants to buy you a drink.
With the three-headed production team of Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, the album's tone echoes the deep past, the salad days, even as it utilizes modern equipment. Look around: a broken backbeat from Achtung Baby, a tingly lick from The Joshua Tree, a wide-awake roar from The Unforgettable Fire.
If you stopped liking U2 20 years ago, Magnificent is going to light up your iPod. Over a jackbooted rhythm from drummer Larry Mullen Jr., speaker buzzing bass from Adam Clayton and one, two, 10 different darting-bird riffs from the incomparable Edge, Bono genuflects to the spotlight: "I was born to sing for you," he croons, adding "Only love can leave such a mark / But only love, only love can heal such a scar." It's so good, so incredibly U2, as shaky Christian Bono tries to make right with the Lord.
The spectacular Moment of Surrender, U2's requisite leviathan ballad, is a seven-minute purgatory of ATM confessionals and false celebrity. Despite the troubling lyrics, churchly organs and a liquid-silver solo by the Edge tell us that all is not lost. The things that matter still matter, they're just harder to find. It's a shameless bear hug, but man, oh man, it feels silly good.
The theme of overcoming contemporary malaise continues on Unknown Caller and, to a lighter degree, I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight. The first song uses tortured lyrics to get the message across ("Restart and reboot yourself" — wow, that stinks), but the Edge bails the song out with patented prickly punch. Even Billy Ocean couldn't dream up a title as dumb as I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, but the over-the-topper charms with chiming crescendoes that will raise arenas.
Alas, like most trips to the local pub, things get messy around closing time. The 11-track album's second half is a so-so stumble, a "filler" problem the band has been having for some time now. First single Get on Your Boots features Bono as unreliable shaman spitting sweet rambles, Subterranean Homesick Blues on creatine. With its Moroccan rattle, FEZ — Being Born is a bit better, a curiosity. But there's no real need to hear it again.
So go back and listen to that first half. There, the boys are inspired, amped. By embracing where they've been instead of where they're going, U2 has made some of its best music in decades. I'll tell you one thing, it's going to sound great in that Dublin bar. Hey Bono, let's do some Jaeger bombs!
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467.